Did you know Margaret Thatcher took voice lessons to deepen her pitch before one of her elections? Yes, our voices are critical. In this Talk About Talk episode you will learn about the various vocal elements (rate, volume, pitch, etc) and hints about how to use them. You will learn about vocal fry, and importantly, why you should avoid it. Opera singer Bradley Christensen shares insights about how to optimize the sound of your voice –from posture, to breathing, to using your “inner smile.”
References & Links
The Changing Voices of Margaret Thatcher and Hillary Clinton
Dr. Andrea Wojnicki: Thank you Bradley for being here.
Bradley Christensen: You’re welcome. Great to be here.
AW: Let’s get into it. I’ve heard and read and seen anecdotally that people with deeper voices seem to be more successful. Have you heard that?
AW: I read when I was doing some research for this interview that people with deeper voices are typically all else equal, more successful. So we can make our voices deeper. How do we do that?
BC: To ask this question to an opera singer it is fabulous because I have heard this. And I know that the way we listened to a speaking voice affect our perception of someone. But as an opera singer, I am always trying to find that natural voice, the natural instrument that doesn’t have anything put on it. So I know that when it comes to the lowering of a voice, people find that someone who does have a lower voice, they seem to think that that person has more strength.
BC: Authority. So they could, you know, lead a company much more effectively than someone with a high voice. I think the perception of someone with a high voice is that of immaturity, or youth. And I think I read research online that shows the top CEOs of big companies across the states earning $13 million or more than others, based on the fact that their voices are X number of Hz lower than someone else’s. So yeah, I’ve seen all that. But as again a singer an opera I can’t change the voice I have well
AW: You have what I would say is absolutely the most amazing voice and I’m I was thinking that people must stop in their tracks when they hear you sometimes and I was imagining that maybe you’re in the grocery store and you make a comment to the cashier and do you get comments about your voice?
BC: Yes, it’s funny. I of course, I get more comments in North America based on the accent as well. But there’s the accent and then a resonance and people do in choir. And so when I say that I’m an opera singer. Like oh, it makes so much sense. You know, you sound like an opera singer.
AW: But with all due respect, you don’t look like one. I think that actually is a compliment.
BC: Well, you see, I think opera has evolved. In the last say, 20 years, that stereotypical big singer is no longer there.
AW: Yeah, I think big old man. But I think you’re right, that has evolved.
BC: Well, it’s because people, you know, with the introduction of cinema broadcasting, live broadcasting, of the shows, they want it to sort of be complete. And if you’re having someone who performing Don Giovanni, who has slipped with 1003 women in Italy, and then another 800 and something in Germany, you’re not going to want someone who doesn’t quite fit the bill. Right? Well, that we would perceive who could fit the bill, right. So to some extent, your performance is also your appearance, yes, and more so than it has ever been.
AW: So you mentioned earlier when you were talking about the impact that you have just in public …That there’s the accent that throws people off. And then also the resonance. And I want to I want to talk about both. So what is resonance?
BC: Well, the physiology of the chamber where sound is produced all creates a resonance or a sound quality. And so for me, I am quite tall. I have a big lung capacity along Nick. So you have, you know, a lot of open space so
AW: Are baritones bigger? I don’t mean necessarily their girth, but they’re more likely to be tall?
BC: It’s interesting you ask that, generally speaking, yes, we sort of look at the voices, musical instruments or I think of it as a stringed instrument. And when you have a violin. Violins play at a higher pitch frequency versus a viola or cello and then of course you know the double bass… And I equate that with the length of the neck with you know the male/female voice. But of course there are exceptions to the rules you look at me – six foot three and you say, “more baritone base.” Most tenors are probably five foot something. Some might not have necks, or you know very small necks. And then you have your Mezzos and Sopranos. You know the higher Sopranos again, generally shorter. Then of course you have, as I said, the exceptions. I know a tenor who was six foot five and neck as long as my head. My wife is a contralto soprano and she is 5’11.” She doesn’t necessarily fit into that stereotypical box that we talk about.
