My Voice Anxiety

My father is an accomplished public speaker. I grew up in his shadow, listening to hundreds of his speeches. I saw him mesmerize thousands. I heard his voice effortlessly fill large halls. He sounded like God to me. He sounded like Moral Authority. He was practiced and polished and in control. He was dramatic and rhetorical.

You can never win an argument with God and you can never win an argument with a PhD in Rhetoric.

So if dad sounds like God to me, what do I sound like to me? What’s my voice? It’s quiet rebellious sentiment inside of me that says in matters of religion and spirituality, “You don’t have to take this too seriously. It might be fraud. It might be delusion. It might be ego and psychological need masquerading as piety. It might be a sick need to rescue or be rescued. It might be an attempt at mind-control. See that girl over there? She’s what is ultimately real.”

While mom emotionally shaped me, Dad and God set the moral standard. Do you know that Genesis 3:9 verse where God says, “Where are you?” That’s my dad. That’s the voice I hear in my head, my dad saying to me, “Where are you? What are you up to? What are you doing? What are you thinking? What are you planning?”

And this voice frightens me because much of the time, I know I’m up to no good. I’m not exactly on the road to wellville.

Despite his great speaking voice, Dad couldn’t sing on tune and I grew up with that same tendency.

I didn’t realize I had this problem, however, until one day in third grade, when the teacher (Mrs. Patrick) taught my room a song for the school play. As we started singing, my inability to carry a tune was painfully obvious to everyone but me, so the teacher asked me to stay after school so she could work with me.

I was the only person she asked to stay after school for this. And so there we were by the piano, nobody else was around, and she’d play a note and ask me to match it with my voice. I tried but didn’t have a clue. After a lot of work, I wasn’t any getting any closer to the tune.

After the third afternoon of private lessons, my teacher gave up and suggested that I mime for the concert, which I did.

This has been one of my favorite stories to tell about myself. I’ve learned over time that people don’t want to hear about your successes. They’re much more interested in your humiliations. This was one of my great humiliations but it didn’t hurt a bit because I put no stock on singing.

My story rarely failed to extract sympathy from my listeners. It got them right in the heart and the more sensitive would choke up, perhaps shed a tear, and I used it to let the world know that I couldn’t be expected to carry a tune. I was free from that obligation.

I generally liked to free myself from obligations so I could do what I wanted.

Occasionally with friends, I would get swept away with joy and try to sing a line or a jingle and most of the time they told me, accurately, that I sounded horrible. On the rarest of occasions, they said, “You almost pulled that off.”

So from third grade on, I knew there was something wrong with me and with my voice. Both were prickly, tense and strange. Only the rarest of souls wanted to get close to me.

I always liked to argue. I liked to take the mickey out of people. Set them up to look foolish and try to demolish them in debate. Use my dad’s sneaky rhetorical tricks. I knew I was a fast thinker. Even though it didn’t make me popular, I knew I was verbally dexterous. My words were my swords. My fifth grade teacher wrote in my report card, “Luke is always willing to share his ideas with the class, but he needs to be more tolerant of the slower thinker.”

When I moved to America in sixth grade, I met people who liked my accent. Girls usually found me more intriguing when I was fresh to a place, before my position in the social pecking order was set. New girls often liked me because of my voice, the different ways I said words.

I didn’t have much of a sense of self except that I’ve always known I was a genius when it came to writing and to speaking. They were gifts that I inherited from my dad, gifts that needed polishing to be sure but I was undeniably brilliant. Just a bit rough.

When my mom was carrying me in her tummy, she used to get this conviction that I would grow up to do something great for God. I got told this story a lot growing up so I’ve always known I’m a genius in those two narrow ways. My teachers and my parents told me I was a great writer. I was untouchable there, even when I got failing grades in English. In everything else, pretty much, I took my cues from others to tell me who I was and what I was good at. I was constantly looking for mirroring and this wore people out.

I started listening to the radio in seventh grade. I was new to America, living in the Napa Valley, and I learned the American way by reading books and magazines (Time, Newsweek, Life, Sports Illustrated) at the Pacific Union College Library.

