Gas station without pumps

2011 October 15

Teaching voice projection

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 19:41
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I am fairly well-known in my department and among colleagues in my field as having a loud voice when needed (and perhaps sometimes when not needed).  I have no trouble filling a lecture hall with my voice—even ones with rather poor acoustics, like the one at the Palazzo dei Congressi in Ravenna, where I gave a talk in September.  At small conferences, I’m often called on to gather people back into session, since there is usually no public address system in the hallways or outdoors.

I have attempted to teach the grad students in my department how to speak loudly, as I have found it a very useful skill.  Even if students are only half as loud as me, it can make a big difference in how well they can be heard giving research presentations and when teaching.  Even as students, being audible to the rest of the class in class discussions is a useful skill. (UPDATE: Previous posts on how I teach speaking loudly: Speaking loudly 1Speaking loudly 2.)

Unfortunately, I’ve never had any formal training in speaking loudly, so I’ve had to rely on little bits of advice I’ve picked up over the years: belly breathing, relaxing one’s throat, using the lower end of one’s pitch range, opening one’s mouth, facing the audience, and listening for the echo of one’s voice off the room walls (“room-filling voice”).  After passing on these snippets of information, I do a one-time exercise where we all go out into the woods and practice speaking at about a 60′ (20m) distance.  Although the exercise shows that most students have the ability to be loud enough, it is mainly a diagnostic exercise to find out who needs to practice being louder.  Unfortunately, the students who most need to practice speaking louder are the ones least likely to do so on their own.  (I usually end that exercise by having a contest with whoever in the class was the loudest, to see who can be heard from the furthest away.  I have twice had students who were as loud or louder.  One was an amateur actor with something like 20 years of stage experience, and the other had worked as a town crier at Dickens Faire.)

Today I did a little searching on the web to see if anyone had put together a more formal presentation of the proper pedagogy for teaching voice projection.  If figured that drama teachers around the world must have developed methods, and some must have published them.

I found surprisingly little, though I did not do a very thorough search.  There is one paper that looks promising:

Debra M. Hardison, Chayawan Sonchaeng, Theatre voice training and technology in teaching oral skills: Integrating the components of a speech event, System, Volume 33, Issue 4, December 2005, Pages 593-608, ISSN 0346-251X, doi:10.1016/j.system.2005.02.001.

Unfortunately, that article is hidden behind a pay wall, but it is available at any University of California library, since UC subscribes to System.  The 16-page paper seems rather wordy, and I’ve not had time to read it yet (I’m overdue on reviewing some NSF proposals, which at 130 pages each are rather slow slogging). The article does have a series of quite specific exercises, which look like they would take a few hours to do completely.  They could form the basis for a one-day workshop—I think I’d be willing to do that this year if students wanted it, even though I’m on sabbatical.


  1. You didn’t mention this factor, but i think there are strong psychosocial factors at work as well. Although I’m a “loud person” like you, I know people whose physical capacity to produce loud speach surely outweighs mine — yet psychosocial factors prevent them from generally doing so.

    Singers also work hard on vocal projection. There is a class at Cabrillo called “Freeing the Natural Voice”. When I took it (about 18 years ago!) it focused a lot on vocal projection.

    Comment by Ron G. — 2011 October 15 @ 23:51 | Reply

    • I know that singers work on voice projection, since singing loudly enough to be heard is often valued, but it is relatively easy to damage the vocal cords by yelling and screaming. In fact, most of the voice projection exercises I’ve seen are aimed more at singers than at speakers or actors.

      I agree that psychosocial factors play a major role. People have been taught to be quiet, and that loud voices are rude or angry. Women particularly have been trained to quietness in the US. It is possible to overcome this early training, but it does take practice.

      Voice projection is not as essential to actors and speakers as it once was, since microphones and amplifications systems are now common. I have seen professional actors at Shakespeare Santa Cruz who were so used to using amplification that they could not project well enough to be heard past the middle rows of the Festival Glen (not for the last couple of years—I guess they are being more careful in the selection of actors now). Film actors are even trained not to project, so that the microphone can pick up a more natural voice tone—but they work on sound-proofed sound stages, where someone can get fired for making an unwanted sound.

      Teachers and professors are often faced with no amplification (or low-quality sound systems) and a lot of background noise, so it is a very valuable skill for academics to develop the ability to speak loudly when needed.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2011 October 16 @ 08:26 | Reply

  2. I really like your lesson plan on this, and I’ve used parts of it in my class (the one where you take students outdoors — maybe you could add a hyperlink to it, as I think others would find it as useful as I have).

    It’s funny that you found so few resources. I’ve done a lot of singing and, like you, I learned what I know from snippets of advice. This stuff seems to be passed on mainly from person to person. Is there a drama school or music school in the UC system where you might find a resource person, or at least someone who could point you to technique books?

    Comment by Mylene — 2011 October 16 @ 09:43 | Reply

    • Thanks, I added the links to my previous posts—I should have done that in the first place.

      There is a good theater arts department at UCSC and they probably do include training in voice projection in some of their acting studio classes. I looked through the faculty listing recently trying to recommend a female instructor or professor to recommend for a possible Women in Science and Engineering workshop, and only came up with 2 possibilities. I think that WISE would do better with a female instructor, both for “psychosocial” reasons and because the techniques for being loud and understood may be somewhat different for a higher-pitched female voice, and I would not be able to demonstrate effectively.

      I probably should hit the library and look for some books.
      Julie LeFevre at wrote “I’d recommend books by Cicely Berry, Patsy Rodenberg or Barbara Houseman all ex-Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre.”
      (The name should be Patsy Rodenburg and our library has four of her books, 4 of Cicely Berry’s, and one of Barbara Houseman’s.)

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2011 October 16 @ 10:14 | Reply

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