The preacher's vocal hygiene

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No, not advice about brushing your teeth regularly, flossing wisely, or avoiding Stilton and garlic soup before that pastoral visit - that would be oral hygiene. This is - to give it its technical name - vocal hygiene: keeping the voice healthy. My mind is upon it because of my present schedule and circumstances. At the moment, a regular weekend sees me preaching and teaching four or five times: on Saturday, I would hope to be out preaching and speaking in the open air (although it may be more low-key door-to-door work). Then, on the Lord's day, there is an adult Sunday School that I am currently taking, either or both the morning and the evening meetings, and then, on Sunday afternoons, an evangelistic meeting in a village outside the town where I serve. All of this places a certain demand on the voice. In addition, with weekly church meetings and outside engagements, extra burdens are laid on the preacher's vocal apparatus.

Now, that would require a certain level of care under normal circumstances, but just yesterday I spent a not-altogether-comfortable three minutes with a tube up my nose and down into my throat while a very helpful doctor had a quick dekko at the Walker vocal chords. Without going into details, the last couple of years have seen me occasionally afflicted with a couple of things that have, at times, made the voice suffer, and I needed to be checked out.

The voice is the preacher's primary tool, and we need to keep it in good condition. Reminded of and freshly and uncomfortably impressed with some of the elements of vocal hygiene, and being very willing to help other preachers keep their voices healthy, and equally to spare anyone the experience of a doctor inserting what looks and feels like a car aerial into your nasal cavities, or worse, herewith some counsels (garnered over many years) on vocal hygiene tailored to the preacher, arranged topically, some or all of which may be helpful to some. A lot of it is sanctified common-sense, and I should imagine that most preachers do most of it almost naturally.

Food and drink

  • Drink plenty of fluids (not including tea, coffee, alcohol or fizzy drinks, all of which, in various ways and to various degrees, can damage or constrain the vocal chords; also bear in mind that milk can increase catarrh; chocolate mixes the effects of caffeine and dairy - bonus!). Aim to drink 3-4 pints of water (a little more than 2 litres) daily, more if you do a lot of vocal or other exercise. If you can, sip rather than gulp.
  • If you take water into the pulpit, keep it at room temperature. Ice-cold water may be refreshing in other ways, but the cold water will constrict your throat and tighten your vocal chords.
  • Eat regular meals, and try to eat a balanced diet. Avoid eating late at night. Irregular and/or unhealthy eating encourages indigestion, which may affect the voice, not least through acid reflux damaging the throat.
  • Avoid eating (especially much) or gulping drinks shortly before preaching (some recommend a gap of two or three hours after meals). Once preaching begins to exercise the diaphragm and stomach muscles, you might be awkwardly revisiting what you recently ingested.
  • Avoid irritants such as spicy foods and alcohol.

Physical
  • Bear in mind that preaching can be and often is intense physical exercise as well as spiritual and emotional and mental. Expect it to have a draining effect on your whole humanity.
  • Sleep well and sufficiently if you can, as being tired will affect your voice in the same way that it would affect any muscular performance.
  • If possible, obtain some instruction from a teacher on using your voice. There are books available for singers and actors which can assist with matters like breathing and projection.
  • Try to avoid habits of coughing or clearing your throat.
  • Practice breathing from the abdomen and speaking from the diaphragm rather than from the throat, which not only restricts your range but also places additional strain on your voice.
  • Develop an awareness of your natural pitch, tone and volume, and the full, appropriate range of them.
  • Remember that the key to being heard is not volume but projection. Do not confuse the two. You can project a near-whisper so as to be clearly heard and you can swallow a shout so that it goes nowhere.
  • Speak clearly and with crisp diction. This will go a long way to helping you to be heard and understood, especially by those with hearing problems.
  • Cardio-vascular and muscular exercise can and should improve your lung capacity, breath regulation and conduction, and general physical conditioning for the act of preaching.
  • Relax and prepare your throat by doing proper abdominal breathing (essentially, where your stomach is moving and your chest is not) and by warming up your voice. Try speaking and singing on the way to preach: start softly, work up and down and round in volume, pitch and tone - singing scales are fine. You might do the same on the way home.
  • The nervous tensions and strong emotions working through the preacher's frame have a significant effect on the whole body, and can cause strain in your neck, throat, jaw or chest. Be aware of clenched teeth, constrained lungs, constricted throat, high shoulders and so on as indicators.
  • Do not clench your teeth or hold your jaw tense. Keep your jaw, face and neck appropriately relaxed as you speak.
  • As much as possible, breathe naturally when preaching. Allow your lungs to fill properly and empty normally. Do not hold your breath, or squeeze or push out your voice.
  • Many preachers, especially when nervous or excited, speak too quickly over sustained periods. Speak more slowly, pausing at natural boundaries in your speech, allowing the breath to be replaced.
  • Pause between sentences, especially if you find yourself becoming breathless, and wait for your breathing to provide for good voice production.
  • Speak in shorter sentences, especially if you find yourself squeezing out the last few words of longer thoughts without sufficient breath.
  • Avoid harsh or sudden sounds, especially toward the beginning of a sermon.
  • Take care with singing before preaching - remember that you could strain your voice before you even get to the sermon.
  • Allow your sermon material to dictate your vocal peaks and troughs. Let your voice help accurately to communicate the content of your sermon. This should give you the full range and scope of voice - volume, pitch and tone - that you need. Allow your voice to colour your sermon.
  • Beware of falling into the pattern of sustained peaks - high vocal plateaus - that put a strain on your voice and the congregation's ears.
  • Use the full natural range of your voice. Do not speak in a monotone at any point on the scale or register, and do not allow your voice to drop so unnaturally low that it becomes gravelly. It does not sound as impressive as you think and is probably doing damage.
  • If necessary, allow your register to change as pitch rises and drops.
  • Speak at a normal, comfortable pitch and do not force your voice beyond it. Start with a normal, more conversational tone projected for the environment, and allow it to develop as the substance of the Word and the help of the Spirit provide.
  • Some sermons, themes, or occasions will demand greater vocal investment and strain than others. Do not be ashamed to raise your voice and use its full capacity as appropriate, but avoid the reality or appearance of shoutiness (especially if you are of a more emotional cast). You do not want the reputation of a bawler or yeller.
  • If possible, rest your voice between periods of greater exertion, but do not get out of good habits and regular practice. You will often find your voice 'rusty' when you get back to its normal pattern of use in preaching.

