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Episode 3: Why It’s So Hard to Change How You Sound

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Why It's So Hard to Change How You Sound

If you’ve tried to change how you sing or speak and you feel like you’re not getting anywhere, you’re not alone. Changing the voice is hard!

Understanding what we’re up against – namely, our neurobiology and our sense of self – makes it easier. 

You can subscribe to Can’t Wait to Hear You wherever you get podcasts.  If you have a question about your voice or how you’re using it, please email letters@mvmusik.com.

Our music is thanks to Katya and Ada.
The show is edited by K.O. Myers at Particulate Media.

TRANSCRIPT

Your voice is unique to you. It grows as you grow. It changes as you change. If you’re curious about the relationship between your voice and your body, your heart and your mind, welcome. My name is Michèle Voillequé and I can’t wait to hear you. 

I’m just gonna come out and say it: changing your voice is hard. It’s hard if you’ve been doing it for a while, it’s hard if you’ve just started. It’s hard if you teach people how to do it. It’s hard. 

And I wanna spend some time today explaining why it’s hard, to help normalize it so that maybe you’re a little kinder to yourself – not so that you give up. This is not an excuse to give up. Just, you need to know what you’re up against. 

When we’re born, uh, the first thing we do, is make sound. And infants who don’t make sound, who don’t cry out and announce their arrival tend to get labeled as “failure to thrive.” It’s not a good sign if a baby is too quiet. 

And that cry that we all utter is surprise, discontent, “what just happened?!” And we continue to cry to get the attention of the grownups in our lives, um, so that we can be held, we can be warmed up, we can be fed, we can be entertained. That cry gets the grownups’ attention and assures that we get what we need in order to survive and we do survive. 

And after a little bit of time we start noticing that, uh, the grownups, do things with their mouths. They make sounds, and we start imitating the sounds that those grownups make. And, kids start babbling: Ba baba bababa Mamamama Gagagaga Bbbbbb.

Those kinds of things. And that’s our beginning attempt at language. And from there we, we notice that that entertains the grownups. They smile, they have positive responses, so we keep doing it. And that eventually turns into language. And here we are now listening to a podcast. Here we are now making a podcast using language that I acquired, that I have acquired over the course of my lifetime.

It’s really kind of a miracle when you think about it. 

But the reason that it’s hard to change your voice is because, precisely because your voice is this survival mechanism. It’s the thing that’s kept us safe and gotten us this far in life. You have a job, you have a love, you have a family – a lot of that is probably due to the fact that you’re articulate and you are able to use your voice effectively. 

And so whenever we go to change our voice or use our voice differently, we are playing with that part of our brain that is really interested in survival and where things that are different are “Bad.” 

Things that are different, for the limbic system, for the survival system, things that are different aren’t “interesting.” They’re not “subjects of curiosity.” No, they’re “Bad.” We could die. And so whenever we go to change our voice in any significant and sometimes insignificant ways, we can start to feel really irrationally scared. 

And that’s just your brain trying to keep you alive. Like, “Oh no, we don’t do that. We don’t do that.”

So let me give you an example. One of the things that’s really useful for singers is to learn how to keep the tip of the tongue against the bottom teeth. When we’re talking, our tongue is hanging out in the middle of our mouth. It’s ever vigilant, ready to make the next new sound. 

But when we’re singing, that tongue hanging out in the middle of the mouth is kind of like a rock in the middle of a river, and it gets in the way. It’s usually got too much tension. It’s hard to make nice, tuneful sounds with a tongue that’s tense and ever vigilant. So we start to work on relaxing it by giving it a place to be, by giving the tip of the tongue a parking spot behind the bottom teeth.

And now I’m going to start speaking to you with my tongue, attached to my bottom teeth. And you’ll notice now I have a different accent. I have a little bit of a lisp and it sounds like a different person is talking. And, this for my brain was really scary at first, especially, how I have to pronounce the R. Because now when I can’t lift the tip of my tongue up and pull it back to make a good American R, when I have to keep my tongue down, I have an R that’s created with the sides of my mouth.

And it sounds really different and it was really disturbing at first. I don’t make a habit of talking like this very much except when I’m teaching, of course. But I don’t go into the bank and ask for a loan with this voice. I don’t feel that it would be very credible for me to do that.

