Ear training–How well can you hear yourself?

If you are trying to change an aspect of your sound—be it related to accent, voice quality, articulation, phrasing, or tone of voice, you need to be able to hear yourself accurately to be successful.  Many people are alarmed when they hear how they sound on a recording.  However, as I mentioned in my last post, becoming aware of your sound is a necessary step in learning any new speech motor skill.

Why is accurate auditory self-perception difficult?  Because we hear our own voices differently than others hear it.  That is because we hear it internally via bone conduction and externally via air conduction.  If you plug your ears and talk you may not hear the sounds around you, but you can hear your own talking.

Here are three ideas to improve your auditory perception:

  1. Record yourself and observe what you hear.  Prepare to feel uneasy but trust the process.
  2. Tune into how your speech and voice feels.  Exaggerate the sound you wish to change and focus on it with curiosity.  Experience its quality, movement, vibration, opening, and points of contact.  Notice how the sound changes if you adjust your tongue position, mouth opening, breathing, or other speech-related action.
  3. Listen carefully to others.  Observe their voices and speech patterns.

After you connect the dots between the sound of your recorded voice versus your spoken voice and the feeling of your voice versus the sound, and you have developed your ear to more keenly perceive others’
voices, challenge yourself further:  Be aware of your sound as you speak.  Of course, speech is first and foremost about communication—don’t analyze your voice all of the time.  But in select situations, with certain people, or a few minutes several times a day, tune in and become an expert on your own sound.

Posted on 22 June 2011 | Category: Accent, auditory perception, Communication, General, Speech, Speech production, Voice


Unconscious Competence

Do you know about the consciousness-competence matrix?  It is a theory of learning that outlines our path from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to conscious competence and finally to unconscious competence.

In other words, before we begin to gain a new skill, we are unaware of our inability to successfully complete it.  I recently worked with Margaret, who wanted to improve the sound of her voice.  After facilitating a webinar she listened to the recording and was dismayed; she didn’t realize her voice sounded so harsh and nasal.  This movement from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence is often what prompts people to seek training.  My first approach is to help clients become even more aware of their current skill level.  Sometimes they perceive that they are getting worse when they are simply becoming more conscious of their incompetence.

Spirits lift when they move toward competence, albeit a competence that can only be achieved using a high level of focus.  Because we have limited cognitive resources, this is often where training and therapy fail.  We are successful when we are earnestly practicing, but once we enter the real world, we cannot maintain our focus.

Ultimately we want to reach the state of unconscious competence, which is another word for habit.  The good news is that our brains are able to create new pathways with the right input.  Do you know the saying “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”?  I disagree.  A neurologist I know has turned this idea on its head.  He says, “Any dog, any age, any trick.”  So don’t ever think that you are too old or a skill is too difficult.  With consistent practice and patience, you can move from unconscious incompetence to conscious competence.

For more on the four stages of competence, visit:



Check out our accent modification courses for this summer.  We are also providing additional videoconference options so that you can take advantage of communication training from anywhere in the world.  From now through August, we are offering 10% off any videoconference package of 10 hours or greater.  Try it for free.  Email us or call 630-435-5622 for more information.

Posted on 6 June 2011 | Category: Accent, Communication, General, speaking, Voice


You Sound Tired!

We all have days when we drag ourselves out of bed and seem to sleepwalk through the day.  I am no longer able to pull “all-nighters” common in my college days, though having children has been a long-term commitment to sleep deprivation!  I know very well what my “tired voice” feels like:  It is rough, breathy and quiet.  I don’t breathe as deeply or project my sound. 

Researchers have been looking into the effects of fatigue on voice and speech in an interesting study.  Read an article about this study or view the abstract from the scholarly publication.  Participants were required to stay awake for 24 hours and were periodically recorded completing speech tasks such as counting, reading, and sustaining vowels.  The researchers measured speech rate, pause length, data relating to variation in quality, and other speech and voice elements.  They found that as time went on, the participants’ speech rates slowed, pauses got longer, and quality variation increased.  An explanation offered by one of the researchers, Dr. Adam Vogel,  is that we lose control of speech and voice muscles as we become more tired.

