Saturday, October 25, 2014

Voir Dire: The Vocal Fry Phenomenon and the Future of Public Speaking

I am currently paneled for a jury trial in criminal court. A number of folks have been released on cause, and the voir dire process will continue on Monday. I might get kicked off the panel, but who knows. Unfortunately, I am the kind of person people of all stripes and scruples want on a jury… But, this can only be good for the justice system.

If you have never been part of a jury selection process, I can tell you that it is one of the most interesting vehicles for people watching. For a vocalist, it is also an interesting venue for people hearing.

I do not now teach, but have in the past been a vocal technique coach for singers, actors and speakers. One of the current topics that is “trending”, if you will, through the conversations of among voice teachers has to do with the current phenomenon, found primarily among young millennial women, called “vocal fry.” As the name indicates, there is a sizzle that characterizes the sound of the spoken voice. This sizzle produces a very unattractive sound, as well as an unhealthy habit in vocal production. By unhealthy, of course I mean vocal production that is destructive to the health of the vocal cords of the individual.

It has been suggested that this speech pattern exists mainly among young women. I had ample opportunity to hear for myself, from among those in the jury room. Here are my primary observations:

·       Of the men, representing a spectrum of ages from roughly 25 to 70, none at all spoke with vocal fry. Many men of different ethnicities men had very melodic sounding voices, but even the most flat sounding voices (mostly from Caucasian males) did not have a sizzle.

·       There has been a respiratory cough going around, and it was apparent that a few people were recovering from such.

·       Among the women, those most likely to have a sizzle to their sound were women 65 and older or 35 and younger.

·       The one young woman who did not speak with vocal fry was a trained actress.

·       Olfactory evidence of cigarette smoke (I am sometimes burdened by my strong sense of smell…) played a role in the vocal production of some of the men and women in the courtroom.

These observations led me to the immediate conclusion that “fry” is due primarily to a lack of vocal support. This might stand to reason among some older women, but cannot be considered as a pat answer; young women are cultivating this sound, are hearing and imitating that vocal production. What can this mean?

My further observations drew me to make the following general observations. (I would be interested in any feedback on these observations.)

·       Many women do not speak with as much diaphragmatic support as men do.

·       Most of the women speaking with vocal fry were heavily engaged with their handheld technology, when outside the courtroom (where all were asked to turn off and stow the gizmos).

·       Most of the women speaking with vocal fry were professional women with post-graduate degrees; some said they currently supervise others in their workplaces.

·       I could tell that most of the women speaking with vocal fry were forcing their voices to be pitched lower is natural to their voice.

I will now proceed to brainstorm on what I observed.

We live in a society that does not value the spoken word, as once and time immemorial. I make this brazen assertion because, as the parent of school aged children, I know for a fact there is not enough public speaking required of our youth and that it is not actively taught, unless the youth are involved in drama and singing at school. Of course, every school is different, but I believe this to be true of many public and private schools. Because we are being taught to be more technically engaged and distracted consumers of devices that entertain us, we are less likely to entertain one another, even with the expedient in “face-time” of the gentle art of conversation. I go into coffee shops everyday, where groups of people are huddled, but not conversing with each other. People are more likely to email or text one another than to speak in person or on the phone. Tone and inflection are, it seems, modes confrontational, rather than illuminating and inspiring.

When I hear “vocal fry” from women, I wonder why it is cultivated. There is a sort of jaded sound to it. Is this meant to convey experience or competence? Often, when used, it seems to convey “attitude” or “entitlement”. Conversely, (particularly Caucasian) men flatten quite a bit of nuance from their speech pattern. Here is a leap: Could women be cultivating this sound due to the stresses of competition in a male dominated workplace? Could it be that women think this sound lends “authority” to what they say? Could men be flattening their tone in order to be perceived as less authoritarian?

I certainly hope not. I find the fried sound from women fatiguing and outright annoying, particularly when hearing it in voice after voice after voice… I find the flat tone from men uninspiring, if not outright boring.

