Voice Care: Advice for Preachers

Like most of you who read this article, I am a preacher. Three years ago I lost a vocal cord in an unrelated surgery and wrote about it in an earlier Working Preacher article entitled, “How I Lost a Vocal Cord and Found My Voice.” My left vocal cord remains paralyzed.

After therapy and time proved an ineffective treatment I had corrective surgery to bring my vocal cords closer together. This narrowing of my throat enables my good vocal cord to vibrate my dead one when speaking. It is not ideal but it works: one set of muscles running both cords. I have a half-volume speaking voice that is fairly reliable but sadly an unreliable singing voice. My surgeon, Mayo Clinic physician Dr. Dale Ekbom told me that one has to choose in this particular surgery between optimizing speaking or singing voice. Since I did not want to turn my life or sermons into a personal opera I chose speaking, but miss singing a great deal.

My voice problem is a rare case. Very seldom does a vocal cord stop working completely and its paralysis was unrelated to voice use. Most often for preachers, however, damage is due to misuse and overuse. That’s dangerous for those of us whose livelihood depends on good public speaking ability. How can a preacher minimize the likelihood of voice issues?

First, prior to speaking, one should take care to get plenty of fluids when speaking (water is best). Different parts of the body absorb water differently. Contrary to popular belief, drinking water while speaking moistens the throat and mouth but does little to lubricate the vocal cords themselves. To hydrate vocal cords, make sure you take in fluids at least 6 hours prior to speaking: it takes that long for water to get to the cords through bodily tissues. Make sure that where you sleep is well humidified so the cords don’t dry out during the night. My speech pathologist, Dr. Diana Orbello of Mayo Clinic, recommends a warm water mister rather than a cold one as the cold ones are more prone to mold or other contamination.

Second, warm up your voice before use. Work gently and slowly through your range, especially if singing liturgy in the service as well as reading or preaching. Use a variety of exercises to vary the sound and warm up the muscles of the lips, mouth and throat. The National Center for Voice and Speech, http://ncvs.org/, is a great website for general voice care information.

Third, take care not to strain your voice. This means using a sound system that is adequate for the worship or speaking environment. Despite the old adage that a voice gets better with use (true only if strain is avoided) for voice professionals, Dr. Orbelo recommends voice amplification in any situation where speaking is necessary and frequent. This includes pre- and post-worship situations. Fellowship halls are the worst for pastors because one often has to strain to make the voice heard above the ambient noise (other people talking) in an environment where sounds echoes.

There are a variety of portable sounds systems available today with a microphone attached to the head and usually a speaker on the hip. They often retail for under $300; some for much less. It might take the congregation a little time to get used to the pastor having a microphone at all times, but if explained it will be understood as easily as using a microphone in the sanctuary.

Fourth, if strain does occur, rest the voice: speak sparingly, quietly, or not at all. If this does not solve the problem within a few days, seek the advice of a doctor or speech pathologist: they can work wonders to restore a voice if their advice is heeded. Speech therapy or evaluations are not cheap but if left untreated voice problems can result in vocal cord nodules or other problems that require surgery; permanent voice damage or loss can also result.

Much can be done in this high-tech age to replace or aid a damaged or lost voice. Artificial voice boxes can be implanted rather than handheld as in years past. There are voice synthesizers called “voders” which electronically produce a voice (an early version can be found on YouTube). These are similar to physicist Stephen Hawking’s device, which he programs to speak. The high-end voders are even more advanced: if recordings exist of the voice prior to damage or loss, these recordings may be utilized to program an imitation of a speaker’s individual voice tone and even inflection.

Such devices, however, can be astronomically expensive, slow, and not easily portable. The research literature suggests these high-tech devices produce a wide variety of results, good and bad, and require an extensive understanding of an individual’s voice characteristics and needs.

Roger Ebert’s TED Talk from 2011 brilliantly explored the difficulties of living without a voice and the challenges involved in using technology to recreate one’s voice. (Watch the 2011 TED Talk and read David Lose’s remembrance of Ebert shortly after Ebert’s death in April 2013.)

At present most of these devices are not covered by insurance so few of us pastors could utilize such cutting-edge technology if our voices were permanently damaged or ever failed completely.

Perhaps nowhere does the old adage “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” apply more than with respect to voice. Treat your voice well and you will have an instrument of communication that lasts a lifetime. Neglect or misuse it, and you may find yourself speechless.