Besides the five minutes I speak to my colleagues over Google Hangouts every morning, I’ve barely spoken since the start of lockdown. I live on my own, and my day-to-day interactions tend to be fairly minimal. And even if they weren’t, I usually check in with my parents and friends over text or WhatsApp anyway.
All of which is to say that despite the new dominance of Zoom and the normalization of dating and socializing via video chat, I’m using my actual voice far less than I used to. In fact, over the past couple of months, I’ve gone days at a time without using my vocal muscles at all — to the point where I’m even surprised at the sound of my voice when I talk to myself.
As the Cut’s Edith Zimmermann notes, however, this was a trend long before we were forcibly quarantined away from each other. At work, nonverbal tools like Slack make communication between teams far more efficient than physical meetings (something most of us probably wanted to abolish anyway). Meanwhile, on the personal front, Instagram, Twitter and most dating apps have made voice-driven communication largely unnecessary, too, with users typically preferring to send text-based messages instead.
What, though, will all this silence mean for my intrinsic laryngeal muscles — i.e., the muscle system that produces sound in the human body — when I need them again?
Because of a lack of research in this particular area, there’s no definitive answer as to how long it would take for your voice to physically change after a long lack of use, says voice actor and vocal coach Nic Redman. However, she adds, “In the same way that your voice sounds different first thing in the morning, when you haven’t used your vocal muscles for a long period of time, the changes are more likely to be related to your voice range. So it’ll be harder to express voice ranges associated with heightened emotions on the more extreme end of the spectrum (for example, shouting).”
This, of course, is a relatively minor issue for most people. But for professional voice actors like Redman, a prolonged period of lockdown quiet presents a unique challenge. It’s one of the reasons why she set up the Voice & Accent Hub Facebook group, where she teaches vocal exercises and techniques, and where the other 1,200-plus members share videos documenting their own voice-training regimens. “A lot of what we do is stretch and release work, which is useful for maintaining shaping sounds, and sounding exercises to massage the vocal cords,” Redman tells me. “Sometimes we’ll do tongue releases or jaw massages, too, which a few of the members incorporate into their physical workout and yoga routines.”
The group also isn’t totally without regular guys like me. Some of them, Redman says, are worried that less vocal communication might change how they talk, while others feel as though Zoom calls and teleconferencing put them under more pressure to sound clear and authoritative. “Voices are a huge part of our identity, and for a lot of people, that’s even more true now because their usual way of communicating in an office environment has changed,” Redman says. “People who think that their point hasn’t been communicated effectively or don’t think they sound good can end up feeling anxious and as though they’ve lost power and presence.”
It’s a point that voice scientists like Aaron Johnson at the NYU Langone Health Voice Center have echoed. As he told the Cut in 2019, “Our voice is really reflective of our personality and our psychological state.”
With that in mind, I ask Redman how an ordinary person can keep their vocal cords warm while on lockdown. “It’s important to incorporate breathwork — and to practice the shapes of common voice ranges,” she responds. Among the most important of these shapes, she says, is the “NG,” which exercises oft-neglected muscles in the back of the throat.
After our conversation ends, I practice some of the shapes she showed me over Zoom. I immediately feel a soreness in my throat that’s likely the result of nearly two months of inactivity. But I also hear something very familiar that’s been likewise distant — the sound of my actual voice.