At Odds With Establishment: Therapist Talks Up Voice Makeovers

As a student at Brooklyn College in 1948, Morton Cooper first heard his own speaking voice on one of those newfangled tape recorders. The sound, which he remembers as “high nasal, with a heavy New York accent,” so appalled him that he immediately sought speech therapy and in six months “went from a Howard Cosell to a Henry Kissinger.”

Working with speech pathologists that he now perceives as well-intentioned but misguided, Cooper quickly found a low, low sound that “the women thought was manly.” And almost as quickly, he started to lose his voice completely.

“I went to 12 MDs,” he said, “and they couldn’t understand why.” And why the aching throat that went with the stiff neck, and the stiff neck that went with the aching throat?

Meanwhile, Cooper persevered with his voice makeover and became a speech pathology major, going on to earn a doctorate at UCLA, where he was on the faculty for nine years. Today, the flamboyant and controversial Cooper is a speech therapist in private practice in Westwood—and frequently at odds with the Establishment in his field.

‘Voice Suicide’ Epidemic

It is Cooper’s contention that “voice suicide” is epidemic in America, that one-fourth of the population so misuse their voices that they are imperiling their health and another 25% have voices so unattractive that their voices are social and professional liabilities.

So you’re stuck with the voice you’re born with? Wrong, according to Cooper. He will tell you that the voice is a musical instrument and one must be taught to play a musical instrument. If it’s a matter of doing what comes naturally, he suggested, “A baby’s cry would be the voice you’d have the rest of your life.”

Rather, Cooper said in his now mellifluent manner, people’s voices develop through a process of imitation, “almost like we take them off the rack,” and most people “try to emulate their father or mother, or some film or televisions tar.”

He likes to say, “The voice you have may not be your own and could be dangerous to your health.”

Today’s most desirable “voice image,” Cooper said, is something “deep, macho” for men and, for women, “sultry, deep, sexual, the Lauren Bacall voice.” And pursuit of these, Cooper said, can add up to big trouble.

True, some people with less-than-magnificent voices are rich and famous. The obvious is Howard Cosell, but Cooper also mentioned Julia Child and Barbara Walters. These are what Cooper called “money voices,” which their owners have turned into assets, but he warned, “It wouldn’t work for you.”

And Cooper does not promise that his “voice psychotherapy” will create a great voice from a tiny, twangy one or a nasal or guttural one. (Among those on his all-time list of great voices: Winston Churchill, Cary Grant, Gregory Peck, Sir Laurence Oliver, Richard Burton, Johnny Carson, Burt Reynolds, Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Margaret Thatcher and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.)

But, he said, each of us has a range of about 20 notes, a “sound menu” from which we may select, with a little help. “Change Your Voice, Change Your Life” is his promise—as well as the title of his third book. Cooper, whose patients have included Anne Bancroft, Joan Rivers, Cheryl Ladd, Lucille Ball, Kirk Douglas, O. J. Simpson, Diahann Carroll and Henry Fonda, said it’s largely a matter of proper breathing and proper projection.

A good voice, Cooper said, is projected from “the mask,” which includes the bridge and sides of the nose down to and around the lips. A misused voice, by contrast, Cooper said, originates in the lower throat. His first step is to locate and identify the patient’s optimal pitch level, range and tone focus.

He asks patients to say “umm-hmmm,” with lips closed, and inflection rising. If the patient is using proper pitch and tone, there should be a slight tingling or vibration around the nose and lips.

Exercise and Practice

Once the proper voice has been found, the therapy leading to permanent voice change includes exercises in proper breathing (from the midsection), practicing talking into a tape recorder, group reinforcement and coaching from the therapist.

“It takes five seconds on a slow day to figure out where a voice should be,” Cooper said. But there’s a catch. Getting comfortable with the new voice can take from three to six months or more, and, at two sessions a week, $100 a session, a Morton Cooper voice does not come cheaply.

Cooper, who doesn’t hesitate to say, “I have a great ear,” has worked with transsexuals, stutterers and a corporate executive who “sounded like a Mafioso don when he opened his mouth.” By changing the voice, he said, he can largely eliminate the accent, whether it be Midwestern twang, syrupy Southern or ethnic. These days, he noted, “Most people want to sound as if they come from nowhere.”

