I had the great delight of watching Lake Bell's In a World… last night. The film is a practical demonstration of popular voice trends in modern America, and why it's so important for everyone to cultivate and care for their voice.
The movie chronicles the journey of young female vocal coach as she endeavors to break into the voiceover industry. Not only must Carol overcome the industry preference for a male voice, but she also endures the criticism and skepticism of her father, who is himself a living voiceover legend.
Sound is subtle but significant
Voice is rarely something we consciously attend to when assessing character. In A World… teaches the audience to make quick assumptions about each character as soon as we hear them speak, and consistently reinforces these principles throughout the movie. A clear, deep, resonant voice is sexy. A high, squeaky female voice identifies an oblivious airhead. Crackly vocal fry is something that happens when a person doesn't have their act together.
Lake Bell (writer, director, and star) performs an impressive didactic feat while creating an entertaining work of art. Halfway through the movie, the audience feels smug about our new sleuth-like ability to judge someone's personal worth based on the sound that comes out of their mouth. By the end of the movie, it turns out that some of our character value judgments are in fact unfair assumptions. That woman who sounded like a clueless idiot actually has a lot to offer!
The lesson here, of course, is that we all subconsciously make assumptions when we hear a voice. The film's use of multiple characters with highly “obvious” voices teaches us what the stereotypical associations are (e.g. squeaky = flighty). There is a cautionary closing scene that illustrates how a voice may detract from perceived ability or intelligence.
Nature vs. nurture
Many people assume that your voice is something you are born with and the way you sound is the way you sound, period. While anatomy of course plays a foundational role, we all cultivate aesthetic aspects of our voice beyond what our anatomy provides. Studies have shown that even though pre-pubescent boys and girls have physically identical vocal tracts, listeners are still able to distinguish between male and female children's voices. As young as four years old, we begin subconsciously editing our voices to project a desired identity.
By the time we reach adulthood, our voice habits are ingrained, and it requires conscious effort to reprogram our systems if we've picked up bad habits along the way. In an effort to achieve a deep voice, we might sound raspy instead. A girl who wants to sound feminine may find herself with a voice that is a little too high to be taken seriously. Or, maybe we just yelled a lot as children, causing damage to our vocal folds that has impacted our voice ever since. Finally, sometimes “vocal trends” become popular even though they may carry negative personality assumptions.
Your voice has a purpose
The guideline that many voice therapists use when assessing is this: a healthy, functional voice does not call attention to itself. Raspy, hoarse, squeaky, or nasal voices are distracting for listeners. Even if your vocal folds are healthy, your voice is not functional if people pay more attention to how you sound than to what you are saying.
In my practice, I also assess whether or not a voice serves the speaker. If your profession requires you to speak for long periods of time and/or project consistently, and your voice fatigues or becomes weak, it may be necessary to improve vocal strength and stamina.
Retraining your vocal muscles take work and practice, practice, practice. In A World…'s montage of professionals practicing their voice exercises seems amusing, but voice pros commit to regular warm-ups and practice just like an athlete commits to exercise and physical training.
With dedicated practice and effort, the voice practitioner has a wealth of vocal styles at their disposal. Lake Bell showcases her ability to change registers (vocal styles) as her character takes on different voice projects in the movie.
Your voice is your ambassador
For all the concern in our culture about physical fitness and health, very little attention is given to vocal health and the very significant impact that a distracting or dysfunctional voice has on a person's life. It's impossible to exit the theatre after watching In A World… and not be conscious of the voices around you, considering what each voice suggests about its speaker. More challenging, though--and more important--is to consider our own voice, and what it says about us.
As voice legend Sam Sotto says in the film, “A voice is a choice.” What does your voice say about who you are choosing to be?
Here's a hint from the film: don't be a sexy baby.