As for the future of public speaking, this is what I think, for what it is worth. While there are many celebrities, pundits, sales people, actors, motivational speakers, advocates and politicians who get into our consciousness with vivid speech, there are too few examples of average people, in our everyday interactions, who can and do speak fluidly, articulately and with a full range of inflection and emotion, when the situation calls for it. (I realize that a steady diet of that could be overwhelming.) The normative seems to lean toward men of few words, and women who sound jaded or exhausted. People who are bilingual can perhaps resonate with this: We are losing the music of spoken English because we are not exercising it, for some reason or perhaps for various reasons.

It is a mistake to take public speaking (known formerly as oration) out of our education, just as it is a mistake to take handwriting out of our education. Each of these skills is extremely important toward exercising our creative capacities, as many studies have shown. Reliance on technology to be our primary medium of communication means that we are, bit by bit, byte by byte, losing our ability to communicate clearly, effectively and expressively.

I predict that those few who do manage to learn to be expressive, in their written and vocal communications, will by necessity become a first generation of modern scribes. Trained singers and actors will continue to serve that function, existing throughout history, variously known as bard, troubadour, fool, and prophet.  

Meanwhile, ladies, let’s lose the fry… It is an affectation most unbecoming. Gentlemen, don’t be afraid to bring color and inflection to your voice… If you need help to cultivate the natural potential of your voice, there are professionals, like me, who can help you with that. Impressions are made not appearance alone, but on how you sound, as well.

Your voice is your music—a music you carry with you, wherever you go!!! The human voice is a beautiful and expressive instrument, people!

Voir dire literally means “speak the truth,”  and cannot go unsaid that your voice is your unique vehicle for speaking truth to power. Please, exercise your instrument, take care of it and, most of all, use it well, in speech and in song! Don’t abuse it; use it, authentically and expressively.

Radicalization: An Historical Perspective

The recent “one-off” killings in Canada by individuals identified as being “radicalized Islamists” seems shocking to people from so many countries—as, indeed, it is. These incidents will, in the coming days and months, fuel the beating of drums against Islam.

Islam, however, is not to be blamed for these incidents, nor for the rising of extremist separatism in the Middle East and other parts of the world. To categorically disparage all people who are members of any faith tradition is the greatest injustice that could possibly be inflicted on a group of people, and also a grave sin.

We could talk at length about the natural tendency to scapegoat a group of people; this dangerous tendency has led to genocide throughout history. In modern times, ethnic cleansing has occurred in Armenia, various European countries via the Nazi Holocaust, Cambodia, Bosnia and Rwanda.

But we need to look farther back to see (or remember) that this is not a modern phenomenon. The Peloponnesian war, in which Melos was destroyed by the armies of Athens, could well be the first recorded genocide in Western History. The destruction of Carthage, resulting from the third Punic War is another example. Genghis Kahn’s rampages through the Steppes, and Tamerlane’s campaigns against Christians, Jews, Shi’ites and heathens.

The Inquisition was a genocide of Cathars and other groups of Christians that did not conform or harmonize with various doctrinal requisites. Christians killing Christians has a long history that fundamentalist groups in the United States conveniently have forgotten, if indeed they have ever learned about it. A vast number of “faithful” across all religious groups have never bothered to learn the history of how their religion came to be, and as a consequence, do not know how many dead bodies were stepped over so that they can freely (or not so freely) practice their religion.

Shaka Zulu had a scorched earth policy no less virulent than Pol Pot. Lothar von Throtha issued an extermination order for the Herero and Nama people. Jean-Jacques Dessalines eliminated every white French Creole person from Haiti, during its revolution in the early 19th century. Assyrians and Greeks were massacred by Turks during the Ottoman Empire years in the early 20th century. Soviet Russia confiscated food from Ukraine, Kazakhstan and other regions constitutes a genocide by starvation, as are the mass deportations of Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonians, who were not adequately provided for at their exile locations. The Spanish Civil War… The Japanese Nanking Massacre… Cambodia… Tibet… and on and on… Many of these pogroms were followed up by lustrations against officials involved in promoting and executing them. 

There is so much more that could be listed. The point is this: Terrorism and genocide are a disturbing tendency among any group that is “radicalized” against another, on ethnic, political, religious or any other grounds.