If today is one of those days for you, a great way to warm-up your voice is with the lip trill.  Also called the “raspberry”, the lip trill takes the pressure off of your vocal folds and allows you to efficiently connect your breath to your sound while exploring pitch freely.  I have a client who has always hated her voice, especially in the morning.  It used to take her several hours to “wake up” vocally.  This exercise helps her quickly and gently wake her “morning voice”.  What works for you?

Abstract citation:

Acoustic analysis of the effects of sustained wakefulness on speech
J. Acoust. Soc. Am. 128, 3747 (2010)

Posted on 28 February 2011 | Category: General, Presentation, Singing, speaking, Voice


Benefits of having an accent

We all have accents.  If you have traveled even within your own country you have probably noticed differences in the speech patterns of others, and they have probably noticed yours.  The sounds and patterns of our speech constitute our accent. 

At The Sound Center, we work with many people who want to modify their accents.  Some want to be more intelligible using American English.  However, most want to preserve their native sound to some degree. 

Do you speak with a foreign accent in respect to those around you?  Accents can cause communication breakdowns, but they also can be beneficial.  If you have an accent, you immediately tell those around you that you speak more than one language.  It is likely that people who speak American English are monolingual.  You are telling people that you have experiences beyond the US just by speaking a few words.  These experiences have shaped you and made you unique, cosmopoitan, and bilingual…or trilingual…or multilingual.

You may have to repeat yourself frequently.  You may experience communication breakdowns.  Everyone does.  The way you deal with them will influence whether your accent benefits you or not.  When someone asks you what you said, the natural direct response is simply to repeat what you said.  You may repeat yourself more slowly or clearly, and that may suffice.  Rephrasing your message and using different words to say the same thing, takes a bit more thinking but can be much more effective.  Other strategies that can help are spelling key words from your message or writing your message.  You can increase your chance of success if you can control the environment: minimize background noise and distractions.  If you cannot, move closer to your listener and maximize eye contact.

Another challenge is managing the perceptions of others if you make pronunciation or grammatical errors.  Being proactive in acknowledging your errors is a mark of a great communicator and a mature individual.  Using humor can be very effective.  Of course you have an accent.  Of course you will make mistakes.  Seek to deliver your message instead of seeking perfection. 

In the global marketplace, people are becoming increasingly tolerant of accents.  They are also getting better at comprehending them.  Communication is a two-way street.  However, if you want to contribute your ideas to the conversation, if you want to be heard and respected, if you have a lot to say, you understand that you can only control yourself.  You can become more intelligible to others and increase your impact as you exchange ideas.

Posted on 18 January 2011 | Category: Accent, Communication, General


Setting the record straight

Being featured in the Fox News story (Job Seekers Lose Accents to Get Jobs) was exciting, but I want to share my opinions about a couple of things. Your comments are encouraged!

1. Costs for training at The Sound Center vary. We offer free workshops, special promotions, and group classes, all of which bring costs down. The message and accompanying graphic used in the story (‘MORE THAN $100 AN HOUR’) was misleading. In fact, we have a promotion going on through the end of this month that takes $100 off the first month of training.
2. The last comment of the story was that training could be detrimental if it makes a person feel so different that they lose confidence. In fact, we help clients communicate the way they want and we emphasize that to be effective, communication has to be authentic and real. We would never train someone to be robotic and fake–that wouldn’t be effective! Increased confidence is a natural result of the work and change clients do. And of course, some clients realize they are happy communicating in their habitual way. We consider it a success when we have provided choices for communication, and clients follow their values to make the best choices for themselves.

What do you think?

Posted on 24 January 2010 | Category: General


Turn Your Accent into an Asset – New Event

A free workshop will be offered on January 11, 2010 for people who speak with a foreign accent and would like to be more intelligible in American English.  Check out our Events Page for more information.

