Let me make myself clear!

A new book by singer and voice teacher Nira Gal offers exercises and tips for treating hoarseness.

hoarse 311 (photo credit: courtesy)
hoarse 311
(photo credit: courtesy)
Step into a shopping mall or anywhere else where there are massive numbers of people and pay attention to their voices. If Nira Gal – a singer and longtime speech-development teacher – is correct, seven out of 10 suffer from hoarseness. But unless surgery or another invasive medical procedure is needed to remove a polyp or callus from the vocal cords, a series of exercises can be learned “to heal your voice and maintain a healthy, clear voice.”
That is the subtitle of her new Hebrew-language, softcover book called Tzridut (Hoarseness). The 221- page, NIS 75 volume, published by Diyunon and Probook (www.probook.co.il), is illustrated by dozens of photographs of Gal in black leotards as she demonstrates the facial and body exercises.
The author, an authorized voice teacher at the Beit Zvi acting school, previously taught would-be TV and radio announcers at the Tel Aviv Communications College, studied voice under Lola Shanzer and over the past 20 years developed her own techniques to preserve and treat strained voices. Among her private students have been cantors and other singers, lawyers, school and kindergarten teachers, voice-over narrators and managers. The book was endorsed by ear-noseand- throat specialist Dr. Benjamin Negris of Tel Aviv University’s Sackler Medical Faculty.
GAL SUGGESTS that hoarseness begins in kindergarten. “If the kindergarten teacher is hoarse, the whole class is. Then in school, the teacher is [likely to be] hoarse, and her speech accompanied by much tension. As a result, the whole class is hoarse, tense and unable to concentrate properly. And at home, if the parents yell, the children will as well.”
Another major factor is the ignorance of most people on how to carry their bodies. “Eighty percent of my students came to me without any knowledge of how to organize their body properly. They suffered from posture problems, holding their head in a way that led to back pains, shallow breathing and then voice problems,” she notes.
Many hoarse voices also result from difficulty with phonetics. When a musical instrument is (hopelessly) broken, she adds. “we buy a new one, but when our voices break down, we can’t replace them. The instrument is built into our bodies, connected to the brain and nervous system and influenced by mood, tension and hormonal changes.
When we are tense, our brain immediately radiates tension to the muscles.”
Thus, the many exercises Gal suggests for repairing hoarse voices involve not only the mouth, throat, lungs and neck but the whole body, and photographs show her “pushing” walls, standing up and reaching for her toes and raising herself with her arms from a sitting position on a bench. She recommends exercising about an hour a day, but at different times and not all at once. Breathing exercises should get five to 10 minutes daily, while the same amount of time is usually needed for talking or singing while holding the tongue with a clean towel.
Relaxation exercises require 20 minutes a day, and if you follow Gal’s recommendations, you’ll be mooing like a cow for five to 10 minutes daily. There are also special exercises for “lazy tongue,” vocal tiredness, shallow breathing and the failure of the vocal cords to open and close properly. The author contends that if one stops exercising the voice, there is a high likelihood that hoarseness will return because the person returns to his old bad habits.
NUMEROUS ANATOMICAL drawings are devoted to the “true” vocal cords (or vocal folds) – two sections of mucous membrane stretched horizontally across the larynx to create the voicebox. When a person breathes, the cords open to let in air, but when one speaks or sings, they move towards each other and vibrate, controlling the flow of air released by the lungs. The pitch of one’s voice is largely set by the frequency of their oscillation. The average man has a lower voice because of low-frequency oscillation, followed by a woman’s, whose oscillation frequency is higher, and high-pitched children, whose vibrations occur at more than twice the frequency of a man’s.
The endless variations in voice result from differences in the length, thickness and other properties of the vocal cords.
There are also thick and less-delicate “false” or vestibular folds that protect and sit adjacent to the “true” cords; they help produce deeper tones and grunting sounds. Also involved in speaking is the epiglottis, the “trap door” on top of the trachea (wind tube) that opens and closes to keep a person from choking while swallowing food or drink.
Gal lists a number of common causes of hoarseness: poor body structure; shouting instead of talking calmly; speaking in a pitch that is far from one’s natural pitch; speaking with a rise in pitch at the end of sentences, as if they were questions; strong coughing or laughter; excessive phlegm in the throat; too much speaking as in a classroom; stress from speaking before a crowd or in public places; incessant yakking on the phone; emotional problems; smoking and drinking excess alcohol or caffeine; eating before going to sleep; taking certain medications; exposure to polluted air or too-dry or humid air; inadequate sleep; lifting heavy weights; excessive playing of wind instruments; and hearing problems.
