October 13, 2016
Steven Knell is a doctoral student at the University of Texas at Austin and a former LD coach for the Harvard-Westlake School, Rowland Hall-St. Mark’s School, and Bingham High School.
I come from a unique background in that I have coached national circuit debate but I also possess two degrees in some type of vocal music and am pursuing my third such degree. In my undergraduate I made my money coaching a fledgling but immensely talented local Utah LD team with circuit aspirations. I will never forget attending our weekly LD practice with a colleague and friend also pursuing her voice degree. After watching me give a speech in a practice debate at what would be considered by most to be an average circuit debater's speed, she advised me to quit my job, or at least never do a practice debate with the kids again, lest I do damage to my vocal mechanism. Seeing me sit as I read, hearing me "double clutch" and gasp for air and watching my shoulders tense and my larynx rise alarmed her. I was taken aback by her remarks, but became increasingly aware of the habits and ticks of circuit debaters. I had conversations regularly with my debaters and other competitors which largely concluded that debate rounds were taxing on both the voice and the body, and listened to dozens of fatigued voices crack and languish in round after round. I began to realize that very little was being done to teach these students how to properly speak and align their bodies in a debate round.
It seems pedestrian to instruct people to use good "posture" when speaking. But the reality is that the voice, breath and body do not react correctly when the body is out of alignment, making it far more difficult to speak and breathe effectively with healthy vocal technique. Some problematic things I see frequently:
Beyond the obvious (but overlooked) presentational problems with such behaviors, neither the body nor the voice is able to function correctly, especially in an extremely vocally and physically demanding activity like a debate round, when they are employed. The body is designed to interact with every other part of itself in a sort of endless ripple effect, which means any poor choices about body alignment will inevitably affect the whole body. There are some muscles that need more attention for relaxation than others, such as the neck, back, and shoulders, but every part of the body interacts with every other part, so they are all important. The more a debater generates with poor body awareness, the worse off they will be.
Poor bodily alignment will always be worse for debaters than good alignment, and yet this is something of which I find most debaters know very little. They pay almost no heed to how the habits they are developing affect their ability to speak, and yes, to think! If tension in one area of the body telescopes to other parts of the body, it stands to reason the brain works less effectively when the body is not relaxed and large amounts of tension are present. Tension impedes the ability of debaters to relax and focus, and may be detrimental to a debater's ability to cohesively and adeptly generate arguments while speaking.
Next time you are watching a debate round, spend a speech or two paying particular attention to how the competitors breathe. Afterward, go out amongst the masses and observe more closely. The way humans have been conditioned to breathe, particularly in American society, is already very unnatural and ineffective, and in fact rather inconsistent with the way we breathe naturally as infants. In debate rounds, and very fast debate rounds in particular, the problem becomes far more pronounced. As today's debaters race through cards at breakneck pace, they have to breathe as quickly as possible to minimize the delay in spewing forth another fifty words, often having to breathe twice in the sudden and gasping manner that we all know so well.
The problems with such behavior are twofold: first, breathing in this way is simply not biologically correct and results in tension. A gasp carries several immediate negative biological reactions. Among the most important and detrimental to proper speaking are the raising of the larynx and tension in the neck, shoulders and jaw. Try gasping and notice how your body, specifically in the area of the vocal mechanism, reacts. There is immediate tension that translates to a loss of effectiveness and function of the voice, perpetuating a vicious cycle of bodily tension and poor vocal technique. Second, you simply do not get a proper amount of air when you gasp. This has the effect of a) generating more gasping, enhancing the problems with the gasping in the first place (see the "double clutch"); b) causing the chest cavity to collapse and other muscles to compensate by developing tension as the air runs out; and c) impeding the ability to get enough oxygen for proper circulation in the blood stream to the brain and other parts of the body. It also unbalances the nervous system and makes airways and blood vessels constrict. Beyond that, there is even a growing body of evidence that says our bastardized "normal" breathing routines are detrimental to our health overall, and can influence sleep, muscle growth, and even the health of our teeth!
As a scholar of the voice, it pains me to observe many debaters speaking in a way that is harmful to their instrument. Tension in the body is detrimental to the voice, as discussed above, and can generate all sorts of issues for vocal production ranging chronic vocal fatigue from severe pressure on the vocal membranes to vocal disorders. But there are things that even a debater with zero body tension could still do to harm the voice, and while lack of body awareness and vocal problems usually go hand in hand, I see debaters making the following mistakes frequently:
Vocal fatigue is almost completely because of unnecessary tension; opera singers experience little fatigue despite singing performance after performance of demanding repertoire because they are able to eliminate the tension from the body and hence the voice. In many ways, debaters resemble singers. They use their voices to perform their craft. It is for this reason that debaters should learn to speak as if they were singing, both in and out of round. Coaches would do well to research the nature of resonance and the way the vocal mechanism functions and notice the ways that their students may be not using voices optimally.
I hope this article has been informative about the nature of common problems with the body, the breath, and the voice in debate rounds, and that the solutions presented give you at least a cursory examination into ways to resolve them. I encourage debaters to locate literature among the wealth of resources available regarding alignment, breathing, and speaking.