We who hear and watch and read about individual or group acts of terror have the disturbing tendency toward instant labeling and demonizing of what seems to be an overarching characteristic (religious or political conviction, or ethnic identity). In doing this, we contribute to mass injustice and help induce the machines of war.

In other words, judgmentalism, fear-mongering and short-sighted self-righteousness in the public realm does as much to perpetuate unjust war as any individual or group act of atrocity. Willful public ignorance, on religious or political grounds of any kind, is a crime against human compassion.

Jingoism is the greatest crime against humanity, and history proves this.

The truth that we largely fail to recognize is this: Any solution to a societal problem that involves murder is a psycho-social aberration, and any “philosophy”, be it religious or political, that allows this is its own species of extremism or radicalization.

We would do well to fight the tendency to promote shibboleths. We must guard our individual and collective thoughts against any policies that will make us collaborators in the mass murder of some "other."

Monday, October 20, 2014

Bare Necessity

As through an open door,
the sun rises,
and the spider gates
enwrap the early riser
with morning glory.

Light wakes all sleeping places,
unveiling every hidden place,
filling all with the beauty
known as dawn.

All names rise, too;
all are known and know,
nothing is strange or out of place,
there is no mystery of otherness.

What is revealed
in the rising of the sun
is, and all must work together,
through the good and the bad,
rolling onward, and more.

© 2014 by Elisabeth T. Eliassen

meditation on Isaiah 45:1-7 and Luke 8:17

Tuesday, October 14, 2014


Breezes shift,
stirring leaves in spirals,
stirring music of memory,
conjuring seasons past,
reasons present,
and stretching toward
regions unexplored.

Memories are fragile,
like a house of cards,
built as much with forgetting
as remembering,
and yet, and yet,
the stirring and the falling,
well, that’s all right.

Sweeping up this pile,
a thoughtful procrastination,
not to relive, but to realize
all that has been,
all that has changed,
all that has been built
because of all that came before,
a moment to pause and reflect,
a moment to cherish.

Wistful in the windswept lane,
meanings present themselves not,
but experience is the unending song,
a music built on all such themes
as sift now through my soul
and tug my vision forward.

© 2014 by Elisabeth T. Eliassen

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Security State: All Deposit, What Return?

War economy gave birth to the security state and the promotion of endless fears. Terrorism without borders is the latest on the war front, very possibly aided and abetted by international cyber-crime.

Billions of US dollars have been spent annually to put our soldiers in harm’s way and weapons in the hands of foreign armies, both allies and their enemies. To some extent, United States foreign policy has done more to destabilize than to stabilize the Middle East. Our involvement there has been more about oil and money than the advertized promotion of democracy, much less human rights. By contrast, our involvement in Africa has been next to nil, never mind that human rights are being trampled all over the place and genocide is on the march. There isn’t, apparently, enough money in caring about what happens in Africa. This American disinterest in the plight of African nations has been a boon for China, which has all but moved in to mine the minerals and themselves, bringing their own workers, to the impoverishment of each local populace where they make an agreement with the local despot.

On the home front, billions of US dollars are spent annually to incarcerate people and to militarize our domestic law enforcement agencies. To some extent, United States domestic policy has done more to destabilize than to stabilize our inner cities. The law has seen fit to uphold many of the most egregious cases of police brutality. In large part, allowing civilians the opportunity to stockpile small arsenals has promoted the notion that police have the right to shoot at “suspects” in the kill zone, and ask questions only when the bodies are on the slab. Frequently, what looks like a brandished weapon is no weapon at all; sometimes it actually is a weapon, at others there is absolutely no weapon. The militarized police are claiming, and taking pride while doing so, that they are being “frightened” into what is later called “effectiveness,” and the courts are upholding that position in many, too many cases. While the police are “looking out for their own,” are they also looking out for the rest of us? Shall we bring race relations into this discussion?

