The good thing about the hot burn of a bad bout of bronchitis strangling your throat is that it forces you to choose your words carefully. Flu season could actually be a blessing if it improves the likelihood of my whispering a few precious words to you, or writing instead. My voice started to desert me Friday evening. By the third trip to the bathroom in the middle of the night, I knew I’d lost it. Some noise-making contraption barked wet and hard from a rigid box way down in my boots, but it wasn’t my voice. A bad bout of bronchitis can make you think hard about what an everyday miracle your voice has been.
My wife left me Saturday morning, so I’ve had plenty of time to think about hard stuff this weekend. I’m pretty sure her ticket to Albany for that funeral was round trip, so we might talk on Monday, if I find my voice by then.
I have to admit I don’t know much about my voice, or voices in general. I’ve never taken voice training or read any books about it, and I can’t even tell you whether I sing tenor, bass, or baritone. In my mid-sixties I’m still surprised by the sound of my own voice when I hear it on my voice mail or in a home video. Do we ever hear our own voices the way others hear us?
Voices are easy to identify and hard to describe. Among the thousands of voices we each know, we can usually identify who’s calling on the phone within the first three words. No two voices are the same on biometric voiceprints. Have you ever seen your voiceprint? I can’t imagine what mine looks like, but it probably would not make it any easier to describe my voice to you.
If I could go to the Lost and Found today to retrieve my voice, how would I describe it to the guy at the counter? “It’s a male, middle-aged, medium-sized voice with a generally fluid cadence and a fair amount of feeling when I’m teaching. My voice is steady most of the time, spoken from high in my chest, but when I’m rattled it skips and pinches and hesitates and rises up in my throat.” The guy probably has a hundred of those. What’s special about mine?
Shouldn’t we linguistically advanced homo sapiens have developed an elaborate convention for describing voices by now? We associate voices with age, gender, and pitch, but after that it’s all metaphor. We may talk about the texture (“creamy,” “velvety,” “scratchy”) and the location (“chest,” “nose,” “head”) and the size (“booming,” or “mousey,”) and the range (“sing-song,” or “flat”). Ask three people to describe the same voice, and you’re likely to get three different descriptions, none of which nails the voice precisely.
Why are voices so distinct? We each have a different instrument–you have a piccolo and I have an oboe—but more importantly we play it in our own ways. The distinctiveness of each voice reflects not just the particulars of the anatomical shapes along the 6-9 inch flexible windpipe between our vocal chords and our lips, but also how we move every structure along the way: our tonsils, uvula, soft palate, tongue, cheeks, and nostrils. Our brain plays our voice and our voice reveals our brain and our soul to our listener. Is there any more intimate and sophisticated window into our inner selves? The miracle of your voice can be captured in a voice print and a bar code and by Siri and Alexa, but they couldn’t tell you how they do it. It’s all pattern recognition by neural networks, and voice recognition requires a precision that defies word description.
Our instinctive talents for voice identification are crucial to our survival, apparently even before we can utter our first cry. And though we each develop an identifiable voice, don’t we also develop many voices? You may tolerate my speaking voice, but cringe at my singing voice or not even recognize it as mine. Good writers, like EB White, can achieve a written “voice” that is quite different from their voice at the breakfast table, but equally genuine and distinctive. Good actors, like Meryl Streep, can adopt the speaking voices of her characters so convincingly that it’s hard to recognize her own voice—a triumph of empathy as well as vocal dexterity. The rest of us, and most second-tier actors like Harrison Ford, sound for the most part like ourselves, no matter who we pretend to be. It’s hard to hide our voices.
I want my voice back, but having a voice is different from raising it. How do you raise a voice? That’s a risky process for most of us. Learning to speak up runs several dangers, including being shut down, ignored, misunderstood, or criticized. Each culture has its rules about when we speak and when we keep quiet. Not raising your voice is also risky, from the common fate of being misunderstood to the rarer fate of starving. We all crave to be heard from day one, and our voice is our most sophisticated instrument for human contact. Losing my voice permanently would rank with losing my sight or hearing. It would mean the end of much of my work life.
Writing raises my voice. Rewriting raises it a notch higher, hopefully. So much of good writing depends on finding the effective writing voice. Our nation’s current political troubles invite me to raise my voice. Teaching and doing psychotherapy require that I raise my voice. Much of the work of psychotherapy involves helping people who have figuratively, and sometimes literally, lost their voices to depression or other illnesses such as stroke or multiple sclerosis. The process of recovering from these conditions can be accompanied by regaining the lost voice—that is, the confidence, the capacity to assert your views where self-doubt and physical fatigue had once robbed you of your natural voice. Sometimes, in the context of early psychological trauma that snuffed out the safety of speaking up, recovering involves discovering in adulthood the permission and the power to raise your voice. Raising these voices is one of the thrilling outcomes of this therapeutic process.
You can raise your children but you can’t raise their voices, not directly. They’ll talk the way their peers talk, not the way their parents talk. Yet parents are the first voice teachers for children, at least by example, and often by directive. Speak up, shut up, slow down, say it clearly, say it in a nice voice. We and their teachers can coach them. What greater playground for finding your voice than high school drama productions, where the changing voices of adolescents can try their vocal and empathic talents on relatively forgiving audiences?
I’m getting my exercise by blowing through about eight sheets of Kleenex an hour now. Tires me out. Wearing out the bedsheets is tiring too. Time for a nap. I’ve strained through a couple of phone calls, enough to convince me I could fool those voice recognition software programs if anybody tried to wiretap me today.
I’ve also watched a cool video of four pairs of vocal chords as their owners sang Kyrie Eleison. It’s a bizarre and fascinating sight that reminds me how little I know about how we generate the sounds that connect us so intimately through our voices. Just think what speech pathologists, ear, nose and throat surgeons, opera voice teachers, and theater directors understand about the human voice that the rest of us take for granted. Maybe one of them can help me get my voice back. Until then, it’s words on the page that save me.