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 voice & speech source

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voice & speech: resources: faq

Voice & SPeech FAQ

Your Questions Answered

by Eric Armstrong

This area allows me to post answers to questions that I receive from people who read the site and want more information on things not represented here. Sometimes I write one of these per week, sometimes, once a year.

Have a questions? Ask the voice and speech guy! Just remember that I am not a doctor or SLP - I am a voice and speech trainer for the theatre, who knows a lot about voice care, voice anatomy and physiology. If I DON'T know the answer, I usually will refer the question to another expert.

Question topics

1. Pitch Matching

2. Hyper-nasality

3. Citing the voice+speech source in academic papers.

4. Peural Liquid - what is it?

5. Breath: Voluntary or Involuntary???

(1) I'm teaching at a college that does not have a music department - only a theatre department. They asked that I come in and "coach" those students wishing to participate in musical theatre productions. I anticipated (correctly) that some of these students would not know how to read music, and may not have been in choirs,etc. But imagine my surprise when two of my students couldn't even match pitch! I'm truly at a loss. What makes people unable to match pitch? Can I help them learn? What do I do?

Tough question to answer. Many people argue that people who can't match pitch can be taught to do so, but only after a LOT of private coaching. Why can't they do so? My impression (don't know any scientific facts here, I'm afraid) is that they often are focussing on the wrong part of the sound (e.g. they're focussing on the vowel, or the rhythm), and so don't hear the pitch. One way to introduce pitch matching is with a very limited pitch range in the middle of their voice (start by matching their speaking pitch) on a very front vowel - your best bet is /i/ "EE" and have them try to sing along with you something very very simple, like some basic intervals, like a second, a third, a fifth. I wouldn't try jumps of more than a fifth until this smaller jumps are settled in. The other main trick is to return to melodies that they know from childhood, like Happy Birthday, or a childhood song like Row row row your boat, but always on EE so they aren't thinking about the words at all. Once they begin to match the pitches on ALL VOWELS, you can add words back in. I think you can help them to learn, but it may take a lot of time...

(2) One of my students have an extreme nasal quality to his voice - almost like what you hear when a deaf person speaks. When I demonstrate a nasal sound, then an open sound, he can discern the difference, but cannot (yet) reproduce the open sound. Can you suggest any exercises or techniques to help him?

I think that the best trick is to have him plug his nose by holding it. Demonstrate that he should be able to close off his nose with his soft palate so that sound goes out his mouth only. If he feels buzzing in his nose at all (start on vowel sounds here too), then he is doing it WRONG. To get the soft palate up, start by having him yawn, to feel it lift, then have him do the classic "inhaled kah" exercise, (going back and forth between an inhaled Kah and an exhaled Kah, then two Kahs on the way in "kahkah", two on the way out) to energize the soft palate. It is possible from your description re the deaf person that he is DENASAL, which means he isn't putting nasality on at all, which is a real problem for deaf people. That would be another kettle of fish altogether. If it really is nasality, and you can demonstrate a denasal voice (the "I hab a code in by dose" = "I have a cold in my nose" kind of voice), he might catch on faster to what the action of lifting the soft palate really feels like.

(3) I am writing a paper on how I will use anatomy and physiology in everyday job uses. We can use quotes if we like as a source. Will you please me give some input?

Sure you can quote my site for your paper, as long as you give me credit! You should cite me in the following manner:

(Say you visited the area "Resonators on The Journey of the Voice")

Armstrong, Eric.
"Journey of the Voice:Resonators."
the voice + speech source. (Date you visited the site).

If you have specific questions, I will do my best to answer them. Please remember that I am a Voice and Speech Trainer for the theatre program at York University. I know a LOT about the voice, but am not a licenced SLP.

(4) My son's biology teacher has asked him to check out various words connected with respiration. He is having problems finding any information on Pleural Liquid. What it is, what it does etc. Can you help.

Pleural liquid is a serus fluid that lines the space between the lung and the pleural sac, and between the pleural sac and the chest wall. You can think of this sac as being a bag the lungs are kept in. the fluid serves a very important purpose - it makes the lungs stick to the bag, and in turn, the bag stick to the chest wall using surface tension. A good example of surface tension used in a similar way is to imagine a bit of water between two pieces of glass - they stick together amazingly well (don't ever stack wet drinking glasses as surface tension will make them almost impossible to pull apart!). Another example is if you use water to make your shower curtain stick to the shower wall by wetting it. Anyway, you get the idea. By sticking the lung to the bag, and the bag to the chest wall, the lung moves with the chest wall, so that when the chest expands (on an inhalation) the lungs are stretched open. This makes the pressure difference in the lungs such that the air from outside rushes in.

