Voice Techniques for Contesters

Voice Techniques for Contesters

By Don Daso,  K4ZA

Babies can scream for what seems like hours on end, without any apparent damage.  You can shout yourself hoarse during an afternoon’s football game.  Or find yourself without voice at the end of the CQ WW contest.  Why?  What’s happened?  The answer involves understanding proper use of your voice, compared to MISUSE of your voice.  We are speaking, of course, of habits—things that began as casual indulgences, methods of being socially acceptable, then slid into habitual behavior.  So our football fan might not be able to shout as loudly as he or she would like.  Or perhaps you have saved yourself for just this contest weekend, and can’t believe you can hardly speak Sunday morning, just then the bands are opening to Europe.  Such examples may sound familiar. I will explain why such cases occur, and how to prevent those that relate directly to phone contest operating.

A Few Words About Technique

I’ve always liked the inherent value in the slogan (popular in police procedurals):

“Work like you train; train like you work.”  Good voice technique is about giving you freedom. Freedom comes from choices and confidence: choices about what kinds of sounds to make; confidence in the knowledge that whatever sounds you choose or want to make, you’ll be able to do so, without effort or strain.  Tiny muscle movements create your voice.  Getting the muscles of your voice in shape can give you self-confidence.  What do you do when you want to get in shape?  You exercise!   What happens with correct exercise?  Your voice works effortlessly.  So when you step up to the mic,  you have no worries about your voice.  Singers and performers know and practice this. Phone contesters, cramming a year of “performing” into a single weekend, can benefit as well.

Some Common Mistakes

First, we have to cultivate an awareness of our own voice—how we are using it, and how our posture may interfere with good voice use.  This means more than simply examining how the articulating organs work, or the throat, or how we breathe.  We have to look at these, of course, but we must also look at the “whole body function” picture.  Let’s start with some common mistakes, some common MISUSES:

1)      Try to watch yourself (maybe point your video camera at yourself) the next time you’re in a pileup, calling.  You may find youself stretching out with your neck and head.  This is great for demonstrating the “Reach Out and Touch Someone” idea, but bad posture for your voice.  Try it.  You will feel the strain.  It’s a natural reaction, but not good for the voice.  In fact, a picture of it could simply be titled:  How To Get A Sore Throat.

2)     Pulling your head back, instead of dropping the jaw, when taking a breath to speak.  This effectively closes part of the throat.  It also puts your larynx in an improper relationship with your breathing.  The movement may seem small, but inevitably you end of losing control of the soft palate and sounding overly nasal.  Your jaw release is slowed down.  You’ll be short of breath, and, for want of a better term, you’ll have a stiff tongue.  Resonation and articulation suffer.

3)     Pulling down is associated with pulling the head back.  Your rib cage slumps toward your stomach; your shoulders are pulled forward, narrowing across the top of the chest.  This all makes you feel low in energy—almost depressed.  Breathing is overly constricted; the voice lacks adequate support.  This often forces abdominal muscles to move too much, making your voice a monotone.

4)     Pulling back in. Typically, this makes you breathe mostly in the upper chest.  The relationship between vertebrae is such that the back loses much of its width at the place where your lungs are largest, making it difficult to speak long phrases.  And if you get excited, under the least little bit of stress, too much adrenalin will be produced.  Vocal control will almost disappear.  This makes for a shrill voice.

Ways To Eliminate These Four Problems

1)      A comfortable chair (one that fits your body size), and a boom mic headset will do the most to guarantee proper posture during a contest.  What’s left, besides winning?  Practice, in speaking correctly, that is.

2)     Keep the joint of your jaw open and free at all times.  Don’t worry about how far apart the teeth are; just allow your jaw to move freely.  Remember to think of your breath as a continuing flow from a tuned-up voice.

3)     And keep the muscle activity in shaping consonants as light, yet as precise as possible.  This is pretty simple.  (Whether they’ve learned it through research, or through practice, you can sometimes hear this in the voice of the seasoned Caribbean-contester’s exchange.  He’s not fully articulating the FIVE-NINE thousands of times—those are all rough-on-the-voice consonants—but rolling out a smoother and faster FIFE-NI litany instead.)  Keep your neck loose and free, use a good chair and mic, and you eliminate most of the potential for voice strain while contesting.

