Are you a new telecommuter and a professional voice user? Raise your hand doctors, teachers, therapists, lawyers, and probably a whole host of others. Now that you are in your own home practicing social distancing how does your voice feel? Are you finding it tiring a little bit as you carry on with your tasks throughout the day? Here is a post for you!
There are a lot of reasons why your voice might be tiring in your newly minted home office. While research is not thorough in this area, we do know that Call Center Agents[i] are some of the most at risk for voice disorders; and in a way, we all became Call Center Agents practically overnight.
Risk factors that seem to harm the Call Center Agents voices tend to fall into the categories of ambient noise, ergonomics, and vocal load (stress put on the voice when speaking for long periods of time)[ii]. I am proposing a fourth one--limited frequency range of microphones and speakers. Now I am not proposing limited loudness of the speakers, because often times it is not the volume of what we are saying that is the problem, but the inability to comprehend what is being said. Let’s look at the easy factors first.
Risk Factor: Ambient Noise
So everyone in your family is home practicing social distancing and maybe you have the luxury of a separate room for everyone, but what I’m seeing from my perch as a tele-singing teacher and a tele-speech therapist, is everyone in the same room. We humans like to self-monitor and synchronize our behaviors. A French Otolaryngologist named Etienne Lombard recognized that we will automatically raise our voices to increase the audibility of our own voices. It doesn’t matter if our communication partner can hear us, if we can’t hear ourselves we raise the volume and the vocal effort. This works not only in humans by the way; the behavior has been observed in birds, cats, marmosets, and monkeys.[iii]Why has no one researched this in dogs, it would explain a lot!
A simple fix might be to find a quieter place. If that is not possible, being aware of how loud you are speaking has never been easier if you are armed with a smart phone and/or an Apple Watch. Apple Watch 4 and up have a simple sound meter. Using the application try to keep your voice no louder than 65 decibels. If you have no Apple Watch, there are many free decibel meters in both Android and Apple App stores. It doesn’t have to be a scientific Class 2 sound level meter to provide some kind of visual feedback to remind you to modulate the tendency to speak louder to match the environments sound level.
Risk Factor: Ergonomics
Risk Factor: Vocal Load
Try to take a break. If you are a doctor with back to back patients, take a couple of minutes each hour to check your breathing, your posture, and maybe use a semi occluded vocal tract exercise for a minute to ensure you are using an optimal pitch, one that your voice will go to when producing a vocal sigh. Perhaps the teacher who might be in front of the class for a long periods (over 40 minutes) maybe muting your microphone and performing some hums to ensure the voice is produced effortlessly with a little vibration somewhere in the face. The idea is to take a couple of minutes each hour to “reset” the voice to ensure the use of comfortable and healthy habits.
Risk Factor: Ineffective Equipment
The human ear can perceive a frequency range of 20 Hertz(vibrations per second) up to as high as 20,000 Hertz(hz). If only our microphone could do the same! In a very unscientific study, I tested my internal microphone of my Mac[iv] and found only the following frequencies 2,000 Hz, 4,000 Hz, 6,400 Hz., 10,000 Hz. And 16,000 Hz were detected. In contrast the human male tends to speak between 85 and 180 Hz, the average human female from 165-255 Hz. The story of how our brain perceives voices transmitted with such a narrow frequency range is for another blog. The fix, is obviously use an external microphone, one with a greater frequency range. However, this might not be possible due to the closures of stores where one would purchase a good microphone. Also, even those of us with external microphones have found that it can be a guessing game of whether the internet connection will support the audio signal. In this case instead of speaking louder speaking slower and with crisper , but not exaggerated articulation may help in decreasing the vocal effort. This is particularly important for ending and beginning consonants.
In summary, if you are finding that you are suffering from voice fatigue, now that you are working from home, here are some simple fixes: ensure you are not attempting to speak over background noise, look at how you are sitting or standing while you are speaking into your telephone, cellphone, or internet connected device, take breaks to reset your voice, and consider using a better external microphone. Be well! We will get through this.
[i] Schneider-Stickle, B; Knell, C; Aichstill, B; Jocher, W(2011) “Biofeedback on Voice Use in Call Center Agents in Order to Prevent Occupational Voice Disorders.” Journal of Voice
[ii] Popolo, PS; Svec, JG; Titze, IR(2005). “Adaptation of a Pocket PC for use as a wearable voice dosimeter.” Journal of speech, Language, and Hearing Research.
[iv] Method using an app called Function Generator on my iPad. The results With the iPad approximately three inches from the computer, I set the internal microphone setting found at the Preferences—Sound—input at 50%. Watching the 15 dots which indicate the microphones perception for at least 10 seconds I set the intensity of Function Generator at its default of 62DeciBels(the app did not specify weighting but it is assumed to be A)and tested the following frequencies: 20 Hz. 31.5Hz, 63 Hz, 125 Hz, 250 Hz, 500 Hz. 1kHz, 2kHz., 4kHz., 6.4 kHz, 8kHz., 10kHz., 16kHz., 18.1kHz. 19kHz. And 20kHz. If the at least one of the dots darkened for at least 10 consecutive seconds, the frequency was judged to be perceived by the microphone. Of note the first frequency I heard was 125Hz. And the last was 10kHz.
Trissa DiBenedetto WAlter
Is a singer, voice teacher, speech language pathologist, and certified vocologist