How to use your voice when teaching online
Several teachers have reached out to me over the past few weeks asking why their voices feel so tired after a day of teaching online.
Vocal fatigue is common for teachers, whose job requires them to use their voice an extraordinary amount during the day with few moments for vocal rest (school teachers even have to use it at recess and lunch time whilst on duty).
So, I thought this was interesting. Teachers talk all day, so why is talking online making their voices tired?
There are a few reasons your voice may be feeling tired or sore at the end of a day of online.
1. You may be over-compensating
It’s highly likely that the main contributor to vocal fatigue from online teaching is coming from a tendency to over-compensate.
In a face-to-face environment, you rely not only on verbal communication but your physical presence in the room. You can signal to students with a gesture or even a glance.
Teaching online is totally different because physical presence is removed and there’s a boundary between you and the learner. You may start to overcompensate with your voice in an attempt to ‘reach’ students and connect with them through the new medium of video conferencing.
This would, in turn, place extra strain on your voice as you try to be louder or more animated than you ordinarily would in a face-to-face environment.
One teacher told me that he feels his online classes are ‘not as good’, so he’s trying to mask his insecurities by being extra upbeat and animated. It only took a couple of days before his voice was giving away exactly how he was feeling – he’d exhausted himself and had barely any voice left.
The challenge is to trust that whilst your teaching is different when delivered online, you remain a good teacher! Students are also adjusting to the new environment. Remember that less is more, trust that your energy and your lessons will reach you students.
Also, make use of the camera – experiment with how your facial expression could do the work your body language might normally be doing in the classroom.
2. You may be talking more loudly than what’s required
Whether you’re using a laptop or desktop computer, most in-built microphones these days are very effective. Although it might not be up to the task of recording an interview or podcast, unless your inbuilt microphone is damaged or you’re standing a few metres away, you can trust and rely on it to be working well.
That doesn’t mean you don’t need to speak clearly! As always, a microphone will only pick up the work a speaker is already doing. Always put the emphasis on clarity rather than volume for digital environments.
You also don’t need to fill your whole living room, house or apartment with your voice. Speak to the group in front of you by speaking to your mic or screen, but don’t assume you have to be any louder in order for them to hear you. Unless they tell you otherwise, assume that they can hear you fine and you don’t need to be putting any extra effort into being loud or increasing your volume.
If in doubt of your audio quality, ask your students for feedback as to whether they can hear you or not. This will help you determine whether you need to dial up the clarity or volume.
Note that audibility and intelligibility are two different things. If your students say they can’t hear you, play with speaking more clearly (you could think of us as dialling up your consonants or putting more energy in your articulators). If increasing the clarity doesn’t change their experience, it may be an audibility issue rather than intelligibility.
You might also want to consider using a headset. I find headsets great for video conferencing as I know the mic is right in front of my mouth, plus I can hear the students more clearly, and I can gesticulate freely! Colleagues and I have worked out our favourite headsets at the moment are Logitech H800 Wireless Headset (hooray for Bluetooth) and Corsair HS45, but you could even opt for something as simple as Logitech H110 Stereo Headset.
If you’d prefer a desktop mic, the Rode NTUSB looks to be great value for money – it comes with with a desktop stand and will plug straight into your computer. The Rode NT1A condenser mic is also a crowd favourite and a great option if you have an audio interface and mic stand at the ready.
3. You may be using your voice more than you would in the studio or classroom
In an effort to make sure instructions are clear and your students are engaged, you could be speaking more than you would in a face-to-face environment.
Many of my colleagues in the voice profession have commented on the importance of clarity of instruction when teaching online. There’s unanimous agreement that our instructions need to be specific and deliberate. Clarity of instruction doesn’t necessarily mean giving more detail or speaking for longer, it can mean finding the simplest way to say what needs to be said.
This reduces the chance of confusion, which itself leads to frustration, annoyance or discomfort from the students. Confusing instructions also increase the vocal load of the teacher, as suddenly you’re explaining something more than you normally would.
Most significantly, clear instructions make the lesson easier for the students (who are experiencing the same amount of Zoom fatigue as their teachers). It takes the pressure off them having to dissect information that’s being delivered to them through a different medium than they’re used to.
