A Pitched BattleMar 23, 2021
How Advice to ‘Lower Your Pitch’ Misses the Point and Undermines Women - A Pitched Battle
Have you ever heard that little gem, the one where you - as a female - need to lower your pitch in order to be taken seriously?
It’s a thing, for sure. There are vocal coaches out there who propose helping women do just that, and for quite a pretty penny. The premise is straightforward: pay them, and they will give you exercises to lower your natural pitch, and voila! You are a force to be reckoned with.
When I first heard this, my jaw dropped. I couldn’t believe, in this day and age, that dudes were telling women to do this. I was deeply offended.
But then I had to unpack why I felt like this.
My first thought was that this message had the potential to make women second-guess their voices - we’re born with vocal apparati that are ‘tuned’ higher (by virtue of shorter vocal folds and slimmer throats). If you are speaking at a higher pitch because that’s how you were born, then a message like ‘unless you have a lower voice, you won’t be taken seriously’ has the very real potential to cause damage - psychological AND physiological.
I have had several clients who have come to me acutely worried that their voices were ‘too high’. In one case, the client was chain-smoking because “it lowered her voice naturally”, and that the men in the boardroom took her “more seriously” that way. When we explored that further, we discovered she didn’t have any evidence - and, in fact, the idea came from a successful aunt in the 1960s who swore up and down that smoking led to her power.
Never mind the damage.
Admittedly, that’s an extreme example, but when trusted publications like BusinessInsider.com run headlines with tags like “lower your voice pitch to feel more powerful”, what’s a girl to do?
Second, it was a gross oversimplification - the fact is we all have a range of ‘notes’ we are capable of producing, and the perception of a high (or, for that matter, low) voice is often symptomatic of a lack of using your vocal range. So, your voice seems overly high - or overly low - because you simply stay around a cluster of “notes” (pitches) that have little variability. If they are a bit higher, you get the “high pitch” accusation, if the cluster is lower, then the “lower pitch” accusation. Interestingly, a cluster in the mid-range is often characterized as “monotone”. None of the three instances I’m describing are ‘more’ monotone than the others (mono = one; tone = pitch), yet that’s how it’s spoken about. Really, it’s more about people’s lack of vocabulary to talk about these ideas.
So, you learn to employ more than two or three notes (a cluster), the overall perception of your voice’s pitch can be drastically altered. It seems like magic to a listener, but it’s just mechanics - and technique.
The key here is to make sure you learn your range - your highest to lowest pitches that can be produced comfortably and safely. Each person differs, but usually you have access to about 12 notes - at least as a speaker. Singers tend to have a singing range that exceeds their speaking range. Once you learn how much you have access to, you need to learn how to actually employ that natural range.
And guess what?
Once you do that, you will have an enormous arsenal of pitch fluctuations to use to express anything you want. This is powerful because many - if not most - audiences will register you as having a dynamic and expressive voice. You won’t register as male or female, per se (though you clearly will have a pitch range that tends one way or the other) - but you will register as interesting.
Third, skipping right to pitch, without addressing core concerns like the breath that is supporting the note, is quite literally putting the cart in front of the horse. You simply can’t make good quality sound, of any pitch, without a full and fluid column of air - which is just the fancy speech way of saying ‘breath support’. And you can’t have that until you’ve worked through things like your natural alignment and relaxation. And you can’t have that until you look at why and how you are holding tension in your body.
And none of this matters if your dress doesn’t fit if I’m being honest.
Many, many years ago now, I was in a position to win a competition and move on to the Provincials and Nationals, which was big stakes for a small-town prairie girl who had been in the “game” a mere 3 months. I received a phone call the morning of the final (fourth) phase of the competition, telling me that “If I won FIRST today, I’d go to Provincials” (it’s like winning State, and there was money in this, too). I was told to bring my ‘A’ game.
MY ‘A’ game included a skin-tight navy blue sheath dress, complete with a navy bolero with gold detailing - hey, it was the 90s, and the ‘Business Sailor’ look was all the rage. Add to the look navy stilettos, and bam! I was ready.
I arrived at the venue and waited anxiously. I was announced, took the stage, did my thing, bowed (kinda - the dress WAS tight), and then sat. I didn’t feel quite right - something was ‘off’ with my speaking performance, but I couldn’t put my finger on it (I’d only been 19 for a month, so I wasn’t all that perceptive). When I was adjudicated, the judge started with “You look stunning” (score one for me), followed by “but you didn’t have enough breath, did you?” (never mind scoring one).
She was right. My dress’ design prevented a full breath into my belly (it was girdle-level tight), PLUS my heels tipped my entire body forward, causing patterns of tightness that I was unaccustomed to - the upshot of the look was that I simply couldn’t take in enough air, nor control the exhalation of what I DID have in a way that allowed me to use my full range - so my voice fell flat.
I won second.
Of course, I could go on about the aspects of fashion that lead to women’s bodies being constrained and their voices diminished (and no doubt in another post I will), but the important take-away in THIS story is that lack of breath = lack of pitch variation = ineffective voice.
Let’s return to the ever-present advice that women have voices that are “too high”. One of at least three things could be operating in this space:
- The woman in question actually doesn’t have the breath to create a voice that is full and dynamic (thanks, Business Sailor outfit), and so her voice ‘registers’ with others as high (thanks to the narrow, generally higher pitch range that naturally occurs in that situation).
- The woman in question has ample breath, but she hasn’t learned to hear or manage the full scope of her register, and so she’s “playing” within a narrow cluster of “notes”. Such a limitation means that - no matter what she is trying to express - her toolkit is ill-equipped. And for those listening - those that generally don’t possess the adequate language to describe what they’re hearing - they simplistically (and inaccurately) accuse her of having “too high” a voice.
- The woman in question has breath support, a dynamic pitch range, and physiologically she is simply built to work at a higher average pitch. For anyone with some musical training, it’s like taking a familiar tune and transposing the whole thing up an octave. The music is still there, but the ear hears it at a higher vibrational frequency.
Realistically, with knowledge, technical training, support, and practice, women can discover and employ their fullest range of speaking pitches, and enjoy the benefits of - frankly - the buffet of expressivity that becomes available.
However, the fact remains that there is an underlying bias - one that presupposes that a lower pitch somehow signals increased intelligence, competence, and leadership (don’t believe me? Google it). And who naturally has a lower pitch range (but EXACTLY the same set of problems/conditions as outlined in 1-3, above, only at a lower section of the range)? Yeah. Males.
How do we get around this? DO we get around this?
As much as I’d like to flip off the bias and say “it doesn’t matter”, and “I don’t care, and neither should you”, that’s disingenuous….and unhelpful. While I work to educate people on these ideas, with the intention that - as the knowledge disperses through people with influence - the ground will shift, I have to acknowledge that the problem is real and it’s now.
For now, the best - and only, in my opinion - approach is to help women understand and take back the full scope of what their voices can do. While it doesn’t change the narrow understanding some people have of what constitutes a powerful and authoritative voice, it does offer the best chance to create expressiveness and increase the likelihood that women will be more empowered as speakers, This understanding and confidence will go a long way towards rewriting the script of pitch and power.
I know that an authentic voice is a strong, well-supported, responsive and unique thing - one that reflects exactly who you are, not what somebody else tells you you should be - so I finish with a question: is YOUR voice authentic??
Authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are.
~ Brene Brown
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