When someone asks me what I do, and I say, “I’m a Voice Coach”, the conversation usually continues a little something like this:
Them: “oh, you’re a singing teacher?”
Me: “No, I don’t teach singing; I teach spoken voice.”
Them: “Oh, so you’re a speech path?”
Me: “No, not that either, though some of our goals are similar”
Them: “Erm….so, you teach elocution and how to speak properly.”
Me: “That’s closer to it. But not really right either”.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t blame them. For people outside the performing arts world, there’s no reason for them to know what I do. Sometimes when I say I teach accents as part of my job, that is familiar (and often inspires QUITE the conversation), but otherwise, how should they know what a Voice Coach is? If I’m honest with you, many people within the performing arts field also don’t realise the full scope of my job. This is a topic of much discussion and some frustration among ‘Voicies’. Sure, we can warm up the actors, but what we do goes way beyond that. As a colleague recently observed – half our job is in educating others about what we actually do.
We often butt up against the dated and inaccurate perception that we Voice Coaches function solely to teach and drill technical skills, and to craft our students’ voices into some standard and universal ideal. As a trained and practising actor, who had studied Spoken Voice myself at drama school, even I had a limited idea of the full depth and creative potential of my job before I retrained in Voice at the Victorian College of the Arts. During my immersive training, and since entering into my new career of University teaching, private practice and production coaching, my eyes have been opened to the full potential of my profession. Which leads us back to the original question, what is it that I do?
Before I describe my job, I want to state that other Voice Coaches might offer different perspectives or opinions on the role. There’s a range of different approaches out there, and I’m sure that many vary from mine to some degree. However, I’m certain that many of my colleagues, both in Australia and overseas, share many of my guiding principles.
So yes, we do teach technical skills. We teach people how to use their bodies in a way that supports a flexible and healthy voice. For me, this is step one. Sometimes this means we need to undo: undo patterns of physical tension that might be unconscious and habitual, but which might restrict a full and free breath; undo habits of movement that contribute to tension or inhibit vocal freedom; undo patterns of thinking which restrict or limit vocal and creative potential. Blocks and restrictions can be physical, mental and emotional (which is where things can get tricky. But more on that later). As Cicely Berry, former Voice Director for the Royal Shakespeare Company put it: ‘Voice work is a matter of finding a way past people’s fears and defences, connecting them with the full potential of their voice’[i].
In a basic sense, I think about my practice as teaching people how to walk and talk. Don’t laugh – it’s harder than you think. Because talking with a fully expressive, flexible, and embodied voice takes practice, patience and a delicate awareness of your physical (and mental) habits. My job is to facilitate an environment in which the student or client (I’ll call them the ‘person’ from now on) can develop that awareness. I feel strongly that in order to create that environment, I need to build trust with the person. I must not criticise their voice, or seek to ‘fix’ it, but provide tools to expand the possibilities of their unique voice while celebrating that very uniqueness. I (and many peers) avoid using terms such as ‘wrong’, ‘bad’ and even ‘normal’ in our teaching. Because the voice is more than a sequence of physical processes resulting in sound vibrations – it is part of our identity, and opening up the full range of the person’s voice can be a confronting and emotional process.
Here I must comment on what I am not. I am not a therapist. I don’t claim to be, I don’t have any relevant qualifications (beyond Mental Health First Aid Training), and I will never seek out dramatic emotional responses in the person just for the sake of it. If a Voice or Acting teacher ever asks a student to dredge up some past emotional trauma in order to really ‘get there’ emotionally, I believe they are entering into an area that is unsafe for the student. There is research to support this assertion[ii], but that’s a whole other can of worms, and we needn’t go there now.
