Play=Peace + Voice!

Mary Alice Long, of Play=Peace (based in Seattle) has just interviewed me via Skype for her series Playmatters! We had a great chat about warming up the voice, gurning, learning to know your voice from the inside, and sharing it with the world.

Also available here on Vimeo.

Preparing for a Vocal Marathon – Part I

Today I was working on Skype with a new client, who asked me for exercises to help her cope with the challenge of a 28 minute narration (voice over). This is a long time for an untrained voice to sustain colour, flexibility and ease. Small wonder she finds herself stumbling over long words and complex phrases. It is not normal to speak to 28 minutes without rest. This is a vocal marathon.

The voice, like any other part of the human anatomy, requires muscles to move it, shape it, colour it, empower it. The voice might take the form of sound waves, invisible to the eye. It might seem to be as easy as breathing – and that’s how we’d like it to sound, no matter how much actual effort it might take to develop the ability to create a particular stream of sound. it’s good old muscle power that makes it all happen.

So what do we do when we want to be stronger, faster, more flexible, more powerful – fitter – than “normal”? Yep, we go to the gym. That’s exactly what we need to do with out voices if we want them to be able to do feats of extraordinary power, passion, or just length!

If we want stronger muscles, we do weight training. The trainer introduces us to the different machines, explaining how they work, what muscle sets they apply to, what weight level to start with, and how many repetitions.

If you want a stronger voice, one that will sustain you through the challenges of a day at the chalk face (old fashioned way of talking about school teaching), or a full day rehearsal, a 3 hour performance of a play or an opera, or several hours in court, then you must get along to the vocal gym, learn the exercises (and why they are what they are), start with the minimum repetitions, and then over time build them up to more, and more challenging lengths.

The Mini Vocal Warmup, available on the app, or downloadable at Download the Exercises is the minimum you need to do each day to begin the process. As you become accustomed to it, and remember the sequence, you need to extend the length of time you spend on each element, and increase the number of repetitions. Think of the length of time you take to trill up your range as equivalent to the number of weights you lift in the gym. The longer you take, the harder your support muscles need to work, and that builds their strength. Always remember, the support muscles do the “heavy lifting”, the actual vocal mechanism does the subtle adjustments, and the better your support system, the stronger the tiny vocal muscles can grow. Everything works together.

Without a good strong (and that doesn’t mean loud, so don’t push!) vocal sound, you don’t have the necessary material to create clear, expressive speech. So don’t skip your warmup. Ever. Work the power machines first, then move into the next room of the gym and work on the specifics of speech, the Articulators (lips, tongue , jaw, palates).

Above and beyond all of this. Your voice preparation and training should never, ever be painful. Do not strain. Stretch, yes! Challenge yourself to move out of your comfort zone, make weird unaccustomed noises, but nothing should hurt. If it feels painful, you are doing too much. In spite of everything I said above about power, strength and working hard, your voice needs to flow, and never be forced, so all your exercises should feel free, gentle, generous and FUN.

The Voice, the Whole Voice, and Nothing But the Voice

These days I seem to hear just about everybody in film or TV dramas performing at least 80% of the time “off voice”, speaking in a semi-whisper, or creaking or croaking. I can’t bear it. It’s the fashion, I’m an old fogey, my hearing is Good For My Age, which means not as good as the average 25 year old, so this means most of the time the dialogue is just at the edge of my comprehension. No point turning up the volume. Because the so-called “background” music will just get louder too.. My guess is that the directors think it denotes intensity. They don’t do it in the comedies. Or at least not as much. For me, it denotes meanness, perhaps unintentionally, but a fully voiced sound carries the whole person, generously gifted to the moment, to the scene partners, and to the audience.

Flloyd as June Bloom (Brisbane production)

Flloyd as June Bloom (Brisbane production)

I’m ranting, I know. Lost my patience button. some years ago. But I do think those who make performance, i.e directors, producers as well as all the technicians and performers need to be thoroughly educated in what the voice IS, the huge scope of its potential to create any illusion they want, as long as it is healthy, trained, infused with intelligence and imagination, and respected.

Over many years, I have noticed that a lot of actors go “off voice” as the passions heat up, as if they are afraid to let out the strength of their emotions. It seems to me that often it comes from a subconscious attempt to hold back, a protective device to shield oneself from anticipated criticism. It’s very prevalent here in Australia, understandably so considering the effect of the so-called Tall Poppy Syndrome. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, it is the requirement, here in Australia, to cut down to size (i.e. lowest common denominator) anyone who aspires to be better, more skillful, more successful, more creative than average. Tall Poppies are people who are assumed to be “up themselves”, to enjoy looking down on lesser mortals. In order to avoid being considered a Tall Poppy, one has to constantly apologise, denigrate oneself and one’s achievements, in a jokey way, of course. Just as the cutting down is always done in a jokey way. But do not be misled. It is not a joke.