Police and Fire unions are among the biggest supporters of local government officials’ election campaigns, followed closely by big development companies. Police and Fire contracts, with heath and pension benefits, take a huge chunk out of any municipal government’s general fund. Some contracts allow officers to become vested in their pension within between five to ten years of service. Some officers “retire” after they are vested. Some of these officers apply for lucrative contracts in other municipalities. Double-dippers, sometimes even triple-dippers abound in a pay and pension system that is not regulated and is completely unsustainable. You have only to look at the rising number of municipal bankruptcies to know that this is true.

Taxpayers contribute most of the money that supports the security state, but are we more secure? My thought is that we wouldn’t need to have “Security Officers” posted outside our grocery stores, if we were really secure. Too many of these jobs are just for show. How can it not be so? Most of the security officers I have seen lately weigh in at over three-hundred pounds, and are attentive mostly to their electronic media. Would such a person be able to apprehend a fleeing wrong-doer? You can’t just be dressed for the part; you actually have to be able to deliver something that recruiters, these dates, call “proven effectiveness.” The world of privatized enforcement seems to include anything in a spectrum defined at one end by the small, well-armed private army (working sometimes outside the law) to the $13/hour actor from central casting, at the other.

There have been too many high profile cases, of late, where people had been arrested, tried and convicted of crimes they did not commit. Better late than never to be exonerated, I suppose, but these costly mistakes would never have been uncovered if it had not been for the growing database of forensic DNA. Meanwhile, innocent lives have been broken and wasted, and some have died before the truth could be uncovered.

The average person’s notion of how police do their work comes from the television. From what is shown on TV, most people would think that every law enforcement agency works methodically from an extremely strict set of protocols. TV police protocols say that you cannot arrest someone and hold them in custody without strong probable cause including evidence. In my town (in real life), two people were arrested for committing a string of arsons. The two do not know one another, and one was at work at the time the fires he is accused of were set; one has jobs and family and ties to the community, the other is a transient. The evidence the police have to bind these two people over has yet to be disclosed in the courtroom, but Columbo would never arrest two people just because someone said they saw the person or because a surveillance tape showed a figure that might just look like the person someone said they saw near one of the fires, if there weren’t so much shadow. There might well be a number of people on the street, if there is a fire in the neighborhood, observing. I do not know how this particular situation will play out; only time will tell. But I find it disquieting that the police do not need evidence and probable cause to bind a person over for trial. The person can be arrested, and the police then conduct their investigation while the one arrested is taken off the street, and isolated from contact with family. I would put a question forward: Does it serve justice and does it prove “effective” to set bail nearly twice as high for the transient as for the workingman? There will be no person raising bail for the transient, so what is the purpose and what does it achieve? Meanwhile, to some extent, the men have been tried in the press: the Mayor of the town has promised to prosecute to the fullest extent of the law. The Mayor is up for reelection. The Mayor’s platform is, of course, “proven effectiveness.”

Where did I get the information for this blog entry? I read the newspaper everyday. I hope you do, too.  Much of what we see is a theater, a masquerade meant to imply order, which may not exist, at all. All of the issues and stories I touch on here are related; they do not occur in one-off or in isolation. We need to ask the hard questions about the money we pay for “security.” We need to have better determinations about deadly force. We need to get guns off the streets, period. We need to vote for people who might really do something about all this, rather than shoo in the incumbent rubber-stampers, whose campaigns are paid for by security unions and big business interests. Only today, the new head of the FBI, James Comey, said in interview that cybercrime is the biggest terrorist threat to our security. An argument could be made that it is the biggest threat to world order, but no one wants to go that far. Those claims will only come when economies topple, and then it will be too late.

There is a lot of investment being made in armed security. There is not nearly the same investment being made in people and justice. Major infrastructure changes needed to insure greater electronic security are “too expensive” for big business; it is cheaper for big business to send out new credit cards and pay off insurance claims than to invest in better, more secure systems. What investments are made benefit big business and all the trappings that support big business, including “security guards.” This investment maintains a crippling status quo of economic divide, but what are the returns?

Things will not change until big business gets hurt, and hurt badly. In the event, politics will not be able to save big business, and neither will security guards. For all that we may want to change the balance power, we do not want to see what happens when the hackers bring down the firewalls.