You know these are the days of sore throats... among preachers. Some have laid the predisposing cause to coffee, and some to tobacco.... Now, without professing to have studied physiology, or to be skilled in the science of medicine, I beg leave, with very humble pretensions, to give it as my opinion that most cases... are brought on by carelessness... of public speakers themselves.

Peter Cartwright

An Autobiography

Achieving Full Vocal Production

The preacher came to the time of application in the conclusion of his evangelistic sermon. His words were incisive, and they were a direct appeal to non-Christians in the congregation. He said, "Do you know what you need? You need Jesus!" The content of his application was strong and accurate. Unfortunately, few people could understand what he said. That was because the question, "Do you know what you need?" was preached in a gravelly, strained, extremely high-pitched voice. He literally gave the question all the vocal emphasis he could muster. He had no vocal range left for the next words of his sermon. Consequently, the answer to his question, "You need Jesus!" was vocalized in a rushed, hissing sound. This "dramatic whisper" had no distinguishable words. If we were to spell his sounds, "You need Jesus" came out something like this: "yen knee sheeses." He presumed the congregation would figure out what he said. His most important words, "You need Jesus," were not understood. The only non-Christian in the congregation had no idea, Contextually or otherwise, what these hissing sounds meant. The content was fine, but the delivery was a total failure. The use of full vocal production could have helped that preacher communicate his message clearly and strongly.

This preacher was only forty-three years old at the time that the sermon was preached, but he had been abusing his voice since his call to preach eighteen years before. In fact, he thought that he had to strain his voice in order to sound like a preacher. After all, almost every preacher he ever heard strained his voice, and some of them were great men of God. He presumed good preachers strained their voices and "dry" preachers did not. Following this stereotype guaranteed him a sore throat every Sunday, hoarseness on Monday, and permanent vocal damage by the time he was forty-six years old.

His misconceptions about preaching were brought about, at least in part, by the notion that what he preached was less important than how he preached. Unfortunately, this fallacy has persisted. Many otherwise able servants of God preach in a way that hinders their communication of the gospel and cripples their ability to speak. That man lost his voice just as he entered his prime as a preacher. It was a tragic, unnecessary loss. The same sad, unnecessary fate awaits many preachers today unless those preachers improve the way they use their voices.

Why would that preacher, or any Christian communicator, willingly abuse his voice? Preachers are in the talking business. So why would a preacher want to destroy or at best minimize the effectiveness of that voice? Some preachers answer that they want to give their utmost to God when they preach; if losing their voice is the inevitable result, then so be it. But how can you give your utmost to God by losing your voice? Some preachers say they do not need speech training. After all, anyone can talk. The issue here is not if a preacher can talk, but if a preacher can communicate. Effective communication is inversely proportional to vocal abuse. Some preachers are surprised to learn that they can overcome vocal abuse. The good news for all preachers is this: God has equipped us to preach vigorously three or four times a day without suffering a sore throat, hoarseness, or laryngitis. By learning to breathe and speak diaphragmatically, preachers can achieve the full potential of their voices.

The purpose of this chapter is to explain the dynamics of what is called full vocal production. Full vocal production enables speakers to preserve and protect their voices. It also enables speakers to realize the full potential of their individual voice quality. There is nothing mysterious about this process. Full vocal production simply puts to use the parts of our bodies that God created for speaking.

Full vocal production is often referred to as diaphragmatic speaking. However, we will use the term full vocal production because it better describes the proper vocalization process.

Diaphragmatic Breathing

Controlled diaphragmatic breathing is intrinsic to full vocal production. (Most speech books refer to diaphragmatic breathing as respiration. However, "respiration" can also refer to breathing that is not diaphragmatic. Besides, I intend my terminology to be descriptive rather than technical.) The primary function of breathing, of course, is to supply oxygen to the body. The speech process depends on this primary function. For that reason, speech is often described as a secondary or overlaid function.

Figure 1: The Diaphragm is tense and flat during inhalation, relaxed and dome-shaped at the end of exhalation.

Diaphragmatic breathing simply means breathing deeply enough to involve the diaphragm fully. The diaphragm is a thin band of muscle located in the upper abdominal area just beneath the lungs.

The diaphragm separates the chest (thoracic) cavity from the abdominal cavity. The diaphragm is shaped like an inverted bowl or dome with the top of the dome rising toward the lungs (fig. 1). As the lungs are rilled with air (inhalation), they expand, pushing the diaphragm downward to a lower, almost flat position. The diaphragm, in turn, pushes the abdominal and rib muscles outward. Inhalation then has been completed.

Figure 2. The downward movement of the diaphragm pushes abdominal muscles outward. The abdominal and intercostal muscles exert pressure on the diaphragm that exerts pressure on the lungs to bring about exhalation.