AW: Men typically have deeper voices and they’re typically bigger. But again, there’s many exceptions, right? … So how does your accent affect what you do?
BC: It’s a good question and one that I’ve laughed about a few times. When I was down in New Hampshire last year, we had a Q&A after this performance, with kids who would come to the show. And one of them said, “you have an accent,” but they couldn’t quite understand how I had just performed in English. And I sounded like everyone else and then I come back, and I have a totally different accent.
AW: I find that intriguing as well.
BC: Yeah, I am terrible at some accents and I’ve lost a contract because I was terrible. I had got through the audition period. Normally in an audition they use two areas and I was at three. I had just got through three hours. Then they wanted me to come back and do a reading that evening because this opera had dialogue.
AW: Did they tell you why?
BC: Well, it’s because the opera has dialogue and they want to…
AW: They didn’t say we’re looking at your accent?
BC: Well, here’s the thing. When I went in, I got the script and I had a look, I had, you know, 20 minutes or so, and I took a look at it and I see that apostrophes at the end of words where consonants should have been. So I realized that this is a southern drawl. So I finally got I know how to do a southern drawl …
AW: Can I put you on the spot and ask you to do it?
BC: Well, I would say something like, “you know… All I had to do was go down downtown……” You know, I found when I did the reading, I was able to do that. The director then said, “is it possible for you to do a north east American accent? Because I’m not sure where we’re going to go with this.”
AW: The “park your car and Harvard Yard?”
BC: Yeah. So I went, well, how does that sound? Because I live in Toronto, this New York there’s, which is different, of course. So I just said, Well, you know, “how does that sound?” And he says, “Well, you know, Canadian, but without the A!” I laughed. It was soon after that I discovered he is, in fact, Canadian, even though the audition was done in New York. And I tried to do this North East American accent and afterwards he looked at me said, “Thank you very much. So that’s what we needed to see.” I realized that I needed to get some training if I was to sing in an opera or musical that had any dialogue.
AW: So most of the listeners here are not opera singers. And in fact, they’re not even singers. And they may not do anything for a living where their voices are explicitly being evaluated. However, in our lives, we are always all being implicitly evaluated across many factors, including our voice. And there are certain times in all of our lives (outside of being on the stage) when we want to sound good. So that could mean young, attractive. Maybe you’re picking up the phone to ask your girlfriend to go on a date, right? You want to sound attractive. Or maybe you’re answering a phone call from a prospective employer and you want to sound confident. So sounding good, could mean attractive. It could mean confident. ,Whatever, whatever it means. Maybe you’re giving a speech. Maybe you’re hosting a podcast? Do you have any general advice for how people can optimize the sound of their voice?
BC: Of course, depending on what people bring to the table, there would be different exercises to work on. But in general advice, my belief is that they should aim for their own voice – their own truth. I think if we aim for this, then they can’t be that interpretation of someone’s putting on, therefore, they’re fake.
AW: So you don’t want to be a fraud.
BC: Exactly. If you’re timid. And so you speak quietly, you then want to start looking at lowering that breath because as soon as your breath is high, and you’re taking shallow breaths… As a singer we’re breathing lower in our abdominals, you know, not into the chest, and if we bring them into the chest, we’ll get this high, high tension, which lacks confidence.
AW: Even just listening to you there. Yeah, sort of a shuddering. It’s a shallow breath versus …
BC: Exactly. And if it’s shallower and if it’s held high, you feel … you probably hear tension in the neck. And of course, the longer we go on like this, the more we get worried. We can, of course, get to a point where we’re hyperventilating or “Okay, I need a breather, I need a water, I need to chill.” So for me, it’s and I can say this: I think of calm blue oceans. Just think about that breath – low, centered. You breathe and you can breathe in through your nose, but I like to breathe through my mouth, simply because I can feel that the larynx sort of drops. Lowers.
