"UNNNNNNNN," hums John Colomius, a senior account executive at a New York computer graphics company, loudly. "Maa-maaaa," he adds. Then, louder still, "WHOOOOOOSH!"
Standing next to a grand piano in the living room of an apartment in Manhattan's Upper West Side, Mr. Colomius has been making babylike talk for the last 45 minutes. And he's actually paying someone to listen.
It's not quite as strange as it might seem. The listener is Jeffrey Jacobi, a Juilliard-trained voice coach who specializes in teaching business executives how to improve the quality of their voices.
Mr. Colomius has hired Mr. Jacobi to help strengthen his voice so he would sound more authoritative when delivering oral presentations at work.
This is no easy task. Mr. Colomius is the first to admit that his natural voice is unusually high-pitched -- so high-pitched, in fact, that his wife has been known in social situations to pull him aside and hiss, "Lower your voice."
The last straw was when, in casual conversation, Mr. Colomius' rising voice set off the car alarm on the key chain of a friend standing nearby -- twice.
"I'm an account executive," Mr. Colomius explains. "Part of my job isgiving presentations. If you come across in these as weak, you're obviously not as effective. I just decided on my own to do something about strengthening my voice."
Scores of executives in such major companies as AT&T, Avon, IBM, Mobil Oil and Time Warner have made the trek to Mr. Jacobi's sunny studio overlooking the Hudson River, all in hopes of emerging some 20 lessons later with more resonant, DTC distinctive, mellifluous voices.
At up to $150 an hour, thelessons can set them -- or their companies -- back by as much as $3,000.
"People are judged by the way they sound," says Mr. Jacobi, 32.
"In business, you can have the finest clothes, looks and credentials, but if you have a weak voice, it considerably lessens that first impression you make.
"A strong voice indicates to the world that you're confident oyour professional ability."
G; Mr. Jacobi, an intense, blondly handsome man whose father
coached such famous voices as those of actors E. G. Marshall, Tony Randall and Faye Dunaway, recites the pitfalls of an unappealing executive voice.
"Potential problem areas include monotony, nasality, breathiness, shrillness, enunciation, rapid speech and foreign accents," he intones in his own deep voice.
Indeed, many foreign-born executives have sought help from Mr. Jacobi in shaking their Chinese, Pakistani or Spanish accents, to name just a few.
"Certain accents -- not just foreign, either -- can give a negative impression," he cautions.
To counter a strong accent or strengthen a wispy voice, Mr. Jacobirelies on a repertoire of breathing and voice exercises that he encourages clients to practice for at least 15 minutes each evening.
He may recommend that a client hum loudly on one note for as long as possible to strengthen the client's voice tone.
Or he may ask the client to repeat over and over a multisyllable word such as "agenda" or "lullaby" to practice the desired inflection.
One key exercise, usually performed at the beginning of each coaching session, consists of simply blowing air through one's mouth for as long as possible to relax and open up the voice.
Mr. Jacobi's treatment plan varies a bit from voice to voice.
Lane Wight, an assistant vice president at Merrill Lynch & Co., has a different problem, one that Mr. Jacobi claims is very common among women executives.
People cannot always hear what she is saying. Simply put, Ms. Wight has a puny voice, and she lacks the confidence to make herself speaklouder.
"It was so frustrating for me," she remembered.
"Once, when I was helping my boss prepare for a business trip to London, I mentioned several times that there were certain preparations we needed to do before leaving. When we were in London, some person in the meeting asked whether we had done the necessary preparations.
"My boss said 'No,' and turned to me and said, 'Why weren't those done beforehand? Did we ever discuss them?' I told him, 'You just don't listen to me when I talk to you!' "
That boss ultimately arranged for Merrill Lynch to pay for Ms. Wight's voice coaching from Jacobi. "Now I have vocal stamina," she boasted.
"I recently gave a presentation to a room full of people. There was a lot of air-conditioning noise, and as other people gave their presentations the audience kept interrupting to say, 'Speak louder.' " Yet, she said proudly, "No one did it to me."