Warming up for an Execution

I have the great honour of being, temporarily, part of an ensemble theatre company for a pretty special production.MaryStuart_Flyer

“Mary Stuart” was written by the German poet, playwright and philosopher Friedrich Schiller around 1803, and while it is considered part of German classic theatre, it is rarely performed in English.

Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble have chosen to present this play with a very specific, brief rehearsal schedule. Two rehearsals a week, over three weeks, followed by 2 techs, and then four performances.  This is something you can only do (well!) when you work with a team who have developed a shared vocabulary, shared ideology and shared aesthetic.

In this case, the entire company apart from myself have been working together for at least two years, and they have just finished a successful three week season of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”.  Our director, Christina Koch, has been a member of the company since its inception around 8 years ago, and she brings with her a genuine and well-informed passion for the text in all its complexity.

I am thrilled to be part of this production.  We open on Wednesday at 7.30 pm, and we are all – as far as I can tell – excited and terrified in equal measure.  We have the privilege of sharing a good long warmup before each rehearsal, usually led by Christina, but sometimes on our own. It allows us to tune up our bodies, our voices and our brains, to spread our sounds throughout the space of the Geoffrey Rush Drama Studio, and to feel each other’s vibrations connecting us, literally,  to our scene partners and to the story.

I hope to see you in the foyer after one of the performances.  Costumes are minimal, so we don’t need long to come out and say hi.

What is your experience of working with classic texts?  Share in the comments section below.

Adventures in Voice

Today is my last day in the US.  It’s been quite a trip, and though I will miss my family, and my friends over here, I’ll be glad to get back to Brisbane and settle down for a few months.

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The Knight-Thompson Speech and Accent training was so rich and full, I need time to process it, and practise at integrating it into my own work, both teaching and performing.  I’m very keen to try it out with colleagues, so if you would like to join me for a few hours on a Sunday afternoon sometime soon, I’d be delighted to share my progress with you.  Don’t be put off by the technical looking diagram at the side here, it’s just the Cardinal Vowel chart, and the Knight-Thompson approach is to demystify it, and convert it into a visual tool for making some cool noises in a very entertaining way.  I long to create an app that would allow the user to slide the symbols around, creating the visual representation of different oral postures on demand! It would make a great complementary app for the Being in Voice Warmup App.

This work is all about clear, intelligible speech, in whatever accent you happen to use, and a clear understanding of the physical actions you are using to create that clear speech.  Once you understand that, somatically, from inside your mouth, you are in a very powerful position to be able to shift the focus, and discover and create new accents.  Of course, there is work involved. You need a lively, inquisitive attitude as well as an attentive ear and flexible, adaptable muscles, and that takes practice.  So what doesn’t?

If you are interested to find out more, but can’t make it to Brisbane to join me, why not check out their website, or get a copy of Dudley Knight’s book, “Speaking With Skill”.  It is a wonderful resource, and you will enjoy working your way through it, however if you are new to this kind of work you will enjoy it even more working with a skilled teacher.

Owen models a Being in Voice baseball cap

This trip has enriched my life in so many ways, and provided many opportunities to grow my own voice.  I met some wonderful teachers and actors on the Knight-Thompson workshops, all keen to learn more, advance their skills, and share their experiences. Playing with Outlandish, Omnish and Somenish is just the best fun since waterslides were invented.  Playing with funny voices with my grandkids was a hoot. I got to read some pretty wild characters, and together we discovered a magic spot on the path to Owen’s school where our voices suddenly turned very funny indeed. Fortunately, there is another spot where they turn back to normal again. Phew!

So let me know in the comments section below how you find Accent and Dialects, and if you would like to take part in a free experimental workshop in Brisbane, sometime in the next couple of months.

 

Some Questions Frequently Asked

Did you know, if you register with Being in Voice, you get to ask me a question, any question at all relating to the voice and I will respond by email within 24 hours. You also receive a free copy of the eBook “Four Great Vocal Warmups”.

In the past few weeks, I’ve had enquiries from people in China, India, Nigeria, Canada, Ghana, Austria and Australia, from Boston, Dublin, Hooglanderveen, The Netherlands, and more.  Here are a few, with my answers:

Question: What are the top 3 problems you encounter with your voice?FAQ

First, is waking it up, so that it runs smoothly throughout the day.  As I age, I need to do this more, and fortunately it’s something I enjoy doing. So I sigh gently, hum and ‘ah’ as I’m getting washed and dressed, and by the time I start speaking I don’t sound croaky.

Second is the ‘crack’ or ‘wobble’ that occurs in my singing voice as I slide around between my chest and middle to head range.  I have always struggled with this, and I have to work at it to smooth it out on a regular basis, or it just goes back to square one.  I can sing happily in the bathroom, and never encounter a break in the sound, but if I’m performing I have to keep it under control with every bit of technique I can muster.  This is because my innate defence mechanism kicks in and tightens up muscles in my breath support and vocal tract in inappropriate ways. I think it’s because I am a bit of a wimp, always ready to assume that I’m not as good as I would like to be, so I have to work hard to overcome this and just give my all.