My father struggled to adapt his voice to American ears, pushing himself to slow down his speech and to take particular care with certain syllables and idioms so that he would be understood. He was still very successful but it might’ve been my first clue that dad’s way wasn’t always the best way.

When I was a little boy, I’d sit in church and imitate my father’s gestures but as I grew older, I never consciously wanted to imitate him. Not his voice, not anything.

I loved some of the voices I heard on the radio and TV, in particular Brent Musberger‘s voice when he introduced the NFL Today show, saying things like: “And you are looking live at Texas Stadium where today the Dallas Cowboys play host to the Philadelphia Eagles in a game that could determine the NFC East champion. And you are looking live at Soldier’s Field in Chicago where today the struggling Bears will try to get on track against the Minnesota Vikings…”

I’d try to imitate Brent Musberger’s voice — hoping that if I could get a powerful voice I could become a powerful person — but I never could pull it off. I couldn’t do an American accent period (it sounded to me like the least distinctive of the world’s accents, the most flat and middle of the road).

Some of the adults at my elementary school were concerned about my lack of fitting in, so they got me reading kids books in the school library. Until then, I just read books for adults at the college library.

So I started reading all these kids books about sports. I happened to read books on the Dallas Cowboys and their coach Tom Landry and Roger Staubach.

I wanted to identify with a winner so I chose the Cowboys. They had won the Super Bowl in January 1978.

I began running every day and I got work as a gardener. To help pass the time, I listened to the radio, particularly broadcasts of sports and sports talk radio. I dreamed about myself as a sportscaster like Brent Musberger and Mike Adamle.

One day at Sea World in May of 1980, I got to meet Mike Adamle and picked his brain for a few minutes. Then I went to the bathroom and ran into him again. He was such a nice man. He encouraged me to pursue a career in sports broadcasting.

My parents got a TV for the first time in 1980. I was 14 years old. I had just graduated from 8th grade.

I quickly fell in love with TV. It became my God while radio was God’s cousin. They both took me away from my misery. I had decided in eighth grade that my profession would be journalism, so I watched the news a lot and imagined myself delivering it. I borrowed my dad’s tape recorder, recorded news casts, and then played them for my dad. Though he was a busy man, he always gave me his time when I asked for it and encouraged me to believe that I could accomplish anything.

I transferred to public school for the first time in tenth grade (the fall of 1981). I took a journalism class and a media class, where I did a weekly news report on the school for the radio station in Auburn, KAHI 95 AM.

I’ve always wanted to be awesome, to be famous, because I thought that would get me laid. I knew I was a genius, a diamond in the rough. Sure, I had voice trouble, but I knew there had to be a solution. I just knew that speaking and writing would get me to where I wanted to go. Girls liked guys with good voices. Everybody liked a good voice, a cool, calm, collected, sophisticated voice like Peter Jennings on ABC News.

My father had so much power and influence and success precisely because his voice could command a room. I grew up in dad’s shadow. Dad was the master public speaker. When the church fired dad in 1980, he went out and set up his own church and people gave his Good News Unlimited foundation thousands of dollars. Everywhere dad preached, people showered him with love. This was definitely the way to go. You walk around and you preach and people love you and give you money. That’s what I wanted but without the Jesus stuff.

I wasn’t very good with the news. I used some bad grammar. After a couple of years, the station dropped the segment.

I did sports broadcasting for our community access cable TV chanel. Placer High School’s basketball coach Wendell Witt called me “the Squeakin’ Deacon” because my teenage voice (a weirdly tense combination of the lazy Australian accent with the lazy Californian accent) tended to rise so high when I got excited that only dogs could hear it. When the team would review my video of its games, they would often turn the sound off so they wouldn’t have to endure my evil pitch.

This was so painful. I was failing at something where I knew I was a genius. There was something very wrong and I couldn’t figure it out. I couldn’t will my way out.

I didn’t like the sound of my voice and this anxiety only made it worse. The more I tried, the more tense I got and worse I came across. I so badly wanted to sound like Brent Musburger but only ever succeeded in sounding like my insecure uptight uncomfortable pushy tense self.

