Voice Makeover

By Sarah Sekula, published in Pegasus magazine 

On a chilly Friday afternoon I pop into Kate Ingram’s office in the Central Florida Research Park, where a bastion of UCF theater classes are held.

By the door: three giant yoga balls, next to a bag of smaller, weighted balls. A row of shelves holding tattered Shakespeare novels and human anatomy textbooks. Walls covered with theatrical photos and a pair of long red underwear. On the desk: pink balloons, not yet blown up. What in the world does she do with this stuff?

Each prop, in fact, plays a part in her graduate voice classes. Ingram, part actor, part director, part vocal coach, uses a holistic (and super creative) approach, integrating all aspects of human expression.

Donning a black sweatshirt with a black velvet skirt, the curly coifed professor makes her first point. “Anyone can be coached to be a formidable speaker,” she says. “It can be an intimidating process, but a worthy one. When I’m talking to someone about their voice, they are laid bare. The voice is a very personal thing.”

Warming Up

For a more intimate look into the world of voice training, I sit in on a vocal warm-up a few days after meeting Ingram. I enter Dance Studio II, an 18-by 24-foot room with mirrored walls, blue dance mats and scattered pillows. A group of 11 students piddles around, but as soon as the music (birds chirping and crickets croaking) comes on, they immediately fall to the ground, as if they took a double dose of melatonin.

The lights dim. Squeaks, grunts and buzzes fill the room. No noise is off limits. Some students lay on their backs, limbs stretched above, and wiggle like dead cockroaches. Others curl into the fetal position and rock like neglected orphans. A girl on all fours shakes one leg violently. Most have their eyes shut like giant toddlers during preschool naptime.

The floppy guy in front of me begins reciting non-sensical words, “Mice, right? Mice, right?” Another shouts, “Never understood. Really never understood. These songs are not true!”

I have no theater background, so I’m starting to feel a bit like Alice in Wonderland. I fell down the rabbit hole and into a bizarre universe where everyone seems mad and everything is upside down. Fortunately, Ingram fills me in.

“This process helps students let go of left-brain activity and allows the right brain to take over,” she says, and thenshe gallops across the room reminding students to wiggle. Eventually the students stand upright and recite phrases to further warm up their voices. They begin to interact with each other and finally sit in a circle to discuss the techniques of the day including the “Y buzz,” an exercise that helps tune up the vocal folds in a gentle but vigorous way.

Awareness is Key

Overall, the techniques focus on awareness of the physical sensations of voice and speech production. One common mistake, Ingram says, is dropping volume at the end of sentences. “It’s a signal that you are not following through,” she explains. “If I breathe to start a sentence, but by the end of it decide to let my energy drop out, then I’m sending a signal that it wasn’t that important in the first place.

“Speaking is physical,” she continues. “We’ve turned it into just a mental activity. Ideally, to speak is to use your whole body. Don’t drop the ball, don’t drop the thought, and don’t drop the word. Even the last sound of the word is where you are really driving your point home.” “President Obama,” she says, “won the election partly because of his speaking skills.”

Clearly, it’s a worthy talent worth developing and, in turn, she recommends watching public figures on TV with the volume turned down. Notice the hand gestures, the eye contact, the positioning of the jaw muscles and lips. Study the vocal patterns of great speakers.

Take Oprah, for example. What makes her so captivating? “When she speaks, she reaches down internally into her viscera (the organs of the abdominal cavity) to try to connect to other people. She connects at a gut level, which takes deeper, fuller body breathing.”

Another common problem is speaking too quickly. “If I speak too fast I may be trivializing what I’m saying,” Ingram says. “Anyone can speak fast if they can get all the sounds in. It’s kind of like tap dancing. Let those feet move quickly and adeptly and radiantly if you can get all the sounds in. It takes practice and attention to detail.”

For Ingram, the key word is effective.

“Sometimes we can communicate just enough to get by, and sometimes we settle for that,” she concludes. “But speaking too fast implies that there is some slurring or neglecting of certain sounds of words. And thus, you may be missing and not scoring some of your most important points if you rush through them. Perhaps you are assuming that the listener already knows or understands what you’re talking about. Never assume!”