The Singer's Spirit
©Lisa Houston 2018
There’s been much discussion lately on what some are calling the policing of women’s voices, as several articles have surfaced on the topic of “vocal fry” which is a gravely sound that results when someone speaks in a range lower than their vocal cords can function properly. Note, vocal fry is not a vocal range, it is the description of vocal cord function, or rather, malfunction. As a singer and voice teacher for the past quarter century, I offer this post to the discussion, which I hope continues in public discourse and awareness.
There's a distinction to be made here. Observing women abusing their voices is not the cultural policing that results in vocal misuse. (Naming the problem, is not the problem. The problem is the problem.) True cultural policing or oppression is enacted by deep-rooted, longstanding expectations of women, placed on them by society. It can also be done on an individual basis, by overtly by critiquing women’s voices. I have found over the years that developing the strength of your best, most powerful voice is a tremendous path for growth, but also that the critique of the voice is something to be done with extreme care, even with the best intentions. The discussion of this issue is a sign that we are beginning to challenge that oppression, so amen to that. Now, on to aspects of vocal use and development.
A voice may be forced into a higher or lower range because of a person's desire to please those around them, either to be taken seriously (be more like a man) by making it lower, or to be considered more "feminine" or appropriate by making it higher. One of the reasons the study of the voice is so difficult is that it is so intensely personal. The voice develops based on your culture, your family position, and your gender. And all day every day, you are physically defining yourself and building an ego identification with your sound, therefore a critique of the voice feels like a critique of the person, and it is very easy to do harm.
I recently taught a voice class at a law school, where a passionate young woman with a vibrant voice confided in me that one of her teachers had told her she would "never be taken seriously with that voice.” You could see the hurt in her eyes from this remark, and I wish I could say her experience was unusual, but I've seen this again and again, and I've had people come into the studio and tell me what someone said about their voice SIXTY years ago, and it still bothers them!
From a vocal health point of view, vocal fry resulting from artificially lowering the voice is likely to do more damage than speaking in high or nasal way, which granted is annoying, but doesn't harm the cords in the way fry does.
Meanwhile, I always hate it when I hear a parent say "use your inside voice!" I want to say, "Hey, I'm an opera singer. THIS IS MY INSIDE VOICE!" That said, I too worry when I hear a grown woman using an obviously girlishly high voice, which is not her adult sound. But in the end, the voice, whatever it is, is a reflection of the person, and if a person is "immature" in this way, then there is some reason for it, some challenge or difficulty, so compassion is the only road to take.
I have another rant about NPR and vocal fry, very common among women starting out in news, but I’ll leave that for another time. Mainly I think it is a result of lack of confidence but also a lack of training. Frankly I wish that the development of the voice was more socially acceptable and valued. That it was understood, not just from a vocal point of view, but as form of personal development. Culturally, we are fine with people obsessing about developing and caring for their bodies, why not the voice? Anybody who heard me in Anything Goes in high school, and hears me sing Wagner today will attest: your voice is not just the voice you were born with. Your voice is a gift, and there is no shame, and much pleasure to be found in cherishing and developing that gift.