A Breath of Fresh Air

For many years, I have been troubled by the attention given in voice coaching to working on breathing. I know it has to happen, but there is always something about the way it is approached that seems to me to be counter-productive.

My early years were spent learning ‘rib-reserve’, whereby we expanded and lifted the rib-cage while lowering the diaphragm, and then attempted to keep the rib-cage up and out as we hummed, or ah-ed, or counted to 500 (ok, I’m exaggerating slightly), or spoke ten lines of Shakespeare on one breath.  The result was the kind of performance that gave acting a bad name during the 20th century, all frozen from the chest down.

That system fell into disrepute, and was replaced by ‘belly breathing’, where we all tried to puff out our bellies with the incoming breath, ignoring our ribs entirely.  This allows more freedom of movement.  Trouble is it takes ages to get people to let go of the impulse to put such a huge effort into taking that in-breath that their upper chest and shoulders do all the work, making it hard for the diaphragm to do any supporting at all!  Another problem is when people just push out their bellies, using their external abs while constricting the internal core muscles.

This method has now been replaced by a focus on expansion of the lungs within a relaxed torso, aiming for a sustained engagement of the transversus abdominus that support the diaphragm and facilitates a consistent supply of air to the vocal folds. Nice work, if you can get it.

Part of the problem is the language that is used to describe the behaviour of the various sets of muscles.  For example, in looking for a website to link to for ‘diaphragm’, the first one I found described the diaphragm as “pushing” the air out on exhalation. The second – the one I have linked to – refers to the air being “forced” out. These are medical encyclopaedias!  They should know better…  because the air is neither pushed, nor forced out – or at least, it shouldn’t be.

Breathing is an autonomous function of the body. Air comes in, the body takes what it needs and (roughly speaking) converts what’s left into carbon dioxide and that is allowed to leave. In the normal course of our lives, we know perfectly well how to breathe. If we didn’t, we’d be dead. I have checked this Wikipedia entry, and it’s pretty scientifically spot on.

However, as soon as we start trying to consciously control our breathing, we run into problems. We do all sorts of weird things quite unconsciously, trying to control the air flow by tensing our jaw, or throat, as if we could manipulate air that way! Or we push the air out in a rush, attacking the vocal folds on the way and giving ourselves vocal strain.

I take the view that we breathe for two reasons: 1) to stay alive and 2) to express ourselves vocally and to communicate with each other. The staying alive part is taken care of by our very clever bodies, that know perfectly well how to do breathing without any help from us thank you very much.  In the normal course of our lives, the speaking part is also taken care of by our clever bodies, which know that air needs to be within the lungs so that it can come out and interfere with our vocal cords, thus setting sound waves in motion. As soon as we have the urge to speak, or yell, or cry, or laugh, our bodies ensure that there is air inside already set up and away we go!

So – here’s my suggestion.  Let’s stop doing breath control, or breathing training, or any form of breathing exercises.  Instead, let’s work on our voices, and creating healthy sounds, with the understanding that if we leave our bodies alone to get the breath into our bodies, we can train ourselves to have better and more sustainable air supply to the vocal cords (or folds) by demanding more sustained thoughts, and needs and desires for expression. The body will always try to give us what we are asking for, but it must be allowed to do it in its own way. The more demanding we are of ourselves, in the sense of having more intense, passionate, intellectually stimulated thoughts to express (whether in the form of a hum, or a sigh, or clearly articulated language), the harder the body will work to supply those thoughts, and this workout will result in stronger, more powerful muscles that are actually and appropriately involved in providing the necessary air flow.

Fitzmaurice Voicework goes some way towards addressing this with the Destructuring program, but still with the focus on conscious awareness of the breathing process. I’d like to take it even further, destructuring (in a sense) but while focusing upon the vocal sound, and the physical sensations in the body that occur during the eventuation of the sound.

I’d love to hear what you think?  Please leave your comments below.

 

A Conundrum

Now here’s the thing.  I am a freelance voice and acting coach (among other things). That means I work for myself, making up my timetable to fit around my students’ busy timetables, fitting in rehearsals for whatever play I happen to be working on, or film shoot, or meetings with colleagues, and trying to find time to finish writing my thesis.

When I first started teaching privately, I discovered this interesting phenomenon: sometimes, people will contact me to book a lesson, and then fail to turn up, or to let me know that they have changed their minds.  I understand. Especially when it is voice training, people are nervous, not sure that they really need it, afraid of sounding silly, and so they dip out at the last moment. There is absolutely nothing I can do about it. I am not prepared to ask people to pay in advance for something when they don’t know if they really want it, until they have at least tried it once.

Eventually, I took the advice of more experienced colleagues, and began to insist upon payment in advance, after the first session.  This has served me very well ever since.  If there is always at least one session paid for in advance, and the agreement that we give each other a minimum of 24 hours notice of cancellation or postponement, then I am never left sitting, waiting, having prepared the lesson, without any recompense for my time and energy. And believe me, it takes an awful lot of energy to wait. I don’t take easily to doing nothing.  If the student foregoes that session, at least it was paid for.  Likewise, if I have to cancel with less than 24 hours notice, I owe the student that session.