BC: It’s not rising, which then gives that high coolness and different throat. Versus when you breathe in your mouth, don’t you the organs to operate as a vacuum. If you allow the breath to be just drawn in and allow the lower abdominal –the belly — to open up right down past your… Yeah, yeah. You find this is freedom, which is why I also like to say: if you’re about to go on and you’re nervous, just do a yawn. And that opens up, you know…
AW: I believe yawning means that your body is craving oxygen. So if you flare your nostrils, and you open your mouth to inhale as deeply as possible. So fake a yawn, oxygenate your blood the same time, open your lungs. Your voice will sound more attractive and more confident.
BC: It’s funny. And again, I can I can say this. Now, as someone who has worked professionally for many years, we do get rejected all the time. And we have to learn to live with it. And the thing about the voice is, it’s unlike any other instrument because the piano, the violin, they are external, but the voice is internal. And so naturally, we have an emotional attachment to it. So when someone criticizes the voice, we feel we are as a person being criticized. We have to then go, “No, it’s not me. It’s how I’m using my instrument.” And some of the best advice that I heard from a director, and excuse my language, this can be edited out –was the attitude “♪ ♪ ♪ !!!!“ So I will walk into an audition and – while I want to be hired, I also go: “this is okay. You know, if I’m not it’s going to be okay.” So and that attitude affects your breathing, your confidence.
AW: Absolutely. Because your emotional state affects the voice, right?
BC: You know, if you’re panicked, it’s going to show up in the voice. Yeah. And no one wants to go to the Metropolitan Opera and pay $250 for a ticket and here’s someone that doesn’t sound right. So someone thinks, “OMG, is she okay?”
AW: No, you’re right. No one wants to hear that. So in addition to breathing deeply and thinking of calm thoughts to optimize the sound of our voice, to make ourselves sound more attractive and more confident…. What about posture? So the way you hold yourself, communicates confidence. What about how it makes your voice sound?
BC: Yeah, well, I will demonstrate now, and you’ll be able to pick some things up. Okay, when your body is stacked, and in alignment, everything can work… as tall as possible. Yeah, I’ll stand for this. Demonstrate. So if I’m standing tall with my feet shoulder width apart, hips relaxed, but then bounced on my feet. And then I’m stepping all the way up to the crown my head, then when I talk, I’m open and free. My breath is moving. I’m allowed to resonate…
AW: Maximizing your lung capacity?
BC: Yeah, everything’s working. And it’s in the state that it should be. When I’m crouched over with my shoulders and I start to go in like this, you will start to hear that it goes further into the throat and I’m trying to contact one because I’m tense here, it tends to lower belly but because of the collapsing of my shoulders inward and because my neck has now been put out of alignment….
AW: You can hear that if you’re standing tall, it’s a much freer sound, right? And you can rely on that when talking to a large audience or just a small one-on-one. So before you pick up the phone to call your prospective fiancé on a date, or you see the phone number on your call display, and it’s your prospective employer and you want to sound confident and or attractive, stand up and stand straight and take a deep breath.
AW: Makes sense.
And going back to what you were asking before as well, regarding a few exercises that you can do. If you are feeling nervous, you’ve done your breathing. You’re going out to speak. If you’re someone who has a breathier quality in the sound or you’re wanting a bit more projection, my advice is you can you know do some tongue trills …
AW: I heard that you can do the tongue trilling. But also put your lips together and bbbbbbbb….
AW: and that pushes the sound forward in your mouth, instead of leaving it at the back. Even if you’re speaking in a shallow tone. Project.
BC: So as a singer of opera, we’re aiming for the Italian School of chiaroscuro – light and dark.
BC: And this is something about resonance as well, is you can have what we call sort of a head voice or a headier quality of the where it doesn’t quite lack the body in the sound. So for me, breathing very higher. You’re in your body, it’s coming from a higher place. So it’s got this light quality, then you’ve got the chest a resonance. We want to have that balance. Then we have a sort of backspace as you mentioned. If you have backspace, you know, oh, you’re not going to then get the projection. So you aim for a bit more forward quality. And when I do this, I try to go to my neighbors. Being from New Zealand, I think of Australians, because they naturally speak with a lot of nasal resonance. I rarely go here, but I try and see how nasal I can go without actually being nasal. It’s like “….”
