For me and for many Italians, February is the month of song. It is the month of the renowned Festival of San Remo, the yearly song competition in that officially began in 1951 in beautiful the coastal city of San Remo in the northwest Italy, known also for its extraordinary 19th century villas, lush tropical gardens, and celebratory flower parade for which it has been given the nickname “City of Flowers”. Acclaimed actress/singer Adionilla (aka Nilla) Pizzi stole hearts and took the winning spot at that first San Remo Festival, with the song “Grazie dei Fiori” (Thanks for the Flowers). In her delivery, you could feel Pizzi’s heartfelt emotions, with which she thanks her ex-lover for sending her flowers, while at the same time acknowledging their final “good-bye”. Her voice was rather soft, breathy, sensual, and genuine. The beauty of her vocal tone brought those written lyrics to life and resonated with so many of us who can relate to the bittersweet moments of the good-byes we are commonly faced with in our lives.
While Nilla eventually came to be praised by Italian president Giorgio Napolitano citing her “sensitive interpretations of Italian traditional melodic song”, there was a time when the singer was kept from doing radio work during the Fascist regime, because her voice was deemed to be too “sensual” and “exotic”.
Our voice, whether singing or speaking, can be a powerful instrument of self-expression, which can be harnessed to spread joy and good cheer, or hostility and aggression. Our verbal tone can affect our mood and behavior, and the mood and behaviors of those who hear it. The tone and pattern of our voice can express calm or chaos, sweetness or bitterness, professionality or unpreparedness, confidence, or timidity. Some experts believe that the tone of our voice has a greater impact on others even more than does the content of what we are saying.
Vocal tone, of course, can change over time, whether due to the physical changes that come with age, or the habits we fall into from the people and places that we most frequent. But the bottom line is: Vocal tone matters. In classrooms, for instance, if the vocal tone of a teacher sounds controlling, it affects student’s well-being and their willingness to disclose information about themselves. Tone of voice can also determine how well a motivational speaker resonates with us, or how willing we are to follow the advice of and authority figure. Speaking in a professional confident tone improves our chances of being taken seriously in the workplace. A parental firm, resonant tone of voice works better than a shaky timid tone when asking a kid to pick up their toys, yet a loud tone that slams the vocal cords can be intimidating and arouse fear, even when speaking to our pets.
It is to our benefit to care for and even improve the tone of our voices with the proper physical care of the vocal folds, as well as attention to the volume, pitch, dynamics, and cadence when we sing or speak. In addition to personal appearance and poise, our voice is one of the most important dimensions of self-expression. I have counted on my voice to be an instrument that inspires, moves, and entertains audiences whether I’m doing radio, public speaking, acting, or singing. Or just interacting with people on a daily basis. I can’t afford to get hoarse, or to have my pitch and tone come across in a way that repels people, unless that is what I mean to do.
While I am not perfect at avoiding vocal issues now and then despite my efforts, here are some rules of thumb that help me stay in the game. Perhaps you might find some to be useful too.
- Record your voice occasionally, by reading a passage from a book; then either alone, or together with a trusted friend, write down your observations. Is your voice too low or high? Too raspy? Too much or too little volume? Tired or old or childish sounding? Monotone? Listen to speakers to whom you are most drawn and observe their vocal qualities. Perhaps you could hear a smile coming through in the lightness of their tone, or you like the way they distinctly pronounce their words. Then try making a few small changes and re-record your voice. Remind yourself to continue these changes and be aware of your voice each day until those improvements become second nature.
- When you begin to lose phonation or sound in certain ranges of your voice, get to the root of it quickly. Do you lose your voice so frequently that an appointment should be made with an ENT physician to rule out nodes or nodules? Or have you over-used your voice by talking loudly the night before in order to be heard over a noisy crowded event? If you are a singer, did you belt without proper breath support and compression? Is your laryngitis the result of post-nasal drip, a cold or flu or acid reflux? Talk to your doctor to get the best treatment plan to heal quickly.
- Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of room-temperature water and herbal teas throughout the day.
- Use a vaporizer at night if your home air is dry due to weather or winter heating.
- Use a singer’s steamer to steam swollen tired vocal cords.
- A healthy diet and some daily exercise—even a long brisk walk—does wonders for keeping the muscles and collagen of the vocal folds at their best.
- Before turning to lozenges, collagen supplements, throat sprays, etc., check with a voice professional to make sure they will help and not hinder your vocal recovery.
Nilla Pizzi once said that the secret to her success was that she chose to sing songs that brought on” good mood, happiness and maybe even some beautiful memories.” What a wonderful intention we can all share in by tending to our own precious voices—whether we sing or not.
©Raeleen Mautner 2023
For Further Reading:
DeVore, Kate, & Cookman, Starr (2009) The Voice Book. Chicago Review Press.
Weinstein, N., Zougkou, K., & Paulmann, S. (2018). You ‘have’ to hear this: Using tone of voice to motivate others. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 44(6), 898–913. https://doi.org/10.1037/xhp0000502
Paulmann, S., & Weinstein, N. (2022). Teachers’ motivational prosody: A pre-registered experimental test of children’s reactions to tone of voice used by teachers. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 00, 1–16. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjep.12567
Obituary of Nilla Pizzi https://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/nilla-pizzi-2269581.html