So that’s an example of a new way of using your voice that has huge payoffs for singing and can just freak your brain out when you try it. So the first reason it’s hard to change your voice is that it’s hard, it can be hard to manage that freak out. 

Other things that freak out the brain: letting your mouth, letting your jaw hang open. And this is true for speaking with a looser jaw, right? The more open your mouth is, the more likely it is that you’ll aspirate a dragonfly, and that’s no good. 

The voice itself is a defense mechanism, but then the architecture of the mouth is also a defense mechanism. So reason number two why it’s hard to change how we sound is kind of because of how we’re built. 

The easiest way to die if you’re a human is to get hit over the head with something heavy or to inhale something into your lungs that then becomes infected. And now we have penicillin and all kinds of other drugs and that’s great. 

But I mean, historically, right? Inhaling something that wasn’t air is a, a really good way to die quickly. And so, you know, our body is built to prevent that. We have lips and behind the lips, we have teeth, and behind the teeth we have our tongue, which is huge. 

When our mouth is closed and our tongue is at rest on the roof of our mouth there’s no way you’re gonna inhale a dragonfly. You’re not gonna aspirate anything that’s bad for you, like you are totally safe. 

And when we go to sing, the project is instead of keeping things from coming into our body, the project is to get sound out of our body, which means we need the tongue and the teeth, and the lips out of the way. That means we need to let our jaw hang. That means we could inhale a dragonfly.

I know this might sound silly, but it can feel really, honestly scary to let your mouth hang open. And, for people who, speakers that I work with whose voices get really tired quickly, or have a lot of grit or a lot of rasp in them, a lot of that, pressing down, it just doesn’t feel good to talk – that kind of thing? A lot of that is generated by having too much tension in the jaw and the tongue.

And so learning how to speak with a slightly more open mouth can be really beneficial. And it can be scary, neurologically scary, like in an evolutionary, biological way, frightening to the system.

So those are two ways, reasons why it’s hard to change. A third reason why it’s hard to change how you use your voice is because you use it automatically. 

This skill has been on autopilot for years and for good reason. That’s what’s made you articulate. Kind of, the definition of being an articulate human is not having to think about how the parts work in order to make words.

That’s all been automatic for a really long time, so, when the project now is to change how you make sounds and you haven’t ever thought about how you made sounds in the first place – it’s not just a question of doing something differently, but like learning to notice how you do it at all. And that can feel really cumbersome.

Lots of my students find it really fun. Like they’ve never thought about –just today a student we were working with the sound NG, which is a hum with the back of the tongue. If you said the word sing and you got stuck, NG, we were playing around with that sound – NG (hum on the melody to “Happy Birthday”) – and she said, “I have never thought about that before. This is so fun. It feels so weird. And it’s so fun.” 

And it can be a place where it can be hard to pay that much attention to yourself and you can feel dumb. You can feel like all of a sudden incompetent in a really, kind of fundamental way that doesn’t feel good and, you’re not incompetent at all.

In fact, you’re really competent. You’ve never thought about this because you never needed to think about it, and that’s a sign of your success. 

I guess the overarching message of today’s podcast is, “Be nice to yourself. Give yourself a break.” 

Anyway, so, I guess the fourth reason, it can be hard to change your voice – there may be even more, but I’ll stop with the fourth reason today – is that, we are really attached to how we sound. How we sound to ourselves is kind of who we are. We think that’s who we are. 

You can notice this in the moments when you have been ill and your voice sounds strange ‘cause it’s really phlegmy or it’s really froggy ’cause you’ve been coughing and you just, you don’t sound like yourself. And you’re talking even like to a good friend and you feel compelled to apologize for how you sound. 

“Oh, I’m, I’m sorry. I’ve just, I’ve been sick and I just, you know. I just don’t feel good.” We apologize. “I’m sorry for how I sound.” Honestly, the people we’re talking to are not offended by how we sound, right? They just take the information. They either notice that we sound funny or we don’t sound funny, and they determine from that, oh, you sound like you’ve been sick, or are you having a bad allergy day?