AW: Ladies and gentlemen, he was plugging his nose when he did that.
BC: So if you plug your nose and you hear that nasal quality, which we’ve all tried as kids. But then you open up the back of it – you’ve got that frontal … that ring but while having backspace, wow.
AW: So you have these options. If you’re walking out and you’re a bit nervous, you can try to have a bit more frontal resonance, bit more in the nose, which can help with projection about clarity of sound. So it sounds like these exercises would improve your range, right? You can you can sing or speak in all these different ways.
BC: Yeah, you wanting to have this chiaroscuro others in your entire range. And we as opera singers try to balance out so that are low notes come out in a similar sound or similar way to the high notes. So we want you know, a voice that’s lined up top to bottom.
AW: It’s integrated.
BC: Yes, exactly. Integrated. Perfect.
AW: I was going to also ask you in addition to body language, can your facial expression change your voice? I’ve heard that at some call centers, they actually have mirrors next to the people who are answering the phone and they’ll tell the telephone operator to look in the mirror and to make sure that they’re smiling. When you’re smiling, you’re happy and therefore you’re more pleasant.
BC: Yes. Well, we talk about it in opera as sort of like an inner smile because you want to have space inside the mouth. You have your hard palate. Then you have the soft palate.
AW: What’s the hot hard palate and the soft palate?
BC: So the hard palate is just behind the teeth. If you take your tongue and you can feel this hard part just there. That is the hard palate. If you take your tongue and go along the roof of your mouth, then you’ll find a fleshy bit. That fleshy bit is the soft palate. You want the soft palate to generally be pronounced. It feels like if you’re sniffing the flower, that elevated position and when you’re singing, you’ll find that you know you’re the uvula (which is the dangly bit in the mouth). It’s generally going to be up. You are wanting this space, this clear passageway, for breath to move and for resonance and South buzz around and come up. So if you’re neutral and you just think yourself, I feel some inner smile… I have no facial expression, but my inside makeup is just up. Like this…
AW: Kind of lazy?
BC: Yes, but if I just do like an inner smile, and I feel like as I said, just sniff the flower …
AW: Is that what you tell your students, “Just sniff a flower?”
BC: Yes. And as a singer you just feel so good.
BC: And a smile, a smile works wonders because then rather than sounding flat because again the sound that we’re looking for…
AW: Wow I’m learning a lot. Plus we just like to see people smile … and it feels nice. The inner smile makes you smile. Outwardly and inwardly.
BC: Yes. Well, and if you don’t mind me using you as an experiment? Just try it Try speaking just, you know, sort of in the back of your throat and just like aim backwards for a second
AW: Okay. Here I am speaking at the back of my throat. I actually feel myself literally pushing my head back…
BC: Can you try and angle it? And you can just speak if you like…
AW: Mm hmm.
BC: And see if you can get a bit more forward and feel sort of vibrations. Start at the back and then move it forward more.
AW: Mm hmm. Yeah.
BC: And you get vibrancy in the front of the face… you didn’t actually bring the vocal folds together…. but that’s okay… Do you feel a vibration?
AW: Yes, in my face. Yeah.
BC: And if you then if you allow the breath to move into it, I find you can speak into that position.
AW: So I feel like I’m shallow talking or shallow breathing right now. Then when I practice that and then bring my diaphragm…
BC: Yeah, right…
AW: Oh boy…. he’s laughing at me!!!
BC: No, no, no, no, no. See, for me, I love discovering people’s voices. What they’re doing, how they work, what’s going on, opening up my eyes, and their eyes to what’s happening. And it’s interesting when people talk about the diaphragm, because it’s one of the things that we talked to. The diaphragm sits up under the ribcage just below the lungs and when the lungs fill with the diaphragm opens up the rib cage on the sides but pushes down on the visceral the contents of a stomach, so the stomach then moves out. But we don’t use the diaphragm to control breathing. So when I breathe in, I’m feeling open in the rib cage. Like your lower risk at the law. Exactly. But I feel like my back, just open the window when I breathe out. So my lower abdominal is drawing in school. And it only starts to sort of release a little towards the end of the breaths. But I don’t want to go and collapse my lungs because then of course, I’m on my throat. So my lungs, I’m always trying to keep open and I’m trying to do everything…
AW: I see. Yes, they work together.
