Wednesday, July 28, 2010


“To err is human,” and all that, but most of us have been punished in one way or another for making mistakes. So, making a mistake in public? In front of a lot of people?

I don’t know what train of thought last night led me to a memory of a conversation with Temple Painter, the harpsichordist. He said he was always relieved when he made his first mistake in a performance. He said he didn’t have to worry any longer about being perfect. “O.k., done that and survived. Now let’s move on.”

Notice that he used the word “first.” That first one was a reminder that he would make more mistakes, and that they weren’t, after all, that big a deal.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Broken Voices - 2

I saw the 2d episode of “The Choir” last night. (I said I was a fan.) In which, the conductor was bemoaning the lack of male voices in his adult choir. The camera panned over the hefty female sections and the sparse men’s section.

“I sometimes wonder,” he said, “if after their voices break, they lose interest in singing.”

I wouldn’t be interested in singing if I thought I had a broken voice. (see last week’s blog, “Lost Voices; Broken Voices")

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Monotone: One Tone, No Meaning

I heard the pastor of Rising Ebenezer Baptist Church speak at an event the other night. He used his voice over a wide pitch range–over an octave, from low to high, in one of his phrases. I commented to someone afterward how his vocal range gave a depth of meaning to what he was saying that might otherwise not be there.

Vocal range is not given much attention in public speaking training in this country. There may be a statement that it’s an ideal, but no information about how or why.

As I was thinking about the relationship between a varied speaking pitch and meaning, I remembered John, a middle-school teacher who had been sent to me by his principal.

John spoke with a limited pitch range and, when reading aloud, read in a flat monotone. His entire body was somewhat rigid, and he was in danger of losing control of his class because the persona he was using there was rigid and fearful.

We found several issues that had inhibited not only his voice, but his entire body. A key discovery was how he had been taught to read. He had carried over into adulthood a focus on one word at a time. “Because it was important that I get each word right,” he said. In the beginning the instruction makes some sense–there’s little loss of meaning when we read “Dick” and “and” and “Jane” as separate words, and we have the picture of Dick and Jane there to help us understand who we’re reading about.

But, after we become more adept at deciphering single words, we read in phrases, our eyes see “Dick and Jane,” then “Dick and Jane ran fast.” The wider our eye focus, the more words our eyes see at one time, the more meaning the words have for us. A word like “past,” for example, can be a noun, as in “the past,” or an adjective, as in “the past mistakes.” John was still reading “the” and “past” and “mistakes” without any meaningful connection between the words, and “mistakes” can become a slight surprise after the mind has settled on “past” as a noun.

When I “allowed” him to see more than one word at a time, he found meaning in the words he was reading. Not only did his monotone disappear, but his body and persona loosened, and he discovered that he could use a hitherto repressed sense of humor in the classroom.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Lost Voices; Broken Voices

I saw the first episode of “The Choir” on BBC America last night and loved it. I loved the conductor’s approach to music and to teaching, loved that he congratulated a girl for her courage in singing a solo on a large stage.

But I had never heard a maturing boy’s voice referred to as “broken” before. In this country we say that a boy’s voice “changes,” a more accurate description of what goes on in the vocal mechanism during male puberty. The laryngeal cartilage can be broken by a blow to the throat, muscles in the vocal mechanism can tear, but the voice itself cannot be broken.

Word usage has intense power. When something “breaks,” we either repair it or toss it in the trash. The conductor had trouble finding enough broken male voices for The Choir and had to make do with a few unbroken ones. So I wondered about the effect of that word on English boys entering puberty, and thought that if puberty meant that some part of me was about to break, I might want to delay growing up as long as possible.

If a public speaker “loses his voice,” he panics and mentally goes in search of it. It isn’t, of course, lost. It’s where it always was and where it will be again. What may have happened is that stress breathing has closed his vocal cords–that’s how stress breathing works, that’s how the body functions during stress. All he needs to do is breathe deeply. We say we’ve lost our voice when we have laryngitis, when the vocal cords have become inflamed and swollen. Allowing the voice to “rest” is the best cure; but it’s not lost. It’s where it always was if we speak at a lower pitch.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

For, To, At, With

What’s the difference between speaking to an audience, speaking at an audience, speaking with an audience? That question’s been running around in my head for a couple of weeks–how to make the distinction clear?

This morning another preposition–for–added itself. Probably not a light bulb big enough to say Eureka!, but big enough to get the question out of my head.

Here’s the theory:

Public speaking is a communal activity, something one does.

If we change the word “speak” to “do,” and “audience” to “me,” we get . . .

Doing for me. Implies condescension, makes me think of missionaries. Did I ask you?

Doing to me. I have no control over the interaction, and am likely to get hurt.

Doing at me. I’m going to put up a shield so I won’t get hit.

Doing with me. Great.