Sources: Nerves And Common Sense
I KNEW an old German--a wonderful teacher of the speaking voice--who
said "the ancients believed that the soul of the man is
here"--pointing to the pit of his stomach. "I do not know," and he
shrugged his shoulders with expressive interest, "it may be and it
may not be--but I know the soul of the voice is here--and you
Americans--you squeeze the life out of the word in your throat and
it is born dead."
That old artist spoke the truth--we Americans--most of us--do
squeeze the life out of our words and they are born dead. We squeeze
the life out by the strain which runs all through us and reflects
itself especially in our voices. Our throats are tense and closed;
our stomachs are tense and strained; with many of us the word is
dead before it is born.
Watch people talking in a very noisy place; hear how they scream at
the top of their lungs to get above the noise. Think of the amount
of nervous force they use in their efforts to be heard.
Now really when we are in the midst of a great noise and want to be
heard, what we have to do is to pitch our voices on a different key
from the noise about us. We can be heard as well, and better, if we
pitch our voices on a lower key than if we pitch them on a higher
key; and to pitch your voice on a low key requires very much less
effort than to strain to a high one.
I can imagine talking with some one for half an hour in a noisy
factory--for instance--and being more rested at the end of the half
hour than at the beginning. Because to pitch your voice low you must
drop some superfluous tension and dropping superfluous tension is
I beg any or all of my readers to try this experiment the next time
they have to talk with a friend in a noisy street. At first the
habit of screaming above the noise of the wheels is strong on us and
it seems impossible that we should be heard if we speak below it. It
is difficult to pitch our voices low and keep them there. But if we
persist until we have formed a new habit, the change is delightful.
There is one other difficulty in the way; whoever is listening to us
may be in the habit of hearing a voice at high tension and so find
it difficult at first to adjust his ear to the lower voice and will
in consequence insist that the lower tone cannot be heard as easily.
It seems curious that our ears can be so much engaged in expecting
screaming that they cannot without a positive effort of the mind
readjust in order to listen to a lower tone. But it is so. And,
therefore, we must remember that to be thoroughly successful in
speaking intelligently below the noise we must beg our listeners to
change the habit of their ears as we ourselves must change the pitch
of our voices.
The result both to speaker and listener is worth the effort ten
As we habitually lower the pitch of our voices our words cease
gradually to be "born dead." With a low-pitched voice everything
pertaining to the voice is more open and flexible and can react more
immediately to whatever may be in our minds to express.
Moreover, the voice itself may react back again upon our
dispositions. If a woman gets excited in an argument, especially if
she loses her temper, her voice will be raised higher and higher
until it reaches almost a shriek. And to hear two women "argue"
sometimes it may be truly said that we are listening to a
"caterwauling." That is the only word that will describe it.
But if one of these women is sensitive enough to know she is
beginning to strain in her argument and will lower her voice and
persist in keeping it lowered the effect upon herself and the other
woman will put the "caterwauling" out of the question.
"Caterwauling" is an ugly word. It describes an ugly sound. If you
have ever found yourself in the past aiding and abetting such an
ugly sound in argument with another--say to yourself "caterwauling,"
"caterwauling," "I have been 'caterwauling' with Jane Smith, or
Maria Jones," or whoever it may be, and that will bring out in such
clear relief the ugliness of the word and the sound that you will
turn earnestly toward a more quiet way of speaking.
The next time you start on the strain of an argument and your voice
begins to go up, up, up--something will whisper in your ear
"caterwauling" and you will at once, in self-defense, lower your
voice or stop speaking altogether.
It is good to call ugly things by their ugliest names. It helps us
to see them in their true light and makes us more earnest in our
efforts to get away from them altogether.
I was once a guest at a large reception and the noise of talking
seemed to be a roar, when suddenly an elderly man got up on a chair
and called "silence," and having obtained silence he said, "it has
been suggested that every one in this room should speak in a lower
tone of voice."
The response was immediate. Every one went on talking with the same
interest only in a lower tone of voice with a result that was both
delightful and soothing.
I say every one--there were perhaps half a dozen whom I observed who
looked and I have no doubt said "how impudent." So it was "impudent"
if you chose to take it so--but most of the people did not choose to
take it so and so brought a more quiet atmosphere and a happy change
Theophile Gautier said that the voice was nearer the soul
than any other expressive part of us. It is certainly a very
striking indicator of the state of the soul. If we accustom
ourselves to listen to the voices of those about us we detect more
and more clearly various qualities of the man or the woman in the
voice, and if we grow sensitive to the strain in our own voices and
drop it at once when it is perceived, we feel a proportionate gain.
I knew of a blind doctor who habitually told character by the tone
of the voice, and men and women often went to him to have their
characters described as one would go to a palmist.
Once a woman spoke to him earnestly for that purpose and he replied,
"Madam, your voice has been so much cultivated that there is nothing
of you in it--I cannot tell your real character at all." The only
way to cultivate a voice is to open it to its best
possibilities--not to teach its owner to pose or to imitate a
beautiful tone until it has acquired the beautiful tone habit. Such
tones are always artificial and the unreality in them can be easily
detected by a quick ear.
Most great singers are arrant hypocrites. There is nothing of
themselves in their tone. The trouble is to have a really beautiful
voice one must have a really beautiful soul behind it.
If you drop the tension of your voice in an argument for the sake of
getting a clearer mind and meeting your opponent without resistance,
your voice helps your mind and your mind helps your voice.
They act and react upon one another with mutual benefit. If you
lower your voice in general for the sake of being more quiet, and so
more agreeable and useful to those about you, then again the mental
or moral effort and the physical effort help one another.
It adds greatly to a woman's attraction and to her use to have a
low, quiet voice--and if any reader is persisting in the effort to
get five minutes absolute quiet in every day let her finish the
exercise by saying something in a quiet, restful tone of voice.
It will make her more sensitive to her unrestful tones outside, and
so help her to improve them.