In the flat position the diaphragm is tense, much like a compressed spring. The tension is caused by the abdominal and rib muscles, which are returning to their original positions and thus applying pressure to the diaphragm. (Check this out. Take a deep breath and hold it for a few seconds. As you hold your breath, are you holding your lungs? No, you are holding your rib and abdominal muscles so that they will not push against the diaphragm and cause you to exhale.) This tension causes the diaphragm to compress the lungs, increasing the air pressure in them (fig. 2). This compression helps us exhale. The higher pressure in our lungs enables air to move easily from our lungs to the lower air pressure outside of our mouths. (Controlling exhaling, as we will see, is important to full vocal production.) We need to note that in exhaling, the diaphragm returns to its dome-shaped position; it remains relaxed until inhalation forces it downward again and the breathing cycle is repeated.

One can breathe without significantly affecting the diaphragm. This is known as shallow or clavicular breathing because the collar bone and shoulder muscles rise while the abdominal and rib muscles barely move or do not move at all. Shallow breathing has the following devastating effects for the speaker: (1) It deprives the body of an adequate supply of oxygen. The lack of oxygen causes a rapid heartbeat, which compounds the tensions most speakers experience. A sufficient supply of oxygen, on the other hand, helps the speaker relax. Without sufficient oxygen the body weakens, especially the legs. This is the reason nervous public speakers are often described as being "shaky in the knees" (2) The tension produced by shallow breathing is usually felt in the throat and other places. The result is breathiness and a vocal pitch that is higher than normal. (3) The speaker's sinus cavity also closes from tension, and breathing becomes even more difficult. As the speaker experiences breathiness and hears an uncharacteristic stridency or high pitch in voice, a loss of self-confidence occurs. This in turn causes more tension, and the vicious cycle continues until the speaker either relaxes or faints!

Diaphragmatic breathing, then, not only helps the speaker develop full vocal potential, but also provides a way to control tension. All people feel tension or anxiety before they speak; often this is called "stage fright." But tension can be a useful servant to the speaker. When tension is controlled by diaphragmatic breathing, it can be channeled into vitality in the speaker's delivery. (The specifics of channelling tension into vitality in delivery will be covered in chapters 4 and 5.) The first step toward making tension work for the speaker is to acknowledge that tension is natural for all speakers and that it can be modified by diaphragmatic breathing.

Breathing for Speech

Breathing for speech calls for a simple but special control of the breathing process. Normal or nonspeech breathing is rhythmic: breathing for speech defies rhythm. Stevenson and Diehl describe breathing for speech as having "contrasting rhythm."

For metabolism it goes like this: Inhale through the nose (1-2-3); exhale through the nose (1-2-3). But in speech it should go like this: Inhale through the mouth (1); exhale through the mouth (1-2-3-4-5-6-7). Of course, in speech there is no exact mathematical ratio, but when a person is talking he has to inhale quickly and let the breath expire slowly and rather evenly while vibrating the vocal cords. Whereas breathing for metabolism is involuntary, breathing for speech has to be voluntarily controlled.

Many speakers inhale noisily, either because they do not use diaphragmatic breathing or because they feel that noisy inhalation has some dramatic effect. This is unnecessary and distracting. In any speaking situation, some of the air that is inhaled will enter the lungs without any effort by the speaker. A basic law of physics helps the speaker inhale noiselessly. When the speaker pauses for breath, the air pressure in the speaker's body is slightly lower than it is outside the body. Higher air pressure always moves to lower air pressure. Some air, therefore, effortlessly moves into the speaker's lungs. The speaker, of course, must inhale to receive an adequate supply of air. Inhalation does not need to be noisy.

Jon Eisenson, in his superb speech book, Voice and Diction, lists three objectives in breathing for speech:

  1. It should afford the speaker an adequate and comfortable supply of breath with the least awareness and expenditure of effort.
  2. The respiratory cycle—inhalation and exhalation— should be accomplished easily, quickly, and without interference with the flow of utterance.
  3. The second objective implies ease of control over the outgoing breath so that breathing and phrasing—the grouping of ideas—can be correlated functions.

These objectives are easily achieved by habitual diaphragmatic breathing.

Exercises for Diaphragmatic Breathing

Several exercises are helpful in developing diaphragmatic breathing. Here is how to do them.