Posted on 17 December 2009 | Category: Accent, General


Code Switching

You do not have to inspire large groups of people, speak poetically, or weave elaborate stories in order to be an effective communicator.  The results of our daily interactions are a better measure of our ability to communicate.  One aspect of communication that most of us use is called code switching.  This is the ability to alternate between languages, dialects, and communication styles to fit the audience or situation.  


Conversations can be altered entirely or within sentences.  Alterations can be made to vocabulary and grammar, as well as to nonverbal aspects of comunication like voice, articulation, and body language.  The most obvious situations where this strategy is used are among multi-lingual and multicultural societies, such as the United States. Check out this YouTube video about how advertisers are using code switching to sell their products.   


Sometimes code switching can lead to funny situations:  If you have spent time with family or friends who communicate differently than your professional associates, you are likely to bring words and sounds particular to that experience back to work with you.  One time I was checking out after an appointment.  There were papers to sign and dates to confirm and when we were finished, I said in a chirpy, peppy voice with a bright smile, “All done?”  This came directly from my experience as a new mom…the sleep deprivation also contributed.


During training, clients will make faster progress if they primarily use their target communication style.  This may mean limiting their native language use and code switching behavior.  However, this is not always possible or desirable.  It is important for each person to make conscious choices about how they want to communicate in different situations;  important but challenging.


How do you use code switching?  Have you seen others effectively (or ineffectively) use code switching?

Posted on 8 December 2009 | Category: Accent, Communication, General


Caring for Your Voice

Most of us have experienced voice problems in our lives. After I got laryngitis as a high school student, upper respiratory infections tend to migrate to my larynx as a matter of course. However, many people experience vocal difficulties on a regular basis. Hoarseness, vocal fatigue, difficulty projecting voice and pain affect some people every time they open their mouths to speak. Others only experience problems after extended or extreme voice use. Below are some tips to prevent voice problems:

A Well-Oiled Machine
* Drink plenty of water.  Also hydrate before and during extended periods of vocal use, which make you more prone to damage and fatigue.  Sip water throughout the day if at all possible.
* Limit alcohol and caffeine intake–both increase urination and can dry out your vocal folds.  They can also exacerbate reflux which can severely irritates your larynx.
* Include ‘wet foods’ in your diet–soup, fruit and decaffeinated beverages.
* Use a humidifier during the winter or in dry climates. The National Institute of Health recommends 30% humidity.
* Know your Rx’s side-effects–some medications, such as antihistamines, may dry out the throat.  If you are unsure, check this list of the 200 most frequently prescribed medicines and their effects on the voice available at the website for the National Center for Voice and Speech. Also, ask your physician about the drying effects of your medications.

You (and Your Voice) are What You Eat
* Don’t eat 3-4 hours before bed–besides helping control your weight, this will reduce the potential for heartburn or reflux.
* Eat whole grains, fruits and vegetables–these contain vitamins A, E and C to help keep the mucus membranes of the throat healthy.
* Avoid spicy and acidic foods if you have a problem with reflux.
* Limit oily foods and dairy products, especially just prior to heavy voice use. These foods, such as mayonnaise, increase the tendency to clear your throat, which can contribute to vocal cord damage.
* Reflux that affects the voice is called Laryngopharyngeal Reflux (LPR). People with LPR frequently do not experience heartburn or other classic symptoms of Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD). If your voice is worse in the morning, if spicy, acidic, or fatty foods make your voice worse, if you belch a lot, or if your throat is chronically sore, see a laryngologist. If LPR is diagnosed, follow recommendations even when you feel better and discontinue medications based on your physician’s recommendation.  

Support Your Voice
* Practice good breathing techniques–use deep, relaxed breaths from the diaphragm. As you speak or sing, your abdominal muscles should be engaged (but not rock hard!) and should move inward. To take a breath, relax your abdomen; it will move in an outward direction and breath will come into your body easily.  
* Talking “from the throat” puts a great strain on the voice.  When you speak, you should feel no sensation in your throat. 