An oft-heard refrain when coaching Shakespeare is ‘play the thought, not the emotion’. If an emotional response does occur, as a result of the text, it should serve the story and leave the person unharmed. If the emotional response is separate to the story and the character, if it lingers, or if it is clearly disproportionate to the task at hand, I will care for the person in the moment and take appropriate action if needed. Sometimes moving the body can help to release lingering emotions[iii], and sometimes rituals[iv] can help people step out of character. In some cases, the person should be referred to a mental health professional. In my experience, this rarely happens. More often, I have seen the process of breathing deeply result in tears which signify little more than a release of long-held tension. Still, it is important to recognise our duty of care and practice our craft with awareness and professionalism.
OK, Jen – I hear you say – I still don’t know what you actually do, like, in the studio.
After I work with the person to build an awareness of their body and move toward releasing extraneous tension, we work together to develop strength where it is helpful. We redirect effort to the back and abdominal region, which in turn relieves the muscles in and around the shoulders, neck and larynx of the urge to over-compensate and strain to push out the voice. If there is a medical condition, or I suspect there might be, the person is referred to a medical professional. I am not a therapist, and I’m certainly not a doctor. My work does not replace the work of the ENT or Speech Pathologist.
After some breath and body work, I assist the person to stretch their speaking voice by building and strengthening resonance and pitch range. We exercise the articulators (not so that the person sounds like a robot but so that they have increased vocal possibility – notice a pattern here?). And many Voice Coaches work with text. Lovely, rich, muscular, invigorating text. And we work creatively, not mechanically. If you watched many of us working with text, you might think we’re teaching acting; and you’d kinda be right.
And here is the element to our work which is, to me, most important, most valuable, and most thrilling: connection. We teach (allow? remind?) people how to connect. In an age of illusionary connections (posts, feeds, likes, message notifications pinging up a storm), it is a pretty special thing to stand, breathe, look another human in the eye and tell them a story. It can also be terrifying. Often, we’re so out of practice that many of us are overcome with self-consciousness in the moment of actually being seen. I have worked with students who physically shrink themselves, or blurt out jokes at their own expense to cover their discomfort. I’ve seen people cry and people launch into critical attacks on themselves or tell me how ‘bad’ their voices are. But we persist, and this is why: to witness the effect of a true, human, completely in-the-moment connection; to see someone stand tall and take up the space to which they are entitled; to hear someone send their voice out into the room with assurance, rather than retract it apologetically at the end of every phase. We persist in order to witness the charge and change we humans can experience and bestow when we truly access freedom in our voices, and let language move through us. This is what I do. What a thrill.
For those who perceive my job as fixing, or standardising voices, or pushing actors towards perfect, crisp but inflexible elocution (as it was once called), I offer this quote from renowned Voice Coach and Pedagogue Kristin Linklater: ‘the natural voice is transparent, it reveals, not describes, inner impulses of emotion and thought, directly and spontaneously. The person is heard, not the person’s voice’[v].
Oh, and I teach accents. But please don’t ask me to do one for you if I see you at a party.
[i] C Berry, ‘Transforming Texts’, in Well-Tuned Women: Growing Strong Through Voicework, , F. Armstrong & J Pearson, Pirate Jenny Publications, 2013, p.45
[ii] S Burgoyne, K Poulin & A Rearden, ‘The Impact of Acting on Student Actors: Boundary Blurring, Growth, and Emotional Distress’, Theatre Topics, vol. 9, no. 2, 1999, pp. 157-179; M Seton, ‘Post-Dramatic’ stress: Negotiating Vulnerability for Performance’ Proceedings of the 2006 Annual Conference of the Australasian Association for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies, 2006; SL Taylor, ‘Actor training and emotions: finding a balance’, PhD thesis, Edith Cowan University, Perth, 2016, p.52
[iii] M Seton, ‘Post-Dramatic’ stress: Negotiating Vulnerability for Performance’ Proceedings of the 2006 Annual Conference of the Australasian Association for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies, 2006, p.4
[iv] R Barton, ‘Therapy and Actor Training’, Theatre Topics, vol. 4, no. 2, September 1994, p 112
[v] K Linklater, Freeing the Natural Voice: Imagery and Art in the Practice of Voice and Language, Drama Publishers, Hollywood, 2006, p.8