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.

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