(Keynote speech given at the 2019 PEVoC meeting in Copenhagen, 28th August)
My reputation as a voice teacher rests on the fact that I teach from a solid methodology that delivers an organically logical progression of exercises addressing each of three general areas of what comprises the two to three octaves of the speaking voice. By ‘each general area’ I mean the musculature of the voice, the resonators of the voice and the articulation of the voice into words. These areas break down into many large and small fields of consciousness and reconstitute as one integrated whole.
We wouldn’t have to have conferences such as this if it were simple to describe how the voice works - how we make the raw vocal material that either speaks or sings. I am here to contribute my version of the process and to listen to other versions. I doubt if I will contribute any new knowledge but sometimes a rearrangement of the vocabulary can shed new light on a familiar subject.
I assume that we all share the understanding that the vocal anatomy is the same for speaking and for singing. However, the way we talk about it often differs radically and, because we are talking consciously about a mind-body process that functions unconsciously, we must treat the subject matter carefully.
My modus operandi as a teacher is to practice first and theorise second. Here I will be theorising - finding words and hoping they spark some imagined passageway into an imagined practice as you sit there.
To create a virtual map in your mind’s eye of the geography of voice according to my work I’ll sketch in three big outlines, the general areas, of the journey we embark upon.
Under the heading ‘musculature of the voice’ I include all the breathing muscles - not only the diaphragm, diaphragmatic crura and intercostals, but the back, the pelvis and the legs - AND the laryngeal muscles, the pharyngeal, jaw, tongue, soft palate, neck, face muscles AND the muscles of the - oh well - let’s admit it - the whole body…Under the heading of resonators one could also put ‘the whole body’ if we expand from the primary resonators of mouth, pharynx and nasal cavities to the secondary sympathetic resonators of the chest and the vibrations carried through bone and tissue from the top of the skull to the feet. Articulating the voice into words is pretty much the job of the lips and the tongue but - they are part of the facial musculature and the face muscles are activated by cranial nerves that interact with the vagus nerve which wanders everywhere (as far as I can see…) and thus even articulation could be described as a whole-body event.
We are aiming for whole-body-MIND awareness and freedom - to restore the voice to its birthright of the two to four octaves of speaking notes that can express the whole gamut of human emotion, and all the subtleties and nuances of thought.
The intrinsic vocal musculature is involuntary. We cannot tell it what to do. But we can tell the voluntary muscles what NOT to do and at the same time stimulate the action of the involuntary muscles with imagery and impulse.
Our first steps are therefore physical - we spend a great deal of time becoming aware of habitual
tensions and discovering how to release them from their inhibitory behavior. In the
course of this ongoing exploration, which travels hand- in-hand with breath awareness, the psycho-physical nature of the work is inevitably revealed and we begin noticing the difference between voluntary, conscious control and involuntary action.
These first steps start from a very simple understanding of how speaking works: Step 1) the desire to speak manifests in an electrical signal in the brain (a primary impulse of greater or lesser emotional strength); Step (2) that impulse activates signals to the breathing muscles and breath enters the body; as that breath exits a simultaneous message causes Step (3) vocal folds come together to meet the exiting breath creating vibration; Step (4) the vibrations reverberate through resonators and in Step (5) the vibrations are articulated into speech by the lips and tongue. All this is more or less one simultaneous reaction to the primary impulse on the involuntary or proprioceptive level.
An equally simple picture all too often contradicts every step on this easy road. The primary impulse to speak, Step (1), is halted by an inner voice, a secondary impulse that says: “Are you sure you want to say that?” “That’s stupid!“ “Hold on”, ” Wait a minute ...” “Dangerous!” This secondary impulse hijacks primary impulse number (2), tells the central breathing muscles to hold hard against the incoming breath and protects the original impulse from exposure. However, if the need to speak is so strong that it overrides the lack of emotional breath response in the diaphragm and demands to be heard, then enough breath to activate the vocal folds may be found somewhere under the collarbone, and the muscles of the throat, the tongue, and the jaw provide supportive action with their muscular strength - compensating for the lack of deep free breath. As these channel muscles work hard to substitute for the breath, and as they clench with effort, they obstruct access to the resonators. Thus, the natural range and expressivity of the voice narrows.