All Natural
* Use your natural tone–good voices are “placed” in the face and emphasize facial resonance. Practice saying “mm hmm”. Note the vibration in your face and the ease in your throat. That’s your natural tone. Don’t drop your voice to your throat to achieve a more authoritative tone or a lower pitch.  There are much better ways to do this!

Know When Enough is Enough
* Avoid hyperfunctional overuse–screaming, speaking too loudly or using a telephone too often (we often speak louder on the phone). Avoid noisy places where you will have to strain your voice to be heard.
* Recognize when your voice needs a rest and take it.
* At the podium–When making a presentation to a large group or in a difficult acoustic environment, use a microphone if available.  Project your voice in a healthy way.

Cleanliness is Next to Tonality
* Limit throat-clearing –When you clear your throat, your vocal cords squeeze together and air is pushed through.  This can result in irritation and damage. Try swallowing, humming, taking a deep breath, yawning, or taking a drink of water instead.
* Wash your hands to prevent the spread of colds and flu.
* Gargle–a solution of a teaspoon of salt and a teaspoon of baking soda dissolved in a cup of warm water washes away phlegm, allergens, and other irritants. Avoid mouthwash that contains alcohol. If your mouthwash use is for persistent bad breath (halitosis), you should see a health care professional as halitosis may be a sign of low grade infection or gastric reflux.
* Use a Neti Pot for sinus health. Though it may seem strange to flush water (warm salt water, actually)  through your nose, it is gaining popularity because of its effectiveness and ease. You can get a Neti Pot at drug stores, health food stores, or online.
* Don’t smoke–breathing in toxins of any kind is damaging. Avoid smoky, dusty and chemical-laden places.

Frankie Goes to the Masseuse…and to the Trainer
* Relax–tension in your upper body compresses the airwaves causing hoarseness and other damage.
* Do a vocal warm up–there are many exercises that can help you warm up and develop your voice, but nothing works for everyone. Try lip trills (brrrrrr) and gentle upward and downward pitch glides on ooh as in “too” and on mmmmm (a hum). Nothing you do with your voice should hurt.
* Work with a voice professional, such as a speech pathologist who specializes in voice, a voice teacher or voice coach.
* Don’t cradle the phone between the head and shoulder–this can cause muscle tension in the neck after extended periods.
* Exercise–increases stamina, muscle tone and overall well-being. Helps provide good posture. Allow your body to breathe naturally.

Additional information:

Self Help for Vocal Heath from the National Center for Voice and Speech

Vocal Warm-Ups  from NY Eye and Ear Infirmary

Taking Care of Your Voice from National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders

Posted on 24 August 2009 | Category: General, Singing, speaking, Voice


Chicago Tribune writer picks Chicago a cappella

Chicago a cappella’s upcoming concerts of French vocal music were at the top of John von Rhein’s classical music picks in The Chicago Tribune today . Concerts begin this weekend in Oak Park and Chicago, and next weekend will be held in Evanston and Naperville.  The Naperville location was omitted from the article.  For complete concert details, visit Wednesday’s blogpost or the Chicago a cappella website.

Posted on 17 April 2009 | Category: General


World Voice Day

Today is World Voice Day! Celebrate your voice, which is a powerful tool for delivering messages, an infinitely expressive instrument to convey your emotions, and a canvas for vocal artists to create beauty and evoke reactions.  Whose voices do you admire? Who has had an effect on you by using their voice to say words you needed to hear? Today is the day to honor those people in your hearts and minds, and if you wish, here. I invite you to post a comment, tell a story, or share your list of people whose voices you really like.

Learn more about World Voice Day, including its history and purpose, and link to exercises and information about the voice.  Click here, and turn on your speakers to hear the word “voice” spoken in many of the world’s languages.

Posted on 16 April 2009 | Category: Communication, General, Presentation, Singing, Voice