Each lung is in its own bag or pleural sac. This means that if a lung were punctured (at least below the level of the bronchi) only that lung would fill with blood. If they were both in the same bag, both would fill with blood and you would surely die (you would probably die the other way too, but this way there is less of a chance). So there is some very good logic behind this "design feature" that evolution (or God, depending on how you look at it...) came up with.

(5) I'm arguing with my SO, a family practitioner, about whether or not the diaphragm is a voluntary or involuntary muscle. All my reading has said that the singer cannot control the diaphragm .... but he says, in his arrogant Doctor Way, that all my sources are wrong and they don't know their anatomy.

Can you prove me right and if so, provide me with sources? (And if I'm wrong, tell me how as well.)

Well, I hate to tell you this, but he's right... sort of... and so are you, sort of...

I would like to quote from an article recently published in the new Voice and Speech Review "Standard Speech and other contemporary issues in professional voice and speech training", edited by Rocco Dal Vera. This is from Some Breathing Physiology Basics and Voice Training by Natalie Stewart on pp. 239-252. On page 246, Ms. Stewart handles some misconceptions about breath:

"Misconception 2) We have no conscious control over our diaphragm muscle. And, if my middle enlarges, I'm not necessarily using my diaphragm; I'm just sticking my belly out.

We do have some conscious control over our diaphragm muscle, exemplified by the fact that we can, at will (my emphasis), protrude our bellies (increase the circumference of our abdomens) and hold that posture, as well as consciously regulate how fast we inhale and exhale (as in panting). Although we may not sense the diaphragm directly (my emphasis), if we don't contract our ribs inward, but maintain an open glottis and good posture, we can see the result of the diaphragm's contraction by the displacement of the belly outward. The diaphragm muscle horizontally separates the thorax from the viscera. Relaxed, it is dome-shaped, like an inverted bowl. When the diaphragm contracts, it contracts downward and pushes against the viscera, and, providing that the antagonistic muscles of the abdominals are released the viscera extend outward. I find this simple kinesthetic feedback to be useful. Sometimes, if students have difficulty breathing with this low torso expansion, I have them maintain good posture and stick their bellies out while inhaling, without moving their chest. They can usually do this, and this in one way of initially getting the diaphragm active. (It is noted that the diaphragm can also be lowered by closing the glottis, and contracting the exhalatory muscles to compress the ribcage, thus increasing the air pressure on top of the diaphragm, and lowering the diaphragm. Sometimes this technique can be used to help sensitize the student to the outward motion of the abdominal wall.)"

The reality is that we don't have sensory nerves in our diaphragm, so we don't feel its action like we might another muscle, but we can consciously choose to use it or not. If it was entirely involuntary, we couldn't slow our breath. That said, there is a lot of  truth to the fact that, for most of the time, we don't consciously control the diaphragm (e.g. when NOT singing, for instance).

If you're interested, the VSR can be ordered from Applause Books, or directly from the Voice and Speech Trainer's Association. Contact Rocco Dal Vera at for more information. Other sources quoted in Stewart's article:

Hixon, Thomas J. 1973. Respiratory Function in Speech. 73-125 in Minitie, Hixon and Williams ed.: Normal Aspects of Speech, Hearing and Language. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Hixon, Thomas J., Michael D. Goldman, and Jere Mead. 1973. Kinematics of the chest wall during speech production: volume displacements of the rib cage, abdomen, and lung. Journal of Speech and Hearing Research, 16, 78-115.

Hixon, Thomas J., Jere Mead, and Michael D. Goldman. 1976. Dynamics of the chest wall during speech production: function fo the thorax, rib cage, diaphragm, and abdomen. Journal of Speech and Hearing Research, 19 (2), 297-356.

Linklater, Kristen. 1976. Freeing the Natural Voice. New York: Drama Book Publishers.

Watson, Peter J., Thomas J. Hixon and Mary Z. Maher. 1987. To breathe or not to breathe - that is the question: An investigation of speech breathing kinematics in world-class Shakespearean actors. Journal of Voice, I, 269-272.

Zemlin, Willard R. 1998 Speech and Hearing Science, Anatomy and Physiology, Fourth Edition, Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

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