To illustrate this I’d like to tell an allegorical story – (anyone who has done my work knows this story):
A baby is born. Air enters its body – the baby lives. The baby’s body knows that air is breath and breath is Life.
Next - the baby’s body experiences a Pang or a kind of pain. The breath of life now turns into a wail. Miraculously, warm milk is introduced to the tiny body, and the pain, the Pang, dissolves in the comfort of sustenance. The baby survives. The first experience of a baby’s voice is in response to a life-or-death need. Need, Pang, Voice, Response, Survival. If the baby’s body could speak it would say: “I breathe, I live. I wail, I survive.”
This cardinal experience is repeated countless times in the ensuing months. Life-or-death lesson. Wailing works!
Then comes a major new phase.
Imagine the little girl or boy at two to three years old. Many words have been acquired. Many of them are attached to food--a subject of primary interest. And the Pang still rules. Imagine the three-year-old playing with his or her toys late one afternoon while mother or father or caregiver is in the kitchen preparing supper. The child feels a life-or-death need for a chocolate-chip cookie. The child runs into the kitchen with all the force of the Pang fueling his or her body and voice. “I want a chocolate-chip cookie! Gimme a chocolate-chip cookie! Chocolate-chip cookie! Chocolate-chip cookie!”
As can easily be imagined, mother or father or caregiver may not respond positively to this onslaught. The reaction is likely to be some variation on, “Stop that horrible noise. You will certainly not get a chocolate-chip cookie. Not until you learn to ask nicely. When you stop screaming and say ‘please’ and ‘thank-you’ in a nice voice then perhaps you can have a cookie."
The child’s organism learns that to follow the Pang leads not to life and survival but to the equivalent of death. The Pang and its primary impulse route are dangerous. Communicate the Pang and you might die. Do not wail!
Perhaps it is as soon as the next day that the little boy or girl is playing in the late afternoon and again feels a life-or-death need for a chocolate-chip cookie. The child is quick to recall the previous day’s lesson. The Pang is suppressed; breath is detached from the Pang-center. The need, together with some breath found in the upper part of the lungs well away from the dangerous Pang-center, is rerouted to a set of muscles above the throat. A little smile emerges, lips and tongue and jaw pick up the need, the voice no longer resonates throughout the body but flows nicely and inoffensively up into the cheeks and head. The child walks carefully into the kitchen and says in light, high tones of beguiling sweetness, “If I’m a very, very good little boy or girl and say pretty please with sugar on it, can I have a chocolate-chip cookie, dear mother or father or caregiver? Please, pretty please?” And mother or father or caregiver says, “What a good little boy or girl you are. You’ve learned how to speak nicely. Here are two chocolate-chip cookies!”
The child’s organism has learned the next major lesson in communication: follow secondary neurophysiological impulse routes in order to survive. The jaw will protect, the tongue will deflect and support. These muscles learn to hi-jack the impulses that were aiming for the diaphragm.
I assume that every singer as well as every actor has had to confront tension in the jaw and the tongue.
I love the story told by Joyce DiDonato about when she first started working with her teacher W. Stephen Smith (the author of the wonderful book The Naked Voice):
“Steve said: ‘Joyce, you’re talented and obviously very musical, but there’s simply no future in the way you’re singing. You’re singing exclusively on youth and muscle.’ He then dug his thumb under my chin straight into the core of my tongue tension, which at the time was my favorite type of “support”, and fought upward against the intense pressure I was applying downward, and he said ‘now sing aa.’ I told him I couldn’t phonate. I then spent my entire first year tearing down all the devices I had put firmly in place to aid me in sounding like an opera singer. The second year was spent building up the natural, naked voice.”
For the person who wants to be an actor the release of inhibitory physical tension can usefully awaken the connection to the originating mental, and/or emotional cause for that tension. Mind-body awareness is the name of the game and step one is to free the personal self from inhibitions of expression that have (almost inevitably) been learned through an upbringing and education that acculturates to societal norms or, in too many cases, have developed into defensive armoring against trauma.
These habitual defenses originate in the mind and are manifested in muscle behavior. We can, however, restore the extended humanity of the voice and extend our speech beyond our cultural boundaries.
