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Saving Your Voice from Vocal Fry


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A number of articles are appearing in popular media about a speaking trend called vocal fry. (See attached article from yesterday.) What is this all about?

Vocal fry occurs when the vocal (arytenoid) cartilages squeeze together very tightly. This allows the vocal cords themselves to be loose and floppy. When air passes between them, they can vibrate irregularly, popping and rattling. The following is a short laryngoscope video of a woman demonstrating a vocal slide down into the vocal fry:  https://youtu.be/2VjS06IDWZk

A study published in the 2012 Journal of Voice studied 34 college age women.

Researchers found that approximately two-thirds of this population used vocal fry and that it was most likely to occur at the end of sentences. (http://www.jvoice.org/article/S0892-1997(11)00070-1/abstract)  Over time, this type of speech can be damaging.

Why do so many women use the fry regster in speech? The researchers in the Journal of Voice study observed that women were much more likely to exhibit fry than men. Earlier studies showed that this vocal creak was associated in women with being educated, urban-oriented and upwardly mobile. There’s a theory that because the rumbling, deep male voice is perceived as being authoritative, perhaps that is why women are emulating it. It may even be subconscious. Some feel the fry sound connotes a laid-back attitude that the younger generations are seeking to embody. It is easy to see why the young generation is adopting it: it’s omnipresent among  news casters, trendy stars, and even teachers.

What’s interesting is that despite what young women intend to project about themselves, the use of vocal fry is probably undermining how they are viewed by others. A study published in May 2014 by Researchers from Duke University (http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0097506) found that:

“…Relative to a normal speaking voice, young adult female voices exhibiting vocal fry are perceived as less competent, less educated, less trustworthy, less attractive, and less hirable. The negative perceptions of vocal fry are stronger for female voices relative to male voices. These results suggest that young American females should avoid using vocal fry speech in order to maximize labor market opportunities.”

Clearly, this pattern of speech is best to be unlearned. But how? Singers may find the fix easiest by remembering that the speaking voice must be sustained by breath in the same way as the singing voice. Often, by just putting attention on the Speaking Fundamental Frequency (pitch) of the speaking voice, one is able to alter the habit significantly. Most young women will healthily speak between the pitches F#3 to A#3 (F-A below middle C). It is also helpful to begin listening for vocal fry in the speech of others. Awareness of the habit is half the battle! If you find yourself speaking in the fry, notice the habit, acknowledge that it is not a productive habit (without beating up on yourself), then alter the speech by shifting to a more supported sound. I heard mezzo-soprano Joyce Didonato once comment, “Am I speaking, or am I singing?” The vocal production is not so different!

–Jamea J. Sale, MME 8/24/2015

UVa Treads into ‘Vocal Fry’ Fray – By Dean Seal | Posted: Sunday, August 23, 2015 5:50 pm

Faculty members at the University of Virginia are weighing in on a style of speaking that has been described by one professor as “the single worst, most tenacious problem I’ve seen in my 40-plus-year teaching career.”

The “problem” is known as “vocal fry,” a low vocal register that is produced when a person loosely closes their vocal folds while speaking, resulting in a rattling, creaky-sounding voice.

Aliaa Khidr, a professor of phoniatrics and faculty member in UVa’s speech language pathology program, described the style as “the lowest end of your range,” in which the vocal folds are relaxed, allowing air to pass through intermittently while speaking.

“In regular voice production, your vocal folds open and close in a consistent cycle,” Khidr said. “When you get to a vocal fry, then your closed portions of the cycle are longer. They allow less air to pass through.”

Also known as “vocal creak,” the style of speaking has become more commonplace among young women — a 2012 study showed that two-thirds of college-age women regularly use the style, which some say became popularized by pop culture icons such as the Kardashian sisters.

“It’s been a cultural shift that affects both men and women, but predominantly we’re seeing young females with the change in their voice,” said Dr. Jim Daniero, head of UVa’s Voice and Swallowing Clinic. “It’s sort of an evolution in the way they’re speaking.”

“Creaking” is a polarizing style with a vast generational gap, Daniero said. While younger generations have described it as “authoritative” and “upwardly mobile,” older generations have “the exact opposite” reaction, he said, believing it to show a lack of maturity or sophistication.

While using “vocal fry” does not indicate an underlying disorder or pathology, it can be damaging physiologically.