Or they don’t think about it at all because they’re interested in the content of what you’re saying, not necessarily the tone or the tone quality, right? But we apologize because we don’t sound like ourselves, right? It’s disturbing for us. And here’s the rub: when you’re working on changing your voice, your voice is gonna sound different.

You’re going to hear things that you’ve never heard before and that is gonna be scary because you’ve never heard it before. But that was the whole idea by wanting to change how you sound. You wanted to sound different, right? You wanted to sound different, but you didn’t want anything to change is something that I run up against.

I’ve run up against it in myself, and I run up against it in my students, right? You wanna sound different, but you really don’t. You don’t wanna sound like a fool. You don’t wanna sound like somebody that other people are gonna make fun of, right? Nobody wants to be made fun of.

It’s a stretch, it’s a psychological stretch to allow yourself to sound different than you have before. That can be a really big hurdle. 

One of the ways through that hur- over that hurdle, I guess we wanna go over not through a hurdle, is to put a bit of distance between how you sound and who you are.

Just allow that to be a question: how much of who I think I am is connected to how I sound? I know that can sound pretty abstract so let me give you an example. 

One of the things I always say is, “My name is Michèle Voillequé.” Very early on in my life, I stopped saying, “I’m Michèle.” This was for a couple of reasons.

One was, I’m named after a Michele who was present in my life. So at gatherings there would be Big Michele, the woman I’m named after, and I would be Little Michèle. So saying, “I’m Michèle,” was complicated. To be perfectly correct at that moment, I should say, “I’m little Michèle,” but that just seemed like too much.

So at a young age, I, I was aware that there’s more than one Michele, right? And then going to school, interacting with systems, right, and then hearing that I spelled my name wrong because it has one L and it has an accent. “Oh, that’s weird.” “Oh, so you don’t spell your name the French Way, then.” Okay, my name is French.

But people were assuming that Michelle with two Ls is the French Way and any other way is some other way. So there was a lot of, there was a lot coming back at me for the name that I have, and then looking at my last name, I mean, how terrifying is that? Right? Voillequé is like, really scary looking. 

I grew up in Idaho, so there were lots of Smiths and lots of Jones and lots of names that didn’t have accents or quite so many vowels in them.

And I think I just even unconsciously decided that it’s safer, it feels better for me in my bones to say, “My name is Michèle Voillequé,” and put a little bit of distance between my name and the person I am. So when the conversation was about how my name was wrong or misspelled or complicated, or oh my goodness, that wasn’t quite so close to me.

So that’s the kind of distance I’m talking about, like putting a bit of distance between your “who you are” and how you sound: who you are and your name; who you are, and what you do for a living; who you are and who you are partnered with; who you are, and who your parents are; who you are, and your culture, your religion, the language you grew up speaking. 

Because I notice that when we can put a little distance between who we are as amazing, multifaceted, fascinating beings – if we can put distance between our being and the sound of our voice, it gets easier to be playful with the sound of our voice and to find its hidden treasures, to explore its full range, to try things on and not worry immediately, “what will other people think?” 

One of the most important things about the opportunity to take a voice lesson is to have a place, a safe place to practice being different, which a lot of the time can feel ridiculous. A lot of the time can feel scary.

A lot of the time can feel like, “oh, this could be a mistake,” but it’s a safe place, if it’s a mistake, to make the mistake and course correct, try it a different way. 

So I hope you have a little more compassion for yourself or a little more appreciation for the magnitude of the project, um, when you undertake to change the way you use your voice, whether it’s speaking or singing.

I hope you can hear, too, that it’s totally possible. You just need to remember, your brain really doesn’t want you to die, and change is scary. And, you can do this. You can do this. Thanks so much for listening. 

If you enjoyed today’s episode, please rate and review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. Every positive review helps new people find the show. Subscribing ensures you’ll learn about new episodes as soon as they come out. If you have a question about singing or speaking or being, please send me an email at letters@mvmusik.com.

That’s letters at M as in Mary, V as in Victor, M U S I K.com. 

Transcripts and show notes are available on my website. You can subscribe to my newsletter there, too. Can’t Wait to Hear You is produced in conjunction with Particulate Media. I’m your host, Michèle Voillequé. I can’t wait to hear you.

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