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.

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