Find the most simple, clear and direct way to give an instruction or explain a concept to students. Rather than ramble and draw out your explanation, pause and give them the space to ask questions.
Remember that students are getting familiar with this new learning environment too. They need space to comprehend information and take in instructions
4. Resist the temptation to fill every silence with your own voice
Silence in an online class can make you feel like the lesson isn’t landing, the students are losing focus or people are distracted. But perhaps these moments of silence are the same in-between moments that present themselves in any face-to-face class – only now they’re not filled with student chatter or background noise?
In an online environment, the background noise of a school or university disappears, and the silence can be overwhelming. The space you give students to comprehend concepts, respond to instructions or complete their work is crucial – not only to their learning, but to preserving your voice (and probably your wellbeing!).
I know some teachers who are using the Pomodoro technique – teaching for 25 minutes, then giving students a 5 minute break, so it’s 25 mins on and 5 mins off. You could invite students to put some music on in short breaks like these, or you could play some music and the students hear that. Music or no music, any sort of break in a class is a chance to build in moments of vocal rest.
You could also embrace the silence! Rather than racing to fill every pocket of silence with your own instructions or talking, get familiar (and comfortable) with the silence. This is certainly a challenging one when teaching online, as I know a lot of teachers are feeling a need to fill every little moment of the class to keep students engaged. The best solution is probably to investigate and strike a balance.
5. Have a look at your working-from-home set up and check that it’s supporting effective voice use
One singing teacher told me this week that she injured her neck in the first week of teaching online because she insisted on putting her laptop up high on top of her piano because she didn’t want to have a double chin.
There are few things more daunting than seeing yourself on camera all day, every day, day after day. It’s no wonder some teachers have opted for the most flattering camera angle as opposed to the most ergonomic set up!
She quickly realised how ridiculous her concern about a double chin was, but only after she injured her neck and was wondering why her voice was so tired and scratchy.
When it comes to using your voice efficiently and effectively, alignment and breath are key.
In a classroom or studio you’re probably standing, and chances are you’re moving around a bit. You may not always have the best posture when standing but at least you’re not leaning over a laptop or slouched at a desk.
Working from home, you might be sitting at a desk or table delivering classes to a screen that’s requiring you to gaze up to it or lean over to it. Preferably, your camera will be at the height of your head so that you can keep your head and neck in alignment. If your head and neck are off balance, that’s going to put extra strain on your neck and shoulders, restricting your breathing and disconnecting you from using your voice functionally.
Find the balance between a camera angle and lighting you can cope with, and prioritise your alignment so that you’re not stretching your neck forward or slouching in your spine.
Any moments you can build into the day that allow you to stretch your neck or shoulders will be beneficial as well.
If you’d normally go between standing and sitting when teaching, aim to have the same variety in your online classes.
6. Make sure you are breathing
One of my colleagues from New York remarked recently that on a trip to the supermarket, he felt tension in the air, and he looked around and observed that everyone was holding their breath. (A voice teacher’s trained eye can quickly notice when people are holding their breath or breathing shallowly).
This phenomenon of holding your breath through the pandemic was also observed in David Marr’s article on The Guardian, One day we will tell stories of the virus, a time when we held our breath passing people on the street.
Sadly, in Australia, it feels like after going through a summer of being scared of the air due to bushfire smoke, we’re now scared of the air due to the virus.
I’m finding myself frequently holding my breath on my morning walks through Carlton Gardens and on trips to the supermarket, and whilst I thank my impulse to survive, I remind myself to reconnect to my breath when I’m back in my teaching space (aka my living room).
It’s important to acknowledge we’re not only shifting to teaching online, but doing so in the midst of a global pandemic that comes with a range of its own demands. You’re not only learning to teach online, you’re also processing what’s happening in the world, in your institution, in your family and with your students – all of which as a singular concern could be discombobulating and disconnect you from your breath.
Whether you teach standing or sitting, take a moment to check in with your breath before teaching. You can place a hand around the level of your belly button and focus on breath moving your belly out into your hand as breath comes in, and your hand moves in towards your spine as breath leaves.
Low and slow. That’s all you need to remember.
If you can take this moment to centre your breath before class, you’ll be more likely to be using good breath support when it comes to teaching.