This has the effect of totally eradicating those occasions when a student might wake up in the morning feeling a bit sniffley, and think they can just not bother turning up for a lesson. It also seems to sort out those who are serious about their training, and therefore value it – not just in financial terms, but also in terms of time and energy expended.

Sadly, it still doesn’t solve the problem of the occasional no show for the first session. Any suggestions?

Feedback from the workshop

A couple of the participants at the workshop have kindly written to me with some feedback on the workshop. What is really lovely about these two letters, is that they come from the least experienced, and the most experienced members of the group:

“All I really want to say is thank you! Your enthusiasm and passion for the area was infectious and inspiring. I had no idea what to expect for the workshop when I walked in. I was so impressed with the amount of info covered – the biology, theory, research, a huge range of vocal exercises, and then to integrate this so well with performance, authenticity, playfulness and mindfulness on stage. So much to cover yet it flowed really well and was interesting and useful throughout. Thank you so much for your time.”

“I would just like to say thank you for your two days work with The Hills Players. I can see that some people are really using the skills that you taught at the Workshops while we are rehearsing. We have been having warm up sessions before rehearsal each night and will try to keep this going. I have previously done various types of workshops, having been involved in theatre for 30 years, but I found it very helpful and informative. Of course it’s very hard to break the habits of a lifetime, but I will endeavour to do so and work on my voice as much as possible. Thank you once again for sharing your skills with us.”

I still can’t get over how generous and brave this group was, to invite me to work with them for two full days on their voices. They have been performing in the One-Act Play Festivals around the State for some years, as well as producing their own local productions in their community.

I am so looking forward to seeing them in action when I get back from the States.

I’ve just remembered!  I recorded the Mini-Mini-vocal warm up on my Blackberry, must see if it worked and post it up here! Don’t go away…

Duh!  I’ve put it up already – see the previous post!  The sooner I get away for a holiday, the better!

Noises off – Voices on

I’ve just had the most wonderful two days working with the Hills Players, a group of amateur actors from a community north of Brisbane who applied for, and were awarded a grant from the Regional Arts Fund to engage my services.  They wanted to work on their voices to develop more power and clarity of expression, and to support their voices in a healthy and sustainable way.

I introduced them to my mini mini vocal warmup (based on Eric Armstrong’s morning warm up), then to the Vocal Function exercises (handouts on the Handouts page). We explored the vibrations in our bodies and the fabulous sounds that occur when a group of generous souls commit themselves to a ‘group hum’.  The first day concluded with a series of improvised soundscapes. We experienced a motorcycle race (with crash), a visit to the beach (with near drowning), a hike through the forest (with a storm), a spooky chase through streets and houses (with mayhem on the freeway) – what a dramatic time we had, and all with nothing but the human voice and the occasional tapping fingers.

Today we revised the warm-ups, and I took them through the 15 minute warm-up that I had put together for Ira Seidenstein’s Quantum Mime Intensive (also now up on the Handouts page).  For this one, I gave them two alternatives for working on their resonance: The Hungry Giant and friends, and Cello/Viola/Violin. The former is based on Linklater’s approach, the latter is from the work of Roy Hart.

After lunch, I decided to challenge the group to investigate for themselves what happens when you try to speak as simply as possible, stating the fact, with no agenda, that you are where you say you are. It’s pretty straightforward, you just position yourself somewhere in the room, and say “I am here”. Sounds easy, eh?  Try it!  See if you can catch yourself 1) pretending 2) defending 3) protesting 4) insisting – oh, the possibilities are endless. Then try to say it without any of those added sub- or super-texts, or objectives. Your only objective is to speak the truth of the moment, that you – yes, YOU! really you  – are – that means right now, as you are speaking – here – not there, not sort of here, but actually and only specifically here.  I love this exercise.

Then we leapt into the land of the Laughing/Sobbing game, which I learnt from Marya Lowry at the 2004 VASTA conference in New York. I LOVE this game.  We laugh, and we discover that for some it comes easily, and for some it seems incredibly difficult. Why? Because it is deeply embarrassing to find youself doing fake laughing. It’s embarrassingto listen to, so you don’t want to be the one doing it. Learning how to let go of the fear, and discovering that you are actually in control of your own attitude, so that you can choose to be amused and to REALLY laugh is quite an experience.  Then, to discover that all you have to do is change your own attitude from being happy to being sad, and suddenly you are sobbing, and it is not FAKE, and what’s more, you can switch it off whenever you choose – now that is control. But it is such a light, hands-off control, there is nothing forced or tense about it. Joy.

One of the participants asked me to record the Mini Mini vocal warm-up, so I did, with my Blackberry. Here it is. Apologies for the poor quality of the recording, but I think it’s pretty clear.

Grantham raffle

The Grantham raffle has now closed,  but you can – and I hope will – donate directly to the Appeal.

Meantime, it’s interesting to see that the MailChimp system that I’ve started using for sending out newsletters is working really well, and I’d like to thank everybody who has responded so far. Your concern, and your generousity is most heartening.