That pain in the throat might be a sign that you're straining your voice and doing harm. Here's how to tend to your vocal cords — which often starts with finding your natural voice. Plus, tips on how to speak up in a pleasant tone without causing damage.
MIAMI — Ileana Bravo’s voice is her calling card, especially now that she runs her own voice-over company. “I know how to use my voice from the diaphragm — like a singer would,” she says.
Gary Dunbar, who works in the Ethics Department at the University of Miami, also has a resonant voice he uses to his company’s advantage. “I’m the first voice anyone calling into the Ethics program will hear. It’s important to be clear and distinct and to give a warm, welcoming tone.”
Whether by design or simple intuition, Bravo and Dunbar, a former TV health-reporter care for their instruments in much the same way a classical musician treats his violin — so that it renders years of faithful service and pristine tone.
Then there are those with decidedly unpristine tones — from the stratospherically nasal style of actress Fran Drescher to the Mariana Trench-deep rumble of statesman Henry Kissinger and every permutation in between (Mike Tyson, NPR host Diane Rehm, Joan Rivers).
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These stars have used their vocal “liabilities” as assets to establish identities.
But should you also try to affect a distinctive style, unnatural as it may be?
Experts say no. Not tending to your vocal cords — which often starts with finding and using your natural voice — can lead to throat pain or worse.
According to the American Speech-Language & Hearing Association, 28 million Americans experience daily problems with their voices.
About 43 percent of adults will experience a voice problem at some point, including the common “hyperfunctional overuse” — shouting or straining to be heard over others — and the less understood spasmodic dysphonia, a voice disorder characterized by involuntary movements of one or more muscles of the larynx during conversation which leads to a choppy cadence and often unintelligible diction.
Rehm, the host of NPR’s “The Diane Rehm Show,” suffers from the latter disorder, which was also believed to afflict the late Katharine Hepburn. California speech pathologist Morton Cooper, who has offered counsel to such celebs as Rob Lowe, Sally Kellerman and Diahann Carroll, believes that many problems can be alleviated through training and practice.
“I can’t cure a medical problem, but I can cure a problem that is a bad habit,” says Cooper, who has written books on the subject, including “Change Your Voice, Change Your Life” (Voice&SpeechCo.). “There are lessons on the singing voice, but most people don’t get a lesson on their speaking voice — they think it’s far out if someone should work on their speaking voice.”
Bad habits can lead to physical problems.
Growths or nodules — swellings on the cords where the vocal folds come together — can form from using a voice improperly, says Dr. Donna Lundy, an associate professor with the Department of Otolaryngology at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.
This is an example of hyperfunctional overuse — telephones and cellphones are particularly troublesome in this instance because we tend to force our voice by projecting with too much force into the small mike rather than speaking in a natural, conversational tone as when face-to-face.
In most cases, these growths are noncancerous, but they can be painful and can turn a once ear-pleasing voice into something raspy or harsh.
“We see it in kids who scream,” Lundy says of nodules. “It’s also more common in people who use their voice extensively like teachers. It’s an overuse and misuse phenomenon.”
A similar problem occurs when people drop their voice to a low rumble to sound more commanding.
Cooper calls it talking “deep throat.”
“We’re in a culture that encourages people to talk deep throat,” he says. “You get a growth or a serious voice problem if you talk deep throat. When you are doing that, you don’t have any awareness of what you are doing to your voice.”
Lundy compares the damage to wearing a pair of fashionable but ill-fitting new shoes that look great for the ball but wreak havoc on your feet.
“They go with our outfits, so we wear them and the next day it turns to a blister, and the blister turns to a callus, and we still don’t learn,” she says. “That’s what happens to the vocal folds, the pushing turns to redness and then into a benign tumor. It doesn’t kill you or lead to cancer, but over time it becomes harder because we keep banging away.”
Treatments of voice maladies vary. In the case of spasmodic dysphonia, Botox injections are often prescribed to weaken the forces of the spasm believed to interrupt the signal between the brain and the voice.
The remedy is temporary and lasts for about four months and often must be repeated.
Unilateral vocal fold paralysis, another medical condition, leads to a weak, breathy delivery as only one side of the vocal cord moves and leaves a gap where the vocal cords come together and vibrate. It’s treated with collagen-like fillers. The paralyzed vocal cord is “bulked up” so that the mobile side can meet it during voicing.
Experts differ on some of the medical or psychological relationships concerning the voice but can find common ground on ways to use your voice properly. The idea is to use your natural tone.
“Each of us are like musical instruments,” Lundy says. “We have a God-given pitch level that is appropriate for us. That’s our natural level.”
“Hum the first verse of ‘Happy Birthday,’ suggests Cooper. Note the sensation. You should feel your voice resonating in your facial area. “That’s where all the good and great voices are. That’s the voice of identity … it has that buzz, tingle, the ring people love,” Cooper says. “When you talk in the lower throat you can feel the strain.”
Lundy and Cooper favor the “mmhmm” method. When engaged in conversation, say “mmhmm” as an acknowledgment that you are listening to the other person. You’ll get that same tingle you’d get in the “Happy Birthday” exercise.
Speech pathologists can also help individuals learn to use their voices correctly and mitigate bad habits.
“The voice speaks for us, but unfortunately it doesn’t say hello,” Cooper warns. “All too often, it says goodbye.”