What does a Voice Coach Do? – Jennifer Innes

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.


Fair question.


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

BodyMinded: Alexander Technique for Voice Professionals

The Alexander technique is known as a useful adjunct to training in vocal circles, however, while many people have heard about it, there is a lot of misconception. Today I hope to introduce how it works and how powerful it is when effectively applied.

To begin: Tasmanian actor overcomes his ‘hoarse voice sore throat’ problem.

F.M Alexander was a Tasmanian and an actor at a time when there was no amplification available.  After suffering a regular loss of voice while performing, he started a process of rigorous self-observation to find out what was going on.  He knew that the hoarseness and pain got worse when he performed, so it must have been related to HOW he was performing… but what was he doing?

Alexander’s solution came after a long process of experimentation, and he was surprised to discover that not only had he overcome his voice problem, he had developed a process that led to profound improvement in health and well-being.

Now 100+ years after his birth there are Alexander Technique teachers around the world, teaching people from all walks of life to find their optimal coordination.

So what did he discover?

Alexander found that natural good posture, essential to the good use of the voice, is dynamic and responsive, constantly moving, providing support against the force of gravity and organising the timing, sequencing and rhythm of the parts. While that cannot be ‘made to happen’ through effort, it can be ‘directed to happen’ naturally via conscious direction of your spatial sense…

Unfortunately for many, this dynamically balanced poise, ease and power are easily disturbed by habits of tension or collapse. Especially after years of training, or in response to stress, habits of interference can lead to a frustrating and ongoing struggle with vocal performance, as it did for Alexander.

Alexander said…
“You translate everything, whether physical, mental or spiritual, into muscular tension”

The Alexander Technique teaches people how to think about how they move, in the service of natural coordination, ease power and grace, especially while using the voice.

Try these activities:

  1. The Spatial Sense

Make a vocal sound of some kind, perhaps you are a singer and make an open sound or a non-singer and you just make an ‘AH’ sound for a second or two. Notice how it feels to make that sound… and what you are drawn to notice in your body.

Now consciously shift your attention to your head… that’s right, above your jaw, above your ear-level… up to your skull. Did you want to move it? You don’t have to move it, but you do want your head to be able to move easily… We are talking about ‘knowing where your head is in relation to your body’, that is, accessing your spatial sense consciously. Note that this is different from any direct idea of effort or movement per se. Now, while thinking of your head above your jaw, make your sound again. How was it different from the first time? What happens if you try this experiment while walking?

So, with this as the beginning let’s do the next experiment.

  1. The Direction of the Air

Alexander demonstrated that the sense we have of our own bodies and how we are moving is often inaccurate. We habituate to the way we normally feel, so changes are likely to feel strange, even wrong. With the voice, for example, it is not unusual to see people compressing down in their torso to make a sound, and it feels right to them to do so. In BodyMinded we teach people ‘conscious cooperation’ with their human design and with the physics of actions. You are probably familiar with how sound is made in the voice-box (larynx), by the movement of air up the windpipe (trachea). Have you ever consciously thought about this movement as you use your voice? Let’s combine the first exercise with the second… as you create your sound, think of the air going up to produce that sound. What happens to your voice as you do this? How does it feel?

  1. The Action Plan

Now we are going to add something about your desired sound. Perhaps you just made a sound at a volume that seemed easy and natural to you. What happens if you decide to double the volume? In Alexander’s case, he would immediately notice an increase in tension, a stiffening of his head on his neck, perhaps you even lifted your chin a little?

The way we carry out our actions is largely pre-determined by habits gained over our lifetime so far. When you add to your action plan… “I want it to be louder”, the changes that occur will depend on the idea you have of what you want and feeling of how it happens. In the BodyMinded process, we help you identify clearly, what you want, which sounds simple but can be surprising to explore.

Now we will build a ‘BodyMinded Instