Former opera singer Kristin Samuelson (www.thevoicedoctorsite.com) has a doctorate in vocal pedagogy with a minor in speech pathology. She has taught singing at New York University and Marymount Manhattan Theatre Department, among other places, and was director of opera and musical theatre at Jacksonville University. She also teaches workshops for professionals ranging from lawyers to tour guides on how to use their voices for better communication. Below are a few of her tips.
Most people think of voice lessons as something just for singers. But you say everyone can benefit from voice training. Why is that?
Sixty percent of what people hear you say is not the words — it is the sound or tone of your voice. If you talk with a dried-out voice, people may have trouble understanding you. When we don't communicate clearly to people, we get misunderstood. The better we can communicate with people, the more we can understand and like each other.
What are some common problems you see with professionals trying to communicate?
People often have to make presentations for their work. I find that often, when they're under pressure, their throats clam up and they crackle or lose volume. The throat is very sensitive to stress. You know, if you cry, you lose your ability to talk. And unfortunately, when we are under stress, the tension comes in at the level of the vocal cords.
How do you remedy this?
That's where I bring in my work with singers — singing with an open throat and releasing the stress and adding air into the equation. Air keeps the throat open, buoyant, flexible and responsive, so people can continue and accomplish what they want to accomplish with their voices.
Why is proper breathing so important?
You get more oxygen in your system and allow the lungs to work, which releases tension from your body. It helps with self-confidence quite a bit. Also, some people talk way too fast — they barely breathe at all. They have no concept that they need to think about air getting used. As a result, they squeeze muscles in their throats and back of the mouth and muscle their voices instead of letting air flow. They don't realize that until they're really out of breath. When I make them stop and breathe, that slows them down.
What are some other things you recommend besides proper breathing?
If you want to make an impression on people [during a presentation], you need to memorize the first two sentences so you can get them listening to you. Then, when you are wrapping up, make your final points again, making eye contact.
Are there any basic speech concepts that just get overlooked in daily life?
Most people don't think about their speaking voice having a pitch the way we think about music. But most men have lower voices and most women have higher voices. Within that framework, there's a huge range of where men and women talk. Often men want to speak deeper, but sometimes they need to speak higher, and vice versa. I have seen that help a lot. You want a voice that sounds appealing to someone else, because you want other people to hear what you have to say. That is what it boils down to. It is really fun for me to help people find their individual strength within their voice and that allows them to be better at what they do.