I want to highlight the fact that voice is universal and speech is cultural, - all humans have lungs, diaphragm, resonators, vocal folds and the emotions that bring them into action and convey our feelings. As soon as we learn to speak, the conventions and language of each of our cultures constrains and trains the voice according to accepted behavior. Inhibitory defenses against spontaneous vocal expression are adopted lest we are banished from society.
Entering a rediscovery of how the voice works, we observe these habitual defensive activities and decide whether they serve our purposes or not. We become conscious of unconscious habitual activity and can make a choice as to whether the observed function is optimal or not.
The aim of the exercises is to re-calibrate neural patterns in the brain and restore the neuro-physiological pathways that formed the original travelogue of the voice when we were, let’s say, between 2 and 7 years old. These pathways run on the grid of involuntary musculature.
So the work is always along the path of non-doing, of yielding the control of conscious “doing” muscles to involuntary action that is observable but not directly controllable. We can stimulate the involuntary reactions but our controls must be in the causal thinking and feeling - not the resultant action.
This definitely puts the emphasis on the “psycho” part of “psycho-physical” work. I have to honestly declare to a new group of students that my aim is to change their minds. If the term “brain-washing” didn’t have such negative connotations it would probably describe what my work is about. Washing the brain clear of layer upon layer of behavioral thinking, scraping away the varnish of acquired correct thinking and acceptable speaking, throwing out the old carpets and curtains that muffled the floorboards and veiled the windows - relishing the clean spaces and clear views and ownership of the house. My house - my voice - my words - my choice of furnishing, my decisions as to what I want to show and what I want to hide.
How do I live in these spaces?
How do I speak from these spaces?
How might I sing from these spaces?
Every speaker has a prosody which is part of his or her own identity.
As cited in Wikipedia:
“… prosody is concerned with such linguistic functions as the rhythm, stress, and intonation of speech. Prosody may reflect various features of the speaker or the utterance: the emotional state of the speaker; the form of the utterance (statement, question, or command); the presence of irony or sarcasm; emphasis, contrast, and focus; or other elements of language that may not be encoded by grammar or by choice of vocabulary.”
While we each have our own prosody that is intrinsic to our personalities it is clear that we have the neural capacity for our prosody to change.
Actors must exercise their ability to take on the different prosodies of writers and of characters - this is not a case of manipulating the dynamics of pitch, pace and volume but of entering the inner impulse world that lies behind the words and the grammar, and changing habits of thought, feeling and expression while staying true to oneself. Widening the boundaries of the authentic self.
I’d like to try and demonstrate what I mean by taking on the prosodies of two very different writers. I’m going to read excerpts from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ The Leaden Echo and The Golden Echo - and then some of the very differently prosodic, but equally passionate Cascando by Samuel Beckett. You do not have to understand the sense or the words - but I would like you to experiment with embodied listening - every now and then open your mouth and listen as if your breath could hear - as if you were listening with an embodied ear.
Listening in to Hopkins’ prosody in The Golden Echo I hear lyrical joy in the play of vowels and consonants dancing through octaves of vocal range with untrammeled rhythms conveying passionate imagery and transcendent feelings:
(end of The Leaden Echo)
So be beginning, be beginning to despair.
O there ’s none; no no no there ’s none:
Be beginning to despair, to despair,
Despair, despair, despair, despair.
THE GOLDEN ECHO
There ís one, yes I have one (Hush there!);
Only not within seeing of the sun,
Not within the singeing of the strong sun,
Tall sun’s tingeing, or treacherous the tainting of the earth’s air,
Somewhere elsewhere there is ah well where! one, Oné. Yes I can tell such a key, I do know such a place,
Where whatever’s prized and passes of us, everything that ’s fresh and fast flying of us, seems to us sweet of us and swiftly away with, done away with, undone,
Undone, done with, soon done with, and yet dearly and dangerously sweet
Of us, the wimpled-water-dimpled, not-by-morning-matchèd face,
The flower of beauty, fleece of beauty, too too apt to, ah! to fleet,
Never fleets móre, fastened with the tenderest truth
To its own best being and its loveliness of youth: it is an everlastingness of, O it is an all youth!