1. Stand straight, but not rigidly. Place your hands on your sides just above your waist and just below your rib cage. Spread your fingers so that your thumbs point backward and your fingers point forward. Be sure your hands and fingers are touching your body, as if you were trying to wrap your hands around your waist. Inhale and exhale as normally as possible. Your hands should be moved outwardly as you inhale and then fall back toward your body as you exhale. (This will not be a major movement.) If the action is reversed or if you feel no movement, your breathing is too shallow. Repeat the process until your shoulders are relaxed and you are inhaling deeply enough to affect the diaphragm. Remember: clavicular breathing hinders good speaking (and good health).

2. When you have mastered exercise one, add another step to the process. Take a deep breath, then exhale for at least ten seconds. If you are out of breath in less than ten seconds, you are exhaling too quickly. Some vocalists can exhale steadily for thirty or more seconds. Repeat the exercise until you can control how quickly you exhale. Remember, controlling exhalation is critically important for full vocal production.

These two exercises are simple and basic, and there are many variations on them. For example, in the first exercise you could lie on your back on the floor or any hard surface with a book resting on your stomach. The book should rise slightly as you inhale and drop gently as you exhale. For exercise two you could make a hissing sound between your teeth so that you can hear how slowly and steadily you are exhaling. As was just mentioned, some speakers and singers can sustain exhalation thirty seconds or more. This helps them develop strength and versatility with their voices. You may want to invent your own exercises. As with any exercise, you should first take the time to master the basics, and then exercise regularly to maintain the fitness you have achieved.

3. Let's associate diaphragmatic breathing with speaking. Speak the following excerpt from Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address and take a breath where you see the slash marks.

With malice toward none; / with charity for all; / with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, / let us strive on to finish the work we are in; / to bind up the nation's wounds; / to care for him who shall have borne the battle, / and for his widow, / and for his orphan, / to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, / and with all nations.

4. Try the same exercise with this famous passage from Patrick Henry's speech, "A Call to Arms." This time, you mark the manuscript where you feel it necessary to pause for breath.

Gentlemen may cry, "Peace, Peace"—but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!

5. Try this exercise again, but this time, use this excerpt from a Billy Graham sermon:

Earth never knew a darker day than that first Good Friday, when the Prince of Glory died. But earth's most tragic day was transformed into earth's gladdest day, for it checked the rule of sin over the hearts and lives of earth's people. When Jesus lifted up his voice and cried, "It is finished," he did not mean that his life was ebbing away or that God's plan had been foiled. Though death was near, he realized that the last obstacle had been hurdled, the last enemy had been destroyed, and that he had successfully and triumphantly completed the task of redemption. By his death on the Cross he has removed the last barrier between God and man, and with the words, "It is finished," Jesus announced that the road from man to God was completed and open to traffic.

Shortly after Jesus had uttered those words, his head fell limp upon his chest. A Roman soldier came and thrust a spear into his side and forthwith came blood and water. Physicians say that a mixture of blood and water indicates that he died of a broken heart. But this we do know—that Christ gave the uttermost farthing. He poured out the last ounce of blood to redeem us. He spared not himself. He took heaven's best to redeem earth's worst. Here was the Son of God dying on a cross which was made for the vilest of sinners. Here was the law of substitution raised to the highest degree. Here was the Lamb of God who had come to take away the sin of the world. Here was the blood of God poured out in selfless love for a dying, hopeless, doomed world.

6. Try this exercise with one of your own sermons.

Proper Vocalization

Full vocal production involves the coordinated activity of several muscles. As we have just seen, diaphragmatic breathing alone involves several muscles and organs. When a person exhales, air moves past the vocal bands (fig. 3). Slight pressure on the vocal bands moves them closer together so that they resist the movement of air. This resistance causes the vocal bands to vibrate. This vibration produces what is called voice (the technical term is phonation). Full vocal production provides a clear, strong voice without the effects of tension or strain.

Figure 3. At left the vocal bands are spread for breathing; at right, they are closed for vocalization.

Although the process of proper vocalization is not complicated, it is somewhat involved. The muscular coordination needed for full vocal production is much less complicated than would be needed for hitting a golf ball, riding a bicycle, swimming, or other enjoyable, beneficial activities. As with any muscular activity (as we saw with diaphragmatic breathing), full vocal production calls for some concentrated efforts until the basic muscle movements are mastered. Then steady practice is required to maintain good coordination and muscular conditioning.

Let's follow an imaginary molecule of air through the entire vocalization process. A speaker inhales and the air molecule, along with millions of others, is drawn into the lungs. Various chemical changes take place inside the lungs as some oxygen is extracted from the molecule and delivered to the bloodstream. The air molecules are in constant motion, causing the lungs to expand. The diaphragm and the muscles surrounding it are slightly expanded. Almost immediately the muscles surrounding the diaphragm begin pushing back. The diaphragm transfers this pressure to the lungs. (We can temporarily stop this process by "holding our breath." Remember: When we hold �