The Mechanics

You can view the lungs, the throat, and the mouth and nose as a system of tubes and valves that simply regulate airflow. When speaking, you actually breathe out and direct air through your throat, mouth or nose, thereby creating different sounds.  Such sounds largely depend on:

A:  the vocal cords;

B:  for vowels, the shape of the mouth (determined by the position of the tongue);

C:  for consonants, the obstruction of airflow (by valves, tongue or lips).

For instance, say “t-d-t-d-t-d” over and over, and you’ll notice that your mouth is doing exactly the same thing to produce the t and the d.   The only difference is that you switch the vocal cords on and off.

Your voice is produced by vibration of your vocal folds.  Put simply, the vocal folds are two bands of smooth tissue that lie opposite each other.  They are located in the larynx, commonly called the voice box.  The larynx is positioned between the base of the tongue and the top of the trachea (windpipe), or the passageway to the lungs.

At rest, the vocal folds are open to allow an individual to breathe.  To produce sound, our brain precisely coordinates a series of events.  First, the folds come together in a firm but relaxed way. Once closed, air from the lungs then passes through them, causing vibration, thus making sound.  The sound from this vibration then travels through the throat, nose, and mouth (resonating cavities).  The size and shape of these cavities, along with the size and shape of the vocal folds, helps determine our vocal quality.

Variety within an individual’s voice is the result of lengthening or shortening, tensing or relaxing the vocal folds.  Moving the cartilages, or soft, flexible bone-like tissues to which the folds are attached, makes these adjustments possible.  For example, shortening and relaxing the vocal folds makes a deep voice; lengthening and tensing them produces a high-pitched voice.

Posture, practice, and other mitigating circumstances (not all of which we can control), can all affect that vocal quality.  For the contest operator, the best options are proper practice, proper procedures, and the best possible environment.

Some Thoughts On Voice Maintenance

Improper care usually results from ignorance.  Remembering our crying baby, we might assume the voice to be tireless.  And the stamina IS amazing, considering the abuse it can suffer.  You speak from when you get out of bed until day’s end, regardless of weather, in smoke-filled rooms, in cold or dry rooms, sometimes with a cold or allergies, and so on.  The idea of maintenance may seem strange, but for those who have suffered, it is all too real.

Understanding begins with knowing something about how the voice works, about the throat and resonating chambers.  The larynx is usually the focal point, because it receives the most abuse.  The larynx is where the vibration, friction, manipulation, and therefore, irritation take place.  The larynx is essentially a valve located in the trachea, containing the vocal cords.  The vocal cords are simply two pieces of tissue—they are not muscles, and do nothing by themselves.  Their function depends on muscles located in the throat.  When you swallow, for instance, you force the cords together.  Phonation causes them to elongate or thicken.  We CHOOSE to speak.  This choice, this concentration, relaxes the muscles around the cords during phonation, letting them vibrate.  If surrounding muscle tension forces the cords together unnecessarily while they are phonating (almost in a swallowing position), friction will occur.  Hoarseness, laryngitis, and rawness are the result.  What can you do if this type of irritation occurs?

Inhalation of warm vapor is the most effective aid.  Not too conducive to high rates on any band.  Hot liquids, throat lozenges or cough drops do not help the larynx.  Anything swallowed goes down the esophagus and into the stomach, not down the trachea to your lungs.  (Remember, the larynx is part of the respiratory system, not the digestive system.)  For anything to help your voice, it must be in a gaseous form.  Warm water vapor is always helpful, unless there are lung or allergic complications.  This tells you a comfortable amount of warm humid air is good in your shack, or at least good for you.  But warm moist air in the shack often becomes difficult because heating systems (in use during contest season in much of the USA) dry the air considerably.

Caffeine constricts the vocal cords.  It also dehydrates them.  And since you need as much liquid as possible, you should choose something to drink beside the ever-popular coffee or Coke.  Spring water can be very good, as can natural juices.