Thirdly, I tend to get loud when I’m excited, or grumpy, so I have to watch my volume control. The secret is to keep that fine balance between being emotionally available and expressing myself freely – whether it’s my own thoughts, or those provided by a poet or a playwright – and being sensitive to the needs of the listeners and the requirements of the space.

How about you?  What are your top three?

Question: How do I use my voice to the maximum but without strain?

First you need to be clear about what you mean by “to the maximum”. Do you  mean to your maximum potential, to the best of your ability?

Maximum implies the most that is possible, given the state of your vocal instrument at the time. If there is any strain at all you are putting in more effort than is necessary or appropriate. Straining to get more volume or range is not healthy. You can always build your vocal power and range by exercising the appropriate muscles. It takes time to build up muscle tone, and your vocal muscles are no different in this regard to any other muscles in your body.

Warming up your voice on a regular basis is one way to keep your voice healthy, and to build muscle tone gently.  The more you do, the more benefit you get from it. As your voice grows in power and flexibility you can undertake more demanding exercises, and keep building it up in a sustainable manner.

Question: How to train my voice as an actor?

The first thing you need is to learn all about your voice, how it represent you at all times, and how it functions in your body. Then you will understand what you need to do to develop it to be as full, rich, varied, powerful and flexible as it can be, and how to ensure that you speak clearly, audibly, intelligibly and interestingly at all times.

The iPhone app “Being in Voice” contains all the information you need to get started, as well as some basic introductory exercises for developing your voice.  These are foundational exercises that will keep your voice in good condition if you do them regularly for the rest of your life.  However, to use your voice professionally, as an actor, you need to do more than these.

Using your voice as an actor require special skills to bring life and colour to texts, and you really need a good teacher to help you with this.  Are you anywhere near Ibadan?  There is an excellent voice coach at the University of Ibadan who could possibly help you.  Let me know if you would like an introduction.

Question: I would like to know about the course, time, hours and fees etc

I don’t run a specific group course at the moment. I offer private (one-on-one) coaching sessions, and I am happy to devise a course for you specifically designed for your training needs.  Which aspects of voice, or acting, or performance skills, or presentation skills are you interested in developing?
As for the time, that is something we would work out together, to find a time that suits us both. I am presently travelling in the US, returning to Brisbane mid-September.
My fee schedule is as follows:

Scale of Fees 2013 (including GST) paid in advance

Private Coaching

$88 per 1 hour session

$330 for 4 sessions = $82.50 ea

$480 for 6 sessions = $80 ea

$610 for 8 sessions = $76.25 ea

Question:  How to relax a tight throat?

This is a tricky subject, as you’ve probably gathered from your own experience.  Here is a tip that I have found helpful.  Learn to place your attention anywhere but the throat.  This is because “Tension goes where ATTENTION goes”.  In other words, if you are thinking about the throat area, muscles in and around that area will fire up and want to Do Stuff, and that is the last thing you want.  The muscles that are involved in speaking and singing operate best when they are functioning autonomously, i.e. without your conscious control. They are coordinated by their need to respond to your thought process. Any time you notice tension in the throat area, send your thoughts down to your centre.

I know there are training systems that focus conscious attention specifically on the throat (Estill training being one). I have found that this can lead to great tension in and around the throat unless taught very, very well.

I teach students to imagine that their voice box/larynx is located somewhere in the centre of the body, just above the pelvis and below the diaphragm.  Of course this is not real, it is just a visualisation exercise to get attention down to that part of the body where the really powerful muscular support for the voice lies.  We also give attention to the larynx itself, to understand the physiology, but as a separate process, at a different time.

Use any relaxation and meditation exercises you know to gain a clear understanding of how your different muscles feel in the body when they are tensed and relaxed. Isolation exercises that allow you to identify precisely where the tension around your throat begins and ends will help you to be able to control those muscles, and to release them on demand. It is particularly essential to learn to relax the jaw, and the tongue.

There are teachers who will massage their students throats.  I have never learned this technique, so I don’t attempt it.  There is also a new procedure being trialled in the US, of using a vibrator that is specifically timed to a certain frequency of vibrations, and this is being hailed as something pretty exciting for singers etc.  http://www.edmontonjournal.com/Vibrators+strike+chord+with+singers/8203532/story.html

I have found humming to be the next best thing.  I’ve been humming for years, since I did some training in Harmonic Singing, and also Roy Hart training.  Humming on an easy, central note, while visualising the vibrations/sound waves as emanating from my centre and flowing through my body, leaves me with a “fuller, deeper, rounder” sound as described in the article above. I’ve been working with a group of first year acting students recently, and the sounds they produce after 20 minutes of humming on the floor is quite astonishing, and could not happen if their throats were at all tense.  I have placed a Humming warmup in the next scheduled upgrade for my iPhone App “Being in Voice”, available in the iTunes App Store.

Question: How do I get to sing in my head voice without straining?