As Des Ford’s son, I knew that I could be an awesome speaker. There was just something mysterious stopping me, something outside the power of my desire, something outside what those around me could show me, something outside of what I could understand and fix.

I knew what I wanted to be. I knew I could do journalism. I knew I loved broadcasting and that I had the smarts to pull it off, but mechanically things just didn’t work for me. I’d long thought and been brought up to believe that by brute application of my will, I could accomplish anything, but the more I willed myself, the more I failed to produce a pleasant-sounding voice.

I dimly became aware of a troubling pattern in my life — the harder I tried (whether it was with school or women or broadcasting) in matters of skill (rather than just determination, such as digging a ditch or running ten miles or memorizing a poem), the more I tensed up, and the worse my results.

My lack of success frightened me. It challenged my view that if I only applied myself, I would succeed. Making broadcast after broadcast, I kept smashing myself against the rock of reality, increasing my humiliation with each production.

I knew there were solutions for my problem in the wider world but I didn’t know how to reach them. I knew that people in my life could help me overcome the type of voice problems I experienced, but I wasn’t able to understand and implement their instructions.

I loved being in the public eye. I was almost a big man on campus. I loved success and attention and being on TV and on the radio and in the newspaper. Sometimes I sounded fine. I just didn’t know how to reproduce that pleasing sound.

From 1985-1987, I worked as a part-time news reporter and weekend news anchor for KAHI radio. The owners kept me off the more listened to FM station KHYL. I impressed my bosses as a mature young man and so they gave me an open mic to the world to relay the local news. I never abused the privilege. The things I said on air were fine. I never got in trouble for them. The problem was with how I sounded. I strained to project my voice.

When I turned to my co-workers for help, they all liked me and they talked to me about getting enthusiastic about what you say on air, about feeling the words, letting them resonate inside of you, and this helped a bit at times, but I wasn’t able to pull it off consistently, so I turned to my father for help. Dad was a polished public speaker. He had that ability to project his voice that I so sorely lacked.

Dad worked with me and tried to teach me abdominal breathing and voice projection but I couldn’t get it. He gave me books to read on voice but I couldn’t understand the teachings. I couldn’t incorporate the good advice.

The more I tried, the worse I got. I started getting closer to the mic and over-enunciating my words and on the air it just sounded like I was drowning in saliva.

Since 1979 when I fell in love with radio and TV, I had fantasies of achieving great success in broadcast news and so I tried imitating people who I admired. Some days I sounded great but much of the time my voice problems got the best of me. I gave up on my radio career (and minimum wage job at KAHI/KHYL) in the summer of 1987 and decided I would apply myself to my studies and become an economist.

For the previous eight years, I had expected to become a great TV journalist. Now I was letting that dream die because I couldn’t figure out how to talk right.

In Spanish class at Sierra Community College in 1987, I took up my teacher’s challenge and attempted to sing a song in front of the whole room and my teacher got such a look of pain on his face as I screeched. Some of my classmates were amazed that I had the courage to sing so badly in public.

One thing I had going for me was my willingness to experience utter humiliation in the pursuit of my goals.

While I was study Economics at UCLA in 1989, I heard a voice teacher (Morton Cooper) interviewed on KCRW. I was mesmerized and I bought his book, Change Your Voice, Change Your Life. I tried his various voice exercises and got some short-term benefit, but nothing permanent. After a minute or two, the pitch and tone of his patented voice press and ahas went away for me and I was back to my messed up starting point.

At least I had hope, however. I had intimations of what my great voice could sound like. For a minute or two, I heard something powerful and strong. More importantly, I knew how to get to that place where I sounded good. I just had to do Dr. Cooper’s voice press and ahas and bam! My powerful voice returned.

I noticed from my work that when I lay down, my voice became more resonant. I was picking up clues to the road to wellville.

In 1989, when I got religion, I started making amends to people I’d wronged. In particular, there was this girl in high school who I’d tortured with unwanted tickling and so I lay down on the floor and did my voice exercises and made my voice super deep and resonant and made my apology tape from the floor and sent it to her in Japan where she was teaching English. When she replied, forgiving me, she noted that my voice sounded really deep. But nothing came of it.