“It’s not very efficient as far as the volume produced per effort and trauma of the vocal chords that’s put into it — that lack of efficiency results in a higher amount of trauma or collision between the vocal chords as they’re vibrating, with a lower amount of volume,” Daniero said. “You’d have to double or triple the amount of force that is sustained on the vocal chords to produce the equivalent volume for speaking, and thus we accumulate trauma on the vocal chords.”

That trauma can build up over time and create medical issues — ones he’s already seen in a small percentage of young women who use the affectation, Daniero said.

“[It] can lead to developing polyps or nodules on the vocal chords that can produce a worsening voice quality without the ability to manipulate that,” he said. “It’s sort of a permanent hoarse voice that can usually only be remedied by working with a voice therapist, and sometimes it can require surgery.”

Khidr, who has been looking into vocal fry for some time, said that while using the style occasionally is fine, to do it more frequently can be problematic. She likened the creak to driving a manual car.

“When I was learning, I would keep it in lower gear until the car starts shaking,” she said. “My father said, ‘you have to take it to a higher gear before the car shakes that badly.’ Vocal fry is like speaking in a lower gear.”

In studying the phenomenon, Khidr has monitored students in her own speech pathology classes, finding that at least 80 percent of them used the fry at various levels. Khidr has had her students examine the use of the style among themselves and through pop culture figures, and noted that students who used vocal fry roughly 25 percent of the time were able to identify it when listening to their own voices, but those who used it much more frequently could not.

The “scary part,” Khidr said, was when she asked her students whether they thought using vocal fry could negatively affect their lives or careers. Most said they didn’t believe it could be detrimental to their own lives, but thought differently if it was being used by, say, Sabrina Farhi of National Public Radio.

“They were more non-biased when they were listening to a totally unfamiliar sound, but when they’re listening to themselves or their partners, they would think there was nothing wrong,” Khidr said. “But when they listen to someone they don’t know, they say, ‘Oh, something’s wrong there, and it might affect their career.’”

Culturally, the new tone of voice is something that’s engrained at a young age, Khidr said. Her own daughter started using vocal fry in middle school.

“As soon as she was surrounded by girls that were using it, it became the normal way for her to talk,” she said with a laugh. “Even with me as a speech professional I could not stop it.”

Kate Burke, associate professor of voice and speech with UVa’s drama department, said the style is incredibly problematic for the evolution of speech.

“Our culture teaches us that our voice box is where our voice issues from, but it’s kind of a misnomer,” Burke said. “Yes, our vocal folds are down there and they vibrate and produce waves of sound, but those waves of sound can’t stay stuck back there in your throat, they need to defy gravity and move forward and up into the bones of the face and head, which are the natural woofers and tweeters, the natural speakers with which we are born, and then the voice becomes projected. A projected, vibrating voice does not have that fry or scratchy element.”

Burke, who said she’s heard the style used in her classes for decades, said it makes the speaker seem “withdrawn” and “immature.”

“It’s a very withheld voice, its energy-less. It seems like the speaker doesn’t want to connect with the listener, and the speaker is certainly not thinking about the listener’s needs,” she said. “So it’s kind of a selfish way of speaking.”

Burke said she once had a student whose vocal fry was so severe that nodules formed on her vocal chords and she was put on voice rest.

“Her quality of life was impaired, and since she wanted to be a teacher, this was a serious situation,” Burke said.

But not everyone sees vocal fry as a serious issue.

Claire Kaplan, director of the Gender Violence and Social Change program at UVa, likened it to a “passing fad,” not unlike the “Valley Girl” manner of speaking that emerged in the 1980s.

“Women’s voices are often criticized and dissected and analyzed and so on, and I don’t see that happening with men,” Kaplan said. “Is this the kind of thing we need to worry about? There’s so many more serious issues to be concerned about.”

Kaplan said men such as NPR host Ira Glass uses vocal creak all the time on air, but never receive any scrutiny for it.

“Certainly for young women to learn to speak with authoritative voices, that’s important,” she said. “But in the larger scheme of things, should we worry whether they lower their voices until they growl, or should we just talk to women about sounding assertive.”

Nonetheless, Burke suggested that people become more aware of the negative effects vocal fry can carry, and to strive to improve their speaking voices through voice classes or coaches. Even simple voice regiments can be performed that show “the feeling of the free-flowing voice,” Burke said.

Daniero agreed, saying that the main avenues for treating the issue are self-awareness and, if needed, the use of vocal exercises that retrain breath support and tension in the vocal chords.