One way to avoid straining is to think of your voice as floating up and out of your body, on a stream of air that comes from a well deep in your centre. You need to have a lovely relaxed jaw and tongue, and you only get that by standing (or sitting or dancing) well, with good posture.
Of course, you never, ever want to actually strain your voice. Powerful support for the breath that motors your sound must always be assisted by the lower part of your body, your deep core muscles.
Extend your range by humming gently up and down, higher and lower each time until you feel the stretch (not straining). Do lip and tongue trills likewise (brbrbr or rrrrr). You will find these exercises on the Being in Voice iPhone app, and also you can download them from the website (Products page), as well as Posture and breathing exercises (Stand Easy and Breathe Easy)
It is also good to remember that your head voice notes always sound thinner inside your head than they do outside. Good support, involving your whole body, gives you a richer sound.

Looking through these questions, I can see a pattern.  I guess the next step is for me to set up a section for FAQ!

Do you have a question that isn’t addressed here?  Try me! Use the comments section below, and perhaps other readers will have more answers to share.

 

Knight-Thompson Speechworks Rocks My World

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Flloyd with Mary McDonald-Lewis and Mendy McMasters at “Speaking with Skill” workshop

Two weeks training in Knight-Thompson Speech and Accents was intense, challenging and unbelievably satisfying. I feel like a newly repotted plant, a bit wobbly above ground, checking out how much room my roots now have to spread out into, and seeing the world from a whole new perspective – albeit one with a familiar quality and a recognisable contour.

The training is deeply practical and intellectually demanding, and I love that combination.  It’s all about awareness, in that you must give your full attention to what is actually happening inside your body, how it moves and is moved by your breath, your thoughts, your needs or desires. That, as such, is what I’ve been working on for many years. The difference here, the extension, stretching of the process, is the level of detailed attention to what is actually going on inside the vocal tract in the process of speaking, and WHY!IMG_1071

Knight-Thompson Speechworks is a relatively new player on the block.  Dudley Knight, who sadly passed away a few weeks ago, developed this approach over many years, aided by his one time student and long time colleague Phil Thompson. Phil is a remarkable teacher (and actor), deeply insightful and compassionate, with a wealth of experience across disciplines and exceedingly modest. In the world wide community of voice and speech and accent and dialect teachers we have an uncommonly high percentage of warm and generous creative spirits, and Phil exemplifies these qualities in abundance. On this occasion, he shared the teaching with Andrea Caban and Erik Singer, each of whom brought their own unique flavour and experience to the work.

Oral Posture

I aim to deepen and extend my understanding and expertise in this particular approach to speech and accents over the coming months and years. With that in mind, I’m offering a free workshop after I return to Brisbane in late September to anyone who would like to experiment with some joyful gurning, phthonging, speaking in Outlandish, Omnish and perhaps even Somenish for a few hours. There may, or may not be phonetics involved. Don’t be scared, I promise to be gentle with you!gurning

Let me know in the comments section below if you are interested, and I will send you details as the time draws nearer.

ps – I’ve also come away with lots of ideas for more voice training Apps!

To Pic or to Stick, that is the question.

Here is the latest review to pop on iTunes for the Being in Voice warmup app:

Fantastic, well explained, fun to use ★★★★ by superhevs – Version 1.03 – Jul 27, 2013

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. If there is one thing I would suggest to improve the app, it would be visual references. Having an illustration or photo to check against as you complete the exercises would be helpful especially if the user is new to these sort of exercises.The Capital Yoga apps I feel have achieved this well and maybe a useful reference.

I love it when I get suggestions from people who have used the app.  Version 1 inspired one of its users to suggest I should include a “How to use this app” page, so I did.  I also added an extra, bonus warmup, the Humming Warmup, which is one of my all time favourites.  I learnt it at a workshop in Scotland in 1990, from a Hungarian theatre director whose name escapes me now, but in the best Eastern European tradition, he was deeply committed to the all-in-one approach to actor training and preparation for performance.

Capital Yoga app image

Capital Yoga app image

As for including some visual references, I can see how these would be useful for the Stand Easy and Breathe Easy sections. I looked at the Capital Yoga apps suggested in the review, and their visuals are indeed very clear and helpful.

This is not something I could organise at short notice, but I could very quickly and easily produce  some stick figure images, such as these below, demonstrating the stretches that I include in my Mega Full-On Warmup (not yet in the app!)

stretchesI can see that the Humming Warmup would also benefit from the inclusions of some visuals, even a video demonstration.  The problem with this is that is makes the App a very large file to download, and I’d rather keep it smaller and easier to work with for the moment, until I can afford to get some whizz-bang developer/designer to figure out how to keep the audio and video files small and easily accessible.  So I am thinking of putting a video demo of the warmup on the website, here, and just adding in a link inside the app.

What do you think?  Stick figures? Or photos? Video in the app? – which would definitely cost more, and make the price go up, or link to video on the website? Give me your thoughts here, in the comments. Let’s work together to make this the coolest, most fun, most do-able warmup app ever.