Between 1998-2007, I made many appearances on radio and TV for my books and blogs. I noticed that when I could lie down and do the interview over the phone, my voice sounded fine. When I was enthusiastic about what I said and really meant things with my heart and soul then I sounded better even if I was vertical, but I still wasn’t happy with my voice. I felt the strain as I pressed to be more powerful. The more I tried, the worse I sounded. I had the painful failure of my radio years always fresh in my psyche.

A few years ago, my friend Kate Coe wanted to interview an expert for a TV documentary she was shooting. I was qualified to speak on the topic but she knew I was stiff on camera, so she instead chose my friend Kevin Blatt.

I got it. I knew I was stiff. It was a hard habit to break. I was just all strain and nerves much of the time, except for when I wasn’t thinking about my voice, then it was fine.

On May 27, 2008, the day before my 42nd birthday, I bought the Neil Strauss pick-up book The Stylelife Challenge: Master the Game in 30 Days.

On page 28 of The Stylelife Challenge, Neil Strauss writes: “Because posture is key not just to your confidence and appearance but also to your health, I’ve prepared an extra-credit video tutorial for you online at www.stylelife.com/challenge. It provides the basics on Alexander Technique, a school of movement that improves not just the way you stand, walk, and sit but also the way you speak and feel about yourself.”

So I checked out some Alexander books and videos from the library. I learned the Technique was developed by the actor F.M. Alexander in 1890s after he found himself losing his voice during public recitals. In July, after getting a $10,000 credit card offer from Bank of America with no interest payments for a year, I started taking Alexander lessons at $75 each and learned about how my habits of unnecessary body tension were constricting my movements and straining my voice.

In January of 2009, I enrolled in a $24,000 three-year program to teach Alexander Technique. As the months went by, I let go of more and more of my body armoring and learned to do the tasks of daily life with less unnecessary tension.

In the fall of 2009, I took a ten-week writing class with Terrie Silverman. The tenth class was a public performance at the Workmen’s Circle. For the days preceding, I practiced my public speaking with the assistance of my Alexander Technique teachers, but the more I tried to project my voice, the tighter I got and the worse my voice sounded.

Arriving an hour early with my girlfriend that night of December 4, 2009, I tried to do all the Alexander Technique I knew but the pressure of performance, despite my best efforts, was tightening me up. While standing in the back, Terrie had each of us go up front and read our first and last line to see if our voice projected across the room. Mine didn’t. It couldn’t fill this crappy little room. After a year of Alexander Technique teacher training, I was as tight as a drum and as loud as church mice.

“You’re an Alexander teacher,” Terrie said to me after the test. “You know how to do this.”

When my turn came to read in front of the audience, my voice started out weak and inaudible. Then a couple of sentences in, I put one hand in my pocket and that relaxed me and filled me with confidence. As I let go of unnecessary tension, my voice soared across the room.

By May of 2010, I consistently felt good about my speaking voice. Here’s my panel performance that month at Loma Linda University. I was a bit weird in what I said but my sound was fine. For the first time in my life, I felt confident about my ability to project to an entire room. There was now no speech impediment to keep me back from a career in radio or TV or film or stage or public speaking. I had crossed the Rubicon. Things were going to get much much easier.

So what exactly had gone wrong with my voice and how did the Alexander Technique fix it? What was wrong with my voice and with my life was an excess of tension. If you have too much tension anywhere in your body, even in your little toe, that’s going to negatively effect your voice. Tight muscles don’t feel and don’t transmit well. In particular, my neck was tight and my head was usually tipped back and down in a permanent fight or flight reflex (a common reaction to trauma), compressing my neck and consequently my torso. As there are more joints in the neck than anywhere else in the body, when the neck is tight and compressed, that transmits tightness and compression throughout the body. You can’t have a tight neck and a free voice and a graceful body.

When I learned to let go of stiffening and tightening my neck, when I learned to let go of unnecessary compression throughout my body, my larynx was no longer strained and my lungs had more room to expand and everything started working better.

I expected that with my good posture and resonant voice, women would find me more attractive, but it hasn’t work out that way. Women still like me best when I’m new to town.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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