Come then, your ways and airs and looks, locks, maiden gear, gallantry and gaiety and grace,
Winning ways, airs innocent, maiden manners, sweet looks, loose locks, long locks, lovelocks, gaygear, going gallant, girlgrace—
Resign them, sign them, seal them, send them, motion them with breath,
And with sighs soaring, soaring síghs deliver
Them; beauty-in-the-ghost, deliver it, early now, long before death
Give beauty back, beauty, beauty, beauty, back to God, beauty’s self and beauty’s giver.
See; not a hair is, not an eyelash, not the least lash lost; every hair
Is, hair of the head, numbered.
Nay, what we had lighthanded left in surly the mere mould
Will have waked and have waxed and have walked with the wind what while we slept,
This side, that side hurling a heavyheaded hundredfold
What while we, while we slumbered.
O then, weary then why
When the thing we freely fórfeit is kept with fonder a care,
Fonder a care kept than we could have kept it, kept
Far with fonder a care (and we, we should have lost it) finer, fonder
A care kept.—Where kept? Do but tell us where kept, where.—
Yonder.—What high as that! We follow, now we follow.—Yonder, yes yonder, yonder,
And now to an excerpt from Samuel Beckett’s Cascando - profound emotion contained in dark monotones:
if you do not teach me I shall not learn
saying again there is a last
even of last times
last times of begging
last times of loving
of knowing not knowing pretending
a last even of last times of saying
if you do not love me I shall not be loved
if I do not love you I shall not love
the churn of stale words in the heart again
love love love thud of the old plunger
pestling the unalterable
whey of words
of not loving
of loving and not you
of being loved and not by you
of knowing not knowing pretending
I and all the others that will love you
if they love you
unless they love you
The singer must not only yield her or his own prosody to the text but then stretch its expression to fill the extended contours of a composer’s prosody.
What a neural gymnasium!
In my work we enter the neural gymnasium through the doors of the body.
The impulses that stimulate the breathing musculature travel from the brain to the diaphragm, the diaphragmatic crura and the intercostals by way of the spinal cord. I invoke the solar plexus as the primary emotional receiving and transmitting nerve centre connecting with the diaphragm - and the sacral plexus as the nerve centre for instinct and intuition inextricably woven in to the crura as they morph into the pelvic floor. The intercostals answer to the demand for greater capacity.
These nerve plexi branch out from the spine to the nervous system and - all the breathing musculature is attached to the spine
With this understanding it is inevitable that the first part of the body to be addressed in freeing the voice from inhibitory tensions is the spine. The spine is a two-way communication highway from body to brain and brain to body. The spine must be flexible and strong, and its own musculature must support it - not the abdominal muscles. Beneath the diaphragm is the abdomen, the organs and intestines - when the diaphragm descends the organs must get out of the way. If the abdominal wall muscles are flattening the belly - either for cosmetic reasons or trained (unnecessarily) to support the spine - the organs can’t drop freely to make room for the descending diaphragm.
The spine is central to the voice work we do as actors. My work has adapted many yoga-based floor exercises for accessing free breathing through physical release. However, we do not do yoga breathing because yoga breathing is designed to control the emotions and actors must be in love with their emotions, must nurture them with breath, respect them, surf them, harness them and never fear them. For this, we must un-train the breathing muscles from holding on to the breath in reaction to emotional impulse and get used to breathing, feeling and speaking. The control is in what and how we think and how we channel thoughts and feelings into word and action.
Freeing the breath….well - I expect that quite a few of you have your points of view on and practices for breath and singing. I emphasize sighing in the beginning of the work because when you sigh you let go not only physically but mentally. The conditioning is mental - when I speak, when I sing, I release. The thought that goes into the body and the accompanying ingoing breath prepare the body for the outgoing utterance and I just have to want to communicate. Communication is the by-product of desire and freedom.
I am sometimes challenged by other teachers on the idea of sighing and I explain that this is a preliminary re-training of the brain - to let go - to be confidently generous in communication. To allow the breathing muscles to just let go as if all the air is going to come out at once. Of course it doesn’t because the regulation of outgoing air happens at the level of the vocal folds and if the thinking is clear the breath will last as long as the thought. Once the brain has that freedom then one can have the experience of not using any breath at all - just voice. Economy of breath is the end result of sighing.