BC: But by isolating that I find I’m able to manage the release of the airflow.
AW: So for some of the deep breathing exercises that I’ve done in a yoga class that I found that really work they talked about thinking about to beach balls. Mm hmm. One is your lower abdomen and one is basically your chest. That’s it.
BC: It’s good to isolate and be able to do that. A tool that I use when I teach my students or when I’m looking at myself is, I raised my arms to the sides. And in doing so I feel that my rib cage opens or right elevates me and then what I do is I would drop my arms – try to keep my rib cage in that elevated position. Then, I check my shoulders because we can hold our shoulders up. My shoulders relax. My rib cage is open. It’s feeling buoyant. And below I feel that my stomach has the luxury to move in and out. There’s less pressure on it, because your lungs are lifted. Your chest has moved. But when we when we giggle you know, it’s all as there. You can feel your lower half.
AW: That sounds like fake laughing…. So we touched on this a little bit earlier when you were talking about performing, but in a general sense, can we wear out our voice? And how do we prevent that from happening?
BC: The voice, you have muscle, you have ligaments and like anything. If you overuse it, it can be worn out as you say. So if you run a marathon you know you don’t want to go up and run another one. It’s the same thing. It’s a coordination.
AW: So for people out there who are speaking a lot (maybe on their jobs), are there other things that they can do other than resting their voice? Things they can drink? Or vitamins and minerals they can take that will help their voice?
BC: I love coffee. I love alcohol, but these dehydrate. And so if I’m on a contract, performing the next day, I’m drinking a lot of water. I never drink alcohol the day before a concert. But you know, during the day, you can, you can definitely think about having lots of water. You can try and look after your body because that is your instrument. But if you’re using your voice a lot, you have to think about the way you’re using it. And one of the major problems that I see in speaking today for some reason, young kids (and I think it’s more prevalent in young girls), think that it’s cool to speak on vocal fry. And so its “How’s it going? Yeah….”
AW: Oh, wow. You’re right. I have heard that. Yeah.
BC: So they’re talking in this vocal fry.
AW: vocal fry?
BC: Yeah. This is manipulating the voice, up and down.
AW: You hear a cracking. It’s like they’re trying to sound sexy or something.
BC: Exactly. And it’s completely tiring.
AW: It’s crackling. it’s friction. That’s what it is. It’s a quick cracking or friction in your voice.
BC: Yeah. You see, these kids were speaking on it and they’re damaging their voices. And the thing that they need to know is, when they go to a job interview, no one likes to hear people speak on vocal fry. It’s a sound that we’re not going to take seriously because we’re just constantly worried about them.
AW: All right, so I’m wondering where this vocal fry trend in young women’s voices… Where did that come from? Is it from characters we’ve seen in movies and on TV?
BC: Yeah, what’s around us has to play a part and I think the pop culture ….
AW: Have you ever watched that CBC sitcom called Schitz Creek? I’ve seen it a couple times. The daughter on that show (whom I think is a great actress), she’s acting a stereotype, but she does it in a very engaging way, in my opinion. But she certainly speaks with that. She says “Mom…. Okay, whatever. Yeah, not listening to this…” She is embodying a cultural stereotype that exists right now. But she is also propagating it . I hadn’t thought of that – they’re actually damaging their vocal cords. Okay, back to the efficiency of the voice!
BC: You’ve listened to a child scream. A child, a baby ,doesn’t think about the way that they sound. They don’t. They just scream. You can hear the sound . It travels for miles. Does the voice tire? No. You watch how the body works and their belly. They breathe into the belly. And that’s their support mechanism. They’re working as the body intended.
