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On the Nose

by Julia Sneden

 

Her voice was ever soft, gentle and low; an excellent thing in a woman.

King Lear, Act V scene iii

 

Is it just me, or has anyone else noticed a rising pitch and increasing nasality in the speech of American women? I know that the Brits have long twitted us, male as well as female, about what they call our twang, but I’m not talking about pronunciation. I’m talking about vocal production that is so piercing that it makes the hearer wince.

Perhaps it’s just the Hannah Montana effect, with every young woman trying to sound like one of those effusive, pop-star teenyboppers, but it is no longer just the youngsters who are driving me crazy.

Female newscasters are particularly annoying. The nasal whine makes it almost impossible to hear the news because you’re so turned off by the voices. Out of five or six newswomen, our local television station has just two with pleasing voices and expressive delivery. It is interesting to note that they are a bit older (more mature) than their fellow reporters.

Our traffic reporter is an absolute disaster, rattling off accident locations so fast that she can’t be understood, in a nasal, shotgun delivery that splinters the airwaves. Usually she is too busy cracking jokes to pay much attention to the traffic news she is supposed to deliver, so I suppose it hardly matters that her “information” is useless. But for this she gets paid?

Let’s take a moment to remember and mourn the late Pauline Frederick. For those of you too young to remember Pauline, she was one of the first network female reporters, possessed of a calm voice and precise diction that greatly enhanced her impeccable coverage and discussion of the news. You didn’t miss a word when Pauline was at the microphone.

Perhaps I should be fussing about the executives who hire the whiners, or about the colleges that produce so many inept “TV/communications” majors. Do they do nothing but teach young women how to dress? Does someone lecture on the need to be a particular shade of blonde? Most of their graduates look well-groomed and glowingly coifed, but why is there no one listening to those young women and fixing their impossible voices?

When I was about ten (far too many years ago), I was required to take speech lessons because I spoke so rapidly that my teachers claimed no one could understand me. I was indignant, but showed up during my erstwhile recess period as commanded. My teacher, a kind young woman, had in her little office what was probably one of the first reel-to-reel tape recorders, and she asked me to read a paragraph aloud.

I’ll show her, I thought, and took a big breath. I read in my very best classroom voice, careful (I thought) to read slowly and enunciate clearly. I put the book down and she rewound the tape in order to play it back.

What a shock! I’m told it is always surprising to hear one’s voice for the first time, because it is not the same pitch you hear from inside as your voice resonates in your own head. But in that little classroom, I heard a high-pitched, loud blur of words that even I, who had spoken them, could not understand.

There followed a couple of months of twice-a-week lessons in voice control: lowering the register; enunciating clearly; controlling the volume; supporting the voice by correct breathing; opening the back of the throat to avoid nasality; flexibility of pitch; reading aloud to convey meaning; reading aloud to entertain, etc. Each lesson concluded with another session on the tape, and even I could hear the improvement from lesson to lesson. For a ten-year-old, it was hard work, but oh, the rewards.

Later, in college, I spent some time on stage, and learned also how to project my voice without straining it. I keep in my mind an amazing actress I knew who could whisper on stage and somehow be heard clearly in the back row of the house seats. I’ve never managed that, but it gives me something to aspire to.

I am convinced that those lessons in controlling my voice were among the best things that ever happened to me. Certainly my teaching career wouldn’t have gone very far without them.

A friend who teaches speech tells me that one can, at any age, undertake to improve one’s voice. Now all we have to do is figure out a way to convince whoever hires those shrieking newswomen to send them out for some voice training. Get with it, people: the time to act is now! (send a printout of this column to your local TV station and keep your fingers crossed)

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