When there is a challenge from the world of singing to the idea of sighing and letting breath go rather than managing and supporting I happily quote again from The Naked Voice by W. Stephen Smith - Joyce Di Donato’s teacher:
“Releasing the breath is the most important concept in healthy, natural exhalation. Freely released air allows the singer to connect with and communicate from the original source of utterance. It all begins with a sigh.”
My next big section of speaking voice work comes under the heading of resonance. Voice science tells me that resonance and the formants of voice are confined to the pharynx, the oral cavity and, rather grudgingly, perhaps the nasal cavity - but the sinuses are definitely not part of the team, nor the chest, or the skull. Sympathetic resonance is mentioned but not with much interest.
Why, when we put a hand to the chest (front and back), to the skull, to the cheekbones and feel the vibrations of our voices there, does the quality of the sound change for the better? Or why, when we just picture vibrations flowing through the bones of our bodies - even seeing or feeling them right down through our legs to our feet - do our voices respond with such life? Which branches of science need to collaborate to provide satisfactory answers to these questions? Voice scientists, neuro-biologists, acoustical engineers, physicists might all have to be involved.
In his book The Feeling of What Happens, published in 1999, Antonio Damasio, the neuro-biologist, talks about the fact that core consciousness, or the autonomic system, is run on a stream of imagery from brain to body and body to brain. The word “imagery” includes, for him, all five senses. Now, of course, we have the wonderfully enriching information that the gut brain contains around 100 million neurons and is in constant 2-way communication with the skull brain (86 billion neurons…) - presumably picking up some intelligence from the 40,000 neurons in the heart brain. Imagery, sensory intelligence, breath and voice interacting when we speak or sing. Might the vibrations we picture and feel be liberators? Could they be massaging neurons and freeing the functions of the skull brain that deal with music (sung music or spoken music)?
From decades of classroom experience I know that imagining the caverns of the chest filled with reverberative deep sound helps develop the lower levels of the vocal range, while picturing the labyrinth of different shapes and sizes of the sinus cavities opens up a world of inflectionary expression and that playing with images of the occipeto-pharyngeal mouth (yes - I am pretty sure I invented the term…) opening on to the cranial floor delivers exhilarating freedom in the upper range of the voice before it slides easily and more familiarly up to the roof of the skull.
We lift the voice off the muscles of tongue, jaw and throat by restoring it to breath and bone - through imagery. We are entering the realm of core consciousness, of the autonomic nervous system, and re-calibrating the pathways of the voice.
To strengthen the voice we strengthen the power of the originating impulse. Regular exercise with strong originating impulses strengthens the involuntary breathing muscles.
And now it’s time to address the subject of articulation. The tongue muscles have been relieved of any responsibility for supporting the voice as has the jaw - relinquishing the job to the breath where it belongs. The lips have been communing with vibrations in their journey forward and out of the mouth. Now the lips and tongue must pick up messages from other parts of the brain and convey the detailed information contained in words. The more economically the lips and tongue operate the less they will interfere with the connection of voice to breath and emotional impulse. The economy of articulation depends on the specificity of thought.
Words communicate information - the detail of emotion, mood, intention. In ordinary everyday life the hierarchy of voice to speech leans toward speech as the master and voice as the servant. Most of our ordinary verbal usage is utilitarian, informational. The parts of the brain that govern speech are well known as Broca’s area activating the lips and the tongue and Wernicke’s area that puts words together to make sense. This only matters to a voice practitioner in that it emphasizes the conscious work that must be done to bring speech and voice into a democratic relationship. Clearly, Broca and Wernicke cannot live without the music of voice, but too often they act as if they are the bosses and we must work and think to order - rather than listen to the music, and verbally dance.
Voice conveys para-verbal and meta-verbal information that comes from many different parts of the brain. The most obviously identifiable areas are the corpus callosum, motor cortex, prefrontal cortex, nucleus accumbens, amygdala, sensory cortex, auditory cortex, hippocampus, visual cortex, and cerebellum - plus, I assume, the medulla oblongata that deals with breath.
But of course, voice and speech are inter-dependent. Voice is music and so is speech when it is freed from rules of behavior. Consonants and vowels riff on their intrinsic differences of longer and shorter, sharper or buzzier, murmurous or explosive, creating rhythm and pitch in intricate interplay beyond our conscious ability.