AW: So we unlearn that?
BC: Yeah. So as we get older, whether it’s through the environment we live in, or through conditioning. We prefer lower, quiet voices. So we tell the kids, “Be quiet, be quiet.” So you can put restraints on yourself in opera or in classical singing. I like to think that I’m trying to go back to my baby state of allowing the voice to function as it was designed.
AW: Interesting. It seems like our voices get deeper and deeper as we age. Is that because our vocal cords are wearing out?
BC: Naturally as we get older, our voices lengthen. So when you’re a child, you’re going to have that really high-pitched sound. When we go through, we go through the sort of rapid change. Women, as they go through puberty, their voices a little. From what I’ve read, it gets lower, but then as we get towards the end of life (or the geriatric age )your voice actually starts to go up.
AW: Is that right? That’s interesting.
BC: The voice is constantly evolving. That is why I love singing and practicing. As I said, unlike a piano, unlike a violin, where the instruments made up… As a singer we have to learn how to play our instrument. But at the same time we have to build our instrument. Every day we are putting it together because the way our vocal folds act when we’re 15 is completely different from when we are 30!
AW: Okay I’m going to ask you the five rapid fire questions now that I asked every guest. The first one is what are your pet peeves:
BC: I think my pet peeve is the subway system. You know we are higher intellectual animals. But I feel that trying to get on a subway, we lose all base of humanity. I’ve seen old women be run over by guys just trying to make the subway. The next train’s only 10 minutes away. We act like cattle …
AW: okay now what type of learner are you? Do you gravitate to visual, auditory, which is what I would expect given your career…?
BC: Visual. I know I’m a visual learner. When someone talks to me and they’re trying to explain something, I will at some point switch out where I do need to read it because I’m also as a learner, a bit of an introvert. I like to figure things out by myself. But then there’s is nothing like kinesthetic – just getting up and doing it because in the act of doing it, you learn.
AW: It sounds like you internalize that learning across the different categories of learning styles. That may actually be the most efficient and effective way to learn. So in answering that question you answered maybe part of the third question, which is: introvert or extrovert? You said you may learn best as an introvert.
BC: Yes, I think fundamentally, I’m an introvert, but I think everyone has different characteristics of both and where we get our energies. I’m happy to get my energies from being alone.
AW: My fourth question is, what is your communication preference for personal conversations?
BC: The way we communicate with technology is fascinating because you can write it and not deal with it, you can just send a message go off and do what you’re doing. Come back – great! things get sorted. But if you’re having to sort something out, I much prefer talking to somebody because one, it’s much more efficient…
AW: I knew you were gonna say that. You’re all about efficiency.
BC: Efficient, it’s faster, but also there’s no chance for miscommunication. You know, people read things and emails that necessarily there or they perceive things in a particular way or at the tone of voice, right? You know, and so actually just talking to somebody, you have more cues.
AW: the last question is, is there a podcast or a blog or an email newsletter that you find yourself recommending to other people?
BC: So I’m always looking at the New Zealand Herald or, you know, the New Zealand version of msn.co.nz. So I get all the updates and I check it every day. So I know what’s happening.
AW: Is there anything else you want to add? So anything that we missed that you were hoping you would have the opportunity to share with the listeners?
BC: I think we communicate on a daily basis. We interact with people and I think we need to be aware of how we interact, how we communicate. And so by being aware of how our voices working and what we are doing can only help the way we interact and communicate with others in the way we’re perceived yeah and want to be perceived.
AW: Nicely put. My last question then is how can listeners connect with you?
BC: Well I have my website which is https://BradleyChristensenBaritone.com , and that has all my professional engagements that I have coming up. I have a bio on there and of course there is a contact page there where I can be contacted. I’m also on Facebook, because I know that that’s way that we have to communicate in today’s world.
AW: So I’ll put the link up for both your website and your Facebook page on the shownotes. Thank you so much, Bradley for sharing your time and your expertise and your voice with us.
BC: Oh, no. Thank you for having me.
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