If you get a headache from all the QRN, QRM or whatever, be considerate of the medication you use.  Take only aspirin, if possible.  Other medications can distend the capillaries, and under severe stress, could cause bleeding if your vocal cords are irritated.

Final Thoughts

Finally, some thoughts on manipulating the voice itself.  I like to use the MONITOR feature built in to my Kenwood to listen to myself, especially while setting up the speech processor.  But listening during contests is something I no longer do.  Because I found I was modifying my speech pattern when speaking.  Specifically, hearing myself through the monitor caused me to shorten or clip my vowels.   (It was a subtle shift, but all too real.  And only really noticeable by listening to a recording of my speech.)  But this minor irritation made me modify my voice; this caused further changes, and so on.  So pay particular attention to your own voice if you use this feature.  Simply recording yourself speaking will point out any changes to your normal speech pattern.

Finally, don’t lay off before the contest.  I used to concentrate on CW before the big phone weekend, thinking this was a good idea.  You need to practice and work out, though, just like an athlete—using your voice, and working on the skills I’ve described.  Practice promotes good habits, and equally important, builds stamina, something all contesters need.

So train well, understand your anatomy, combining this knowledge with good posture and breathing exercises.  Combined with a good station, and some good propagation, and you too, can be a creative phone contester.



The information on posture contained in this article pertains to ergonomics—a term derived from two Greek words:  “ergon,” which means work, and “nomoi,” which means natural laws.  So, we are talking about human capabilities relating to work.  In recent years, studies have been made to suggest postures which minimize unnecessary static work, and reduce forces acting on the body.

The guiding principles are:

a)                 being able to use or adopt different, but equally healthy and safe postures;

b)                 when force has to be exerted, it should be done by the largest muscle groups;

c)                  activities should be performed with the joints near the mid-point of their range of motion (especially head, trunk, and upper limbs).


A well-designed chair for you to sit in is one of the most important parts of a good contest station.  It will favorably affect posture, circulation, as well as the amount of effort required to maintain a good comfort level, and the amount of pressure on the spine.  Comfort WILL affect your rate, regardless of propagation.

The following recommendations should be followed:

  • Your seat should adapt to you, not vice versa.
  • Chairs should be stable and fully and easily adjustable while you are seated.
  • Your chair’s seat pan and backrests should be upholstered and covered in a material that absorbs perspiration.
  • Your seat pan height should be adjustable and should transfer your weight through the buttocks, not the thighs.
  • Your backrest should adjust up and down, as well as backward and forward, or flex with your body’s movement for good lumbar support.  A forward tilt of the seat may relieve stress in some applications (allowing the backrest to follow you movements in performing certain tasks).
  • You should have wheels or casters on your chair (hard casters for soft floors and soft casters for hard floors).   Your chair should then preferably have five legs.  This offers improved stability and reduces the risk of you tipping over.
  • The front of your seat should be of a “waterfall” design in order to provide sufficient clearance for your thighs and to prevent reducing your circulation.
  • Your seat should swivel, especially since you’ll probably be making lots of lateral movements.
  • Staying in the same position for long periods of time causes fatigue.  Knowing this, and being able to changes chairs or move around comfortably will help lessen such fatigue.
  • You should be able to adjust the height of the seat—you didn’t think secretaries put typewriters and workstations at lowers heights just for looks, did you?
  • If seat height cannot be adjusted, you should have a footrest, which will help relieve pressure under the thigh. These should be angled and covered with a non-slip surface to provide comfortable support for your feet.  (Perfect for incorporating a footswitch, too!)
  • Set up your station to avoid unnatural postures.  You shouldn’t have to lean forward or backward unnecessarily—to operate any gear or view any screen.
  • Your station gear should be designed so that all gear or equipment requiring frequent access or adjustment is within acceptable reach distances.

To aid your decision-making process, spend a few minutes answering the questions about your chair use—designed to help you evaluate your needs: http://ergo.human.cornell.edu/Pub/AHquest/seatingeval.PDF

And remember, no ONE chair will fit, or work for all persons, regardless of what salesmen may tell you.

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