These days our voices are mostly imprinted with utilitarian, logical information. Training the voice means demoting Monsieur Broca and Herr Wernicke and promoting the Dionysus within. Or inviting the schoolmasters to join the dance.
There is a great deal of music in the words of a song before the composer makes more music for them - vowels and consonants enrich the final composition with a density of intrinsic harmonics and rhythms.
Much of the exploration of speech that I do involves a ruthless pursuit of meaning. Behind words are images and feelings and shifting states of being. When we not only carefully, rigorously, conscientiously plant the images and feelings deeply in the body-mind but then trust those originating impulses of thought and feeling to connect music with syntax, grammar and vocabulary we will speak and sing with apparent spontaneity and genuine in-the-moment authenticity.
And - the glory of it is that once the voice is restored to its intrinsic involuntary musculature, free from conscious management, it knows what to do. It follows wherever the brain leads it.
Following Joyce Di Donato, my most recent singer crush is Barbara Hannigan - her various renditions of Ligeti’s Mysteres des Macabres and her wide range of singing styles must make her, I‘m sure, the current lode star in the singing world. She is all about whole body, whole mind, wholistic freedom. I love the way she talks about her craft, her life, about breathing and about studying a role until it ‘gets into your bones - gets into your marrow.’
Ultimately, The Embodied Voice rides on the freedom of the breath that makes it. Free breathing is organized so brilliantly by the involuntary breathing musculature that we cannot possibly do better with conscious control through voluntary muscles.
A reminder of my description of how the voice works will underline the fact that it is the ingoing breath, the ingoing sigh that matters - because the ingoing breath carries the thought impulse that will tell the glottis and the vocal folds what to do: Step 1) the desire to speak manifests in an electrical signal in the brain (a primary impulse of greater or lesser emotional strength); Step (2) that impulse activates signals to the breathing muscles and breath enters the body; as that breath exits a simultaneous message causes Step (3) - vocal folds come together to meet the exiting breath creating vibration.
The outgoing breath is regulated on the level of the vocal folds - the ingoing breath carries all the regulating information the body needs for that complex involuntary interaction to happen. So our responsibility is in the clarity of thought, feeling and intention.
Back to Joyce DiDonato:
“Don’t think about what we’re ‘doing’ with the breath otherwise we’re interfering with the breath. It drops in and you’re ready to go. Allow it to go all the way in - to back ribs, low ribs, 360 degrees, diaphragm, to tailbone, side ribs - if it enters freely and without force the odds are it’s going to come out freely. If you’re aggressive with the breath you’re going to have to contain it and it will be jaw tension and base of the tongue tension that do that work. The tongue is blocking the freedom of the breath. Get out of the way of the breath doing its job. If the sound is tightening up on me it’s not a matter of me needing to support the breath more but of me needing to release somewhere so the breath can move more freely. If I’m feeling tension in my tongue it tells me my breath isn’t free.
At the end of a phrase just let the breath drop right down like water to the bottom of a balloon.
(When exercising with specific vowels) be really clear in your brain what that vowel is - be very specific - if you’re clear in that vowel the breath knows where to go - if you’re nebulous it doesn’t. The clearer you are in the emotional content of what you’re singing the freer your breath will be.
In a long phrase if I’m thinking about the breath I get scared it will run out and I start to hold on to it and conserve it which blocks it off - the freedom isn’t there. If you have really clear intentions and clear vowels the breath will be there for you. Breath support is about release and freedom not about what mechanism I am using.”
As her teacher, Stephen Smith says “…and it all begins with a sigh.”
I would just add - it begins with a sigh and trains the brain to be relieved when it speaks what it feels. However powerful. The powerful impulse acts on the involuntary muscles powerfully. It’s a relief for Oedipus to howl out his pain having gouged out his eyes with Jocasta’s golden brooches:
It’s a relief for Constance in King John to wail:
O, that my tongue were in the thunder's mouth!
Then with a passion would I shake the world;
It’s a relief for King Lear to howl out his madness on the heath:
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks! 5
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!
How do I do that? I think it and feel it and my voice knows how to reveal what I think and feel. A strong impulse will generate strong action in my involuntary musculature - throughout my whole body – and it’s a big relief.