Me Me Me!!!

Merriam-Webster defines “SING” as follows:

  • to use your voice to make
    Maria Callas

    musical sounds in the form of a song or tune

  • to make pleasant sounds that sound like music

I have a problem with that because (1) I can’t make pleasant or musical sounds and (2) the grand old dixtionary (hear it with a fusty old marbles-in-your-mouth English accent and it makes sense) used a derivative of sing to define sing. A no-no, as any of us that passed (or failed because you probably heard the rule repeated a billion times) grade four dictionary studies knows.

Actually, I’ve never met anyone who believes they can sing well — except maybe my guitar teacher but he’s practically a rock star and I’m not counting him. If you’re like me, you will only sing HAPPY BIRTHDAY in a bar full of drunken, tone-deaf friends. We feel the same way Colin Firth feels about his singing voice: my singing voice is somewhere between a drunken apology and a plumbing problem.

Colin Firth, the guy who won the Oscar for Best Actor for The King’s Speech. Do you remember that movie? It’s about Prince Albert, who had a speech impediment – I bloody well stammer – is how he / Colin Firth puts it in the movie. But then he has to be King, because his divorcée-snogging, Hitler-loving brother is forced to abdicate. (aside: it was strange that most people blamed the scandalous Wallis Simpson relationship for the forced abdication when I think being a Hitler fan is the better reason for a forced abdication). Anyhow, with World War II raging, the newly crowned King Albert has to make a lot of speeches to lift the spirits of the poor commoners. And he’s terrible at it; even with the fate of the free world at stake he just can’t get the words out. It turns out, that’s a bit of a problem when you’re king.

Actually, it’s a bit of a problem when you’re a regular person too. We all need to be able to speak and be understood, even if the fate of the country isn’t doesn’t rest on your shoulders. You’ve got phone calls to make, Doctors to debate, children to read to, meals to order…the list is simply endless (another fusty old brit accent here).

In the hospital after brain surgery I couldn’t do any of those things. I understood what everyone said and could form language-based thoughts and answers but I couldn’t verbalize them. I grunted out monosyllabic words or truncated phrases like:

Vomit bowl please…Ice chips please…Sleep now…sorry

The formation of speech requires the co-ordination of our breath with our vocal chords and our mouth-tongue-teeth shapes. In other words, it’s complicated; more than one thing is happening at the same time and any glitch in timing, placement, or co-ordination and the sound that comes out of your mouth doesn’t do what you want it to do. It sounds wrong, to quiet, too loud or aggressive. I sounded like a Neanderthal grunting out monosyllabic requests for the most important things, otherwise I was silent. The medical staff began to whisper about ‘permanent, irreversible brain damage’.

By the time I got out of the hospital I was speaking in sentences, but new problems surfaced with my speech: I didn’t sound like I was a member of the Clan of the Cave Bear, but I was still forcing air through my vocal chords and the sound was something like a lilting high pitched leprechaun…pink hearts, yellow moons, orange stars, green clovers and blue diamonds!

And I sounded like a drunken leprechaun at that. I couldn’t sort out the ‘voiced’ and ‘unvoiced’ pairs of consonants. Sounds fancy, it’s pretty simple:

Voiced Unvoiced

If you press your fingers lightly on your throat and say the list of consonants in the left-hand column you’ll feel your vocal chords vibrate – the sounds are ‘voiced’. Do the same thing with the words in the right-hand column. You won’t feel any vibration from your vocal chords – the sounds are ‘unvoiced’. If you do one half of the pair and then the other, you’ll notice that the mouth-shape is the same for each letter in the pair. I could say the voiced letters easily, but not unvoiced letters – they came out as their voiced twins, so…

“Cookie cutters are essential for perfectly baked cookies”

sounded like

“Googie gudderz are ezzendial vor bervegdly baged googiez”

…hence, a drunken leprechaun with a cold. Speaking to strangers, speaking on the phone, speaking in public places was a mix of hard work, frustration, misunderstanding and embarrassment. Even now, when I’m very tired, my S’s turn into Z’s, and I worry that I might sound like I’m picking up my daughter from school after downing a bottle of somphin-somphin. On those days I try not to speak to anyone; I nod and smile a lot and appear even more shy than I really am.

Just out of the hospital, I was the mother of a toddler reluctantly learning to speak and I wanted to set a good example for her. In speech therapy I learned to stretch my vowels á la Bill Clinton “Aah did not have sexual relations with that woman.” It works partly because stretching the vowel sounds slows down the speech; both the sound and the inner-workings. As an added bonus, it can help relax the speaker / you.

When I was a kid I used to do tongue twisters with my father (a very competitive man) as fast as each of us could. So I did some on my own after surgery; not as fast as I used to, but they loosened up my jaw and tongue and allowed me to focus on only the words and not worry about meaning or making sense. Less pressure makes for better practice (in my opinion). And ‘regular’ people screw up on tongue twisters too, so a little boost in the ego, I find. When you’re feeling good about it, challenge someone else, make it fun and silly. ie try anything that will help you relax.

A similar strategy is to read aloud from a favourite book. Saying words that you love to say for no reason at all helps take the pressure off: you don’t have to think about what you’re saying, or if the person listening is understanding you. You’re just working on the mechanics of speech. Like a sports drill, or musical scale not meant for anyone to witness.

That can really help; the whole no witness thing. Once I got past the basics, I searched out a singing coach. Now let’s be clear: I cannot sing. At all. In fact I never really sang in those lessons. I did scales and lip-bubble scales: ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-and back down. Or with fa-fa, or la-la. Always with one hand on my sternum so I could feel the vibration as I moved up the scale. Give it a try: start with the vibration down in your chest (the deepest your voice will go) then move that vibration up: collarbones, throat, cheekbones, forehead and if you’re really daring the top of your head. It takes time and control and it strengthens the muscles and mechanics of speech without actually speaking. Let’s call it the joyful noise. And let’s raise our voice in sound and rejoice, unafraid of telephones, microphones, crowded rooms or national anthems. Ahh-men!

The human voice is the organ of the soul…Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


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