Medical
  • Only use medicated lozenges if you have a genuinely 'sore throat.' These numb the throat, allowing you to keep going at the risk of doing more damage (think of an athlete getting a cortisone injection to compete despite an injury only to find out that the injury has worsened on account of competition, not least because the body's warning signals were not getting through). Menthol has a drying effect.
  • If you need to keep your mouth moist, suck ordinary pastilles or chew gum.
  • If you have an acute infection, increase your fluid intake; take steam inhalations twice a day (with nothing added to it); don't be a martyr if you can avoid it - rest your voice or use it as gently as possible (but do not whisper); do not gargle with aspirin.
  • Avoid using your voice extensively when you have a cold or when it feels strained.
  • Learn to recognise the symptoms of vocal strain or fatigue (hoarseness, dry throat, pain, tension, heartburn, and poor vocal projection). If you need to, go to your doctor.

Environmental

  • Avoid environmental pollution like tobacco and other smoke, excessive dust, or chemical fumes.
  • Keep your home humidified appropriately. Bowls of water near or damp towels on radiators might help. You may also wish to humidify the room where you regularly preach, especially if it is a drier or dustier atmosphere that affects your throat. In some environments, there is absolutely nothing you can do about this.
  • Learn to project clearly and competently into more intimate environments so that you do not need to rely on amplification. For larger environments, consider an appropriate level of amplification (and, for your sake and the sake of those hearing you, remember the difference between a voice amplification system and a public address system).
  • If you have the chance, test the acoustics of any new preaching environment, amplified and unamplified. Get a sense of what it will demand of your voice. If you are preaching in a new place (especially if bigger than usual), and trusted friends are available, ask one to station himself near the back and use a discreet signal if your voice drops so that you cannot be heard. Some might wish to have a similar friend at the front to ensure that you don't bawl. You can overdo things as much as undercook them.
  • Do not rely on artificial amplification to do all your vocal work for you. You are speaking as a man to men, and they need to hear the truth through your humanity, and your voice with its range and scope is your primary tool. Use it well.
  • Make sure that your speaking point - whether pulpit or something or somewhere else - is situated for good communication. Make it easy for yourself to be heard and for people to hear you.
  • Bear in mind that sustained preaching at an awkward angle (e.g. with the head turned or the face down - if you tend to read your notes, or if your pulpit is unusually high) can put a strain on your voice. If possible, encourage regular congregations to sit together and where you can speak to them all clearly and directly.
  • Be aware that you will almost automatically raise your voice if there is background noise: regular congregations can help preachers by maintaining a minimum of 'noise pollution.'

Spiritual
  • Be comfortable with the voice and physical apparatus that God has given you. Be satisfied with your (trained and developed) capacity, and do not seek to be anyone else.
  • Pray that the Lord would enable you to use your voice humbly for his glory, especially if you are blessed with a rich and pleasant voice.
  • Never perform in the pulpit, however gifted you are with your voice. You are a preacher, not an actor. Avoid all theatrics of the voice. Let it be natural and pure earnestness that congregations hear, not tricks and rills.
  • If you need to train your voice, do it so that it come naturally when you are preaching. You do not want to have to be thinking of all these things in the act of preaching.
  • Remember that the Lord can rob you of your voice temporarily or permanently, not least to teach you the lesson of your own dispensability.
  • Remember that the spirit of the prophets is subject to the prophets (1Cor 14.32), and that the Spirit works self-control (Gal 5.23). Whether singing or preaching, you can and should govern yourself and your voice under the superintendence of the Spirit of Christ.
  • Consider both that the Lord can lay you aside when he wishes or sustain you when he pleases. Accordingly, be neither wedded to vocal martyrdom nor a slave to vocal cowardice.
  • A redeemed man full of the Holy Spirit and with his heart well-stocked with good things ought naturally to speak in accordance with his topic.
  • "I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service" (Rom 12.1). Lay your voice on the altar, and leave it there.

Further resources:
Charles Haddon Spurgeon "On the Voice" in Lectures to my Students.
Mike Mellor. Look After Your Voice: Taking Care of the Preacher's Greatest Asset (DayOne).
Posted April 13, 2013 @ 7:13 AM by Jeremy Walker
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