Voice misuse, with its symptoms of neck stiffness, sore throat and hoarseness, fatigue and voice breaks, can, Cooper contented, be the precursor of such pathological conditions as polyps, nodes and even cancer of the vocal cords.

He claims a high success rate in treating a condition called spastic dysphonia, sometimes considered irreversible, in which the voice becomes strangled and the victim cannot talk. While a number of other professionals say it is an emotional problem, Cooper says “poppycock”—it is a mechanical problem, sometimes stress-induced. “You can’t get spastic dysphonia unless you use your voice wrong,” he said.

“You can’t get spastic dysphonia simply by having emotional or psychological problems. Otherwise, the entire country would have it.”

Cooper’s patients talk:

“I wasn’t able to talk at all without pain,” said Beth Andaya, a teacher at Los Angeles High. “If I talked for half an hour, I ran out of voice.”

Andaya had suffered from recurring voice problems for almost 20 years, but the crisis came last February when, after an attack of viral laryngitis, she said. “My voice went out completely. My doctor said, ‘Oh, you’re going to be fine.’ I wasn’t fine. He sent me to a throat specialist, who gave me medication, but nothing worked.” A friend told her about Morton Cooper.

“In one or two sessions, he had me talking,” Andaya said.

Dr. Neil Sandberg, who as Western regional director of the American Jewish Committee does a great deal of public speaking, went to Cooper when treatment by an ear-nose-throat doctor did not relieve his throat irritation and chronic sore throats. Retraining of his voice cured him, Sandberg said.

He added, “When you find people running around the streets going ‘mi-mi-mi-mi-mi,’ you know they’re either idiots or they’ve been to Cooper.”

Dr. Don Dodson started having voice problems 10 years ago and was diagnosed at Stanford University as having spastic dysphonia, probably incurable. “I was finally discharged after being told they’d done everything they could,” he said.

Dodson, who is assistant vice president, academic affairs, University of Santa Clara, remembered reading a Morton Cooper book and sought him out. “It took me a year of working with him to really catch on to the techniques,” Dodson said, “and another two years to work them into everyday speech.” Today, he said, it is an automatic response—“If I find myself starting to slip into the lower throat, I’ll try to hop back up.” And the spasticity has not returned.

“It was shockingly expensive,” he said, “and worth every penny.”

A colleague in the field of speech therapy, who asked to be anonymous, concluded that Cooper is “better than he’s perceived by his colleagues. He’s his own worst enemy.”

He added, “The problem I have, and I think anyone who has any respect for evidence has, is that he has presented no credible evidence that his treatment is effective. There are plenty of journals available to him to publish in; Mort apparently is deathly afraid of publishing in peer review journals.”

Nor is he convinced that the patients Cooper claims to have cured of spastic dysphonia actually had that disorder.

On the other hand, he said he has “a suspicion that Cooper is probably a fairly good clinician.”

A former patient, while swearing by Cooper’s therapy, said of him, “He puts people off. He loves telling everyone how great he is and how terrible everyone else (in the field) is.”

But at 53, Cooper, who admits quite happily to being heretical, is a showman, given to luncheon talks peppered with impersonations of famous voices and, one gets the idea, a man who’d be just as thrilled to be in People as in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Still, he is “outraged” at his colleagues’ charges of failure to publish in reputable journals. “They’re full of baloney,” he said. “That’s really dastardly.”

His official bibliography includes more than a full page of articles, among which he points specifically to the Journal of Speech and Hearing Disorders (American Speech and Hearing Assn.), the American Psychiatric Journal and the Eye, Ear, Nose and Throat Monthly. The truth, Cooper said, is that “some of these people do not want me to be published” because they are “outraged” by his viewpoint, i.e. that most voice pathology is due to talking too low rather than too high.

Now, if Cooper could have any speaking voice in the world, whose would he choose? “David Brinkley. He’s an entity. But I’d use it only on TV; if he wasn’t David Brinkley and he said, ‘Will you pass me the salt?’ you’d say, ‘That’s enough of that fellow.’”

Then Cooper smiled and said, “Of course David Brinkley wasn’t born with that voice…”