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:



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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


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