Some of my US based colleagues have expressed, in a recent discussion about “off-voice” acting, the view that it results from a lack of focus, or lack of specificity or commitment to the text being expressed. I think this view demonstrates one example of the difference, culturally, between the US and Australia. Of course, it will sometimes be the case that Australian actors will lose focus of the vocal folds as they lose mental focus, but the US has a culture of speaking up for oneself, expressing confidence in one’s abilities and actions without fear of criticism. On the contrary, one is more likely to be criticized, or thought less of, if one fails to communicate the strength of one’s capacity. It’s not about boasting, it’s about honesty.

The fact remains that here in Australia, declaring or revealing awareness of one’s strengths and abilities is, more often than not, assumed to be boasting, derived from arrogance, and arrogance is not to be tolerated.

Tall Poppies only get one chance. Once cut down, they do not get the opportunity to rise again. Failure is celebrated here in the land of Oz. Look at Anzac Day. But I digress…

My new favourite word is respect. Self respect is an honourable state. Knowing who you are means, for me, having a realistic sense of where I’ve come from, how I got here, and what possibilities lie before me for growth and exploration. My voice is the audible reflection of that state. My responsibility as an actor is to gift that state to whatever I am playing. Even if I am playing someone so insecure, so defensive, so shy that in the “real” world she would be inarticulate and barely audible, my job as an actor is to create the illusion that I am those things, but sharing them audible, clearly with my fully-embodied and empowered voice. Long Live The Voice!

On another note, January Special. Being in Voice Warmup App is available at reduced price of AU$2.99 from now until the end of the month. Here’s the latest review: “My partner and I went through the mini vocal warm up together while making breakfast. It certainly relaxed us both, noticeably improved our voices and made us laugh.”

Voice, Speech and Singing Teachers and Choral Directors, contact me for a promo code to try it out for free.

The Long Term Voice

Whether you are a performer, a teacher, a sales executive or a spruiker you are an elite vocal athlete and your whole self – body-heart-mind – is the vocal instrument. I encourage everyone, at every level, to warm up the voice for a minimum of three minutes a day paying attention to posture, breath and sound. While a few minutes of regular loving attention to your voice keeps the larynx fit and agile, extending those minutes into a session of physically active, mentally focussed training practice builds the necessary muscle tone and creative power to prepare you for a lengthy season of rehearsals, performances or presentations, without undue stress or strain.

Being in Voice Warm Up App is available in the iTunes App Store for AU$4.49.
It contains audio instructions for 3 minute Mini Vocal Warmup, a 15 minute General warmup suitable for regular practice and for preparing for rehearsal, performance or presentation, a bonus 15 minute Humming warmup, as well as a wealth of documented information relating to voice work.Screenshot 2013.05.10 13.36.58

I’m also developing a version for Android machines, it will be a few months before this is available. All the files – audio and documentation, are available here on this website for download, using Paypal as a secure payment system.iOS Simulator Screen shot 19.07.2013 11.07.45 AM


Voice and singing teachers, choral directors – if you would like to try out the app before recommending it to your students, please contact me directly for a promo code.

Covering All the Bases: 5 Essentials Elements of Warming Up

It’s pretty much known that I am a warm up freak. I love warming up.  I love finding new ways of warming up. I love getting other people to warm up, hence the development of the Being in Voice smartphone app.


warming up with bamboo poles

I have certain exercises that I use, from time to time, but really it’s important to warm up with exercises that fit the circumstances.  What works for you warming up at home by yourself for an audition might not work for a group warming up for an ensemble production. What works with one group might not work with another group.  It is important – nay essential! – to find a consensus within the group, so that everybody gets to own the warm up. Warming up is working, it should be enjoyable, something to look forward to.

getting the message across

getting the message across

Whatever you are warming up for, whether it’s for a day at the chalk-face or a 5 minute pitch presentation, an interview with the boss or a 3 hour Shakespeare performance, there are certain bases that must be covered:

1) stimulate blood flow to the muscles – the body’s core muscles plus all the large external muscles (arms and legs) and the minute and complex internal muscles of the vocal apparatus (including the articulators); challenge those muscles and the heart and lungs to function at a slightly more demanding level than normal, everyday resting state

2) open the mind’s attention to the actual physical state of the body, from the inside

3) generate freedom of movement throughout every joint in the body

3) open the mind and the ears to the potential of vocal sound throughout the whole body and flowing into the space

4) ensure the free flow of vibrations throughout the whole body and into the space – only possible when the body is warm, relaxed and alert

5 stretch and play with the full range of vocal sound – pitch, resonance, colour and articulation

5) bring the attention into clear focus.

And of course, if you are working with a group, you want to complete the warmup process with everybody clearly engaged with everybody else and ready to begin working straight away.

Did I leave anything out?  I’d love to hear your ideas.

You’ll find lots of exercises in the eBook “Four Great Vocal Warmups” – free if you register your email to receive notice of blog updates and an occasional newsletter.

What are your favourite warmup exercises?  Is there a difference between warming up and training?  Share your thoughts in the comments section below.