In addition, a variety of medical conditions including influenza and other viral infections can lead to hoarseness. So can the reflux of acid from the stomach into the throat; calluses, cysts, polyps or malignant tumors on the vocal cords; hematomas (collection of blood outside a blood vessel) within the cords, edema (swelling) and paralysis of the cords; asthma; pneumonia; and the inability of the cords to close properly during speech.
A person’s posture is correct when the spinal column is in a relaxed, S shape. Poor, unhealthy posture is rigid, with the skull pulled back and the back in an I shape or when standing stooped in a hunchback; these are not conducive to a clear voice.
The top of the head, the ear and the shoulder should be positioned at 90-degree angles. The neck should be straight, while the jaw must be parallel to the floor to maximize the potential of the voice.
THIRTEEN EXERCISES for the jaw, including one using a ruler, are illustrated by photographs. A dozen exercises are offered to improve posture. An amazing variety of 47 different exercises, some using a stick or chair, are presented by Gal to improve breathing. To improve control of the tongue, the reader is shown how to hold it down with a towel. These exercises are best done in the morning after the completion of breathing exercises. She even suggested well-known Hebrew children’s songs for singing while the tongue is held captive.
Then there are facial muscle and lip exercises, some of them amusing because they make you look like a fish, whistle, gargle, pull the nose to one side of the face or another or sound like a horse. But they are all beneficial, writes the Gal, for treating hoarseness.
Even yawning, humming and sighing exercise can improve one’s performance. How to practice vowels and consonants is explained in detail, and speaking into a lit candle is suggested.
It is very important to find one’s own “natural tone of speech,” says Gal, who says many cases of hoarseness result from people setting an artificial tone because they want to change their image. Women with a low voice naturally try to raise it, and men with high-pitched voices want to lower theirs. Once you discover your natural pitch, you can slowly lower or raise what you have used that has hurt your throat and vocal cords.
To determine your natural pitch, she writes, put your thumb and pinky of one hand on the upper lip under the nose and locate the nasal bone. Choose a tone and sound out a mmmmmm sound with a closed mouth. Place the fingernail of the index finger of your other hand on the front of your throat to make sure you haven’t put too much pressure on it. The fingers placed on the nose and upper lip can feel the vibrations from each; if they are equal in strength, you have found your natural pitch. But if you sound various tones and don’t feel that the vibrations from the nose and lips are equal, try another pitch. If you have difficulty trying different tones, says Gal, try getting accompaniment from a piano, flute or another instrument.
If you are still unsuccessful, you can also try making sounds while simulating the chewing of food. “These are the basis of human language” from which ancient man speech developed, she writes. Chew three times while sounding out mmmmmm in one flow, moving the lips forward as in a whistle. Say “mayim mishamayim” in that same tone, and what will come out naturally with the consonant M is one’s natural pitch, the author says. Most people, using one of these techniques, can easily find it.
NEAR THE END, Gal presents Hebrew texts for reading out and practicing in one’s natural pitch, but any text can be used. She also recommends placing notes on your bathroom mirror, computer screen or refrigerator to remind you to inhale and exhale long breaths with S sounds in through your nose, or to speak at your natural pitch, for example.
If you have done the recommended exercises and the hoarseness does not disappear within two weeks, go to a physician, asserts Gal. Medications should be taken only with a prescription. If healed, she proposes continuation of the exercises and a number of natural “remedies” from lemon and honey to steam inhalation, green tea and fresh ginger.
The book ends with a list of questions and answers, including the denial of a number of myths about hoarseness. Milk doesn’t always cause phlegm, she writes; a very hot or cold drink is not beneficial; whispering is not good when hoarse, as it causes excessive stress on the vocal cords; heavy meals are a burden to the voice because the diaphragm rises and makes breathing more difficult.
Finally, says Gal, speak gently, as if you are singing.
Breathe after every seven words. Speak with a wide-open mouth. Don’t shout from room to room. Don’t wear tight clothing or belts that press on the stomach and interfere with blood circulation. Try to be silent when you have a viral infection. Avoid both active and passive smoking.
Keep your teeth healthy. And follow a healthful lifestyle of good nutrition, exercise and posture.
If you follow all the rules, you should be singing like a canary.