Tuesday, April 30, 2019
There are some weeks when I'm pretty sure that no one else at my law school talks more than I do. Given that law schools are full of lawyers, this is a pretty audacious claim. But two or three times each semester, I encounter a perfect storm of ASP responsibilities -- I have classes to teach, I meet with the students from those classes for one-on-one discussions, I participate in administrative meetings, and I have drop-in visits from or appointments with other students seeking individual counseling -- and my entire work week, from morning to night, is chockablock with lectures and chats and debates and advising. Usually, by Tuesday afternoon, I can feel my vocal cords growing fatigued and irritated. I have discovered that if I just try to soldier on, then before the week is out, those little laryngeal muscles will seize up like an old pick-up truck engine, and suddenly I will be flapping my jaw uselessly, with nothing but a breathy wheeze coming out.
It is very hard to explain to a student how to think like a lawyer when you sound like a strangled serpent.
The fact is that teachers of all kinds are among those most at risk for developing voice problems. This might in part be because they work in schools, which are really just giant Petri dishes for the cultivation of upper respiratory infections. But the biggest threat to our voices could merely be overuse. Vocal cords are really just small, thin muscles, and we make them work to produce sound by forcing air between them until they vibrate audibly. Every syllable we utter arises from a bit of violence we do to our selves. Too much violence can damage the vocal cords, sometimes even permanently.
So it makes sense to try to find ways to treat our vocal cords more kindly. There are many things you can do to ease the strain you impose on your voice box. Some might become permanent habits; others you can use when you start to feel a little raspy, or maybe even just before a garrulously busy week starts:
- Keep your vocal cords moist. When vocal cords become dehydrated, they are more easily irritated. So drink plenty of water -- keep a cup or bottle on hand in the office or wherever you might expect to have to speak at any length. Also, certain chemicals, like alcohol, caffeine, and some cold medicines, can dry out your vocal cords. All things in moderation, generally, of course, but when you know you've got a talk-heavy week coming up, you might want to take a pass on coffee in the morning and wine in the evening. (Or vice versa, for that matter.)
- Avoid irritants. The effects of too much talking can be intensified by agents that make the vocal cords more sensitive. Cigarette smoke, both first- and second-hand, is an obvious example. But in addition to thinking about what you breathe, you should also consider what you eat. Aromatic and spicy foods carry the risks not only of irritating the throat on the way down, but also causing stomach upset and reflux that might also irritate the throat on the way out. Of course, food is not supposed to go down the windpipe, so direct irritation of the vocal cords is less common (though possible). A bigger issue is irritation of the throat above the larynx, which can lead to coughing, which directly assaults the vocal cords. Similarly, it is a good idea to avoid milk and dairy products, not because they are directly harmful, but because they can coat the throat, prompting you to try to clear it, which can also irritate the vocal cords. (If you ever feel the urge to clear your throat with a rumbling bark, hold off, and instead see if you can clear the irritation by opening your mouth wide and alternately breathing deeply through your nose and then exhaling, steadily and forcefully but not explosively, through your mouth, making the "h" sound as you do.) Of course, try not to get sick, too, because illness can be an irritant.
- Rest your vocal cords. It is often right to remain silent, but during busy times, it may not always be possible. Still, what you do outside the office can help rest your voice as well. When work is vocally busy, try to avoid scheduling other responsibilities that might require extensive speaking. Get rest at home -- minimize conversation and get good sleep. In the long term, regular exercise can help develop stamina, even in the vocal cords, so that you can talk longer before your throat starts to feel irritated.
- Soothe your throat. Along with having water at hand, keep some cough drops, mints, or even certain fruits at hand. Eating or sucking on these will stimulate the production of saliva, which keeps the vocal cords moist. Also, consider drinking herbal teas with soothing ingredients like chamomile or slippery elm bark. Traditional Medicinals "Throat Coat" is a pleasant choice.
- Use healthy speaking techniques. Since in many cases we are not going to be able to avoid frequent speaking, it's a good idea to learn how to speak in the least irritating way for your vocal cords. Sit up straight and don't slouch; good posture opens up the airway and relieves pressure on the larynx. Avoid yelling, and avoid whispering -- both put unnecessary stress on your vocal cords. Instead, try always to speak in a conversational tone of voice, but try to take deep breaths and to exhale using your diaphragm and your chest to produce sound, not just your throat. This takes some of the strain off your vocal cords. Finally, if you do lecture, don't eschew the use of a microphone, when available. Yes, your stentorian voice can reach the back of the lecture hall, but you may pay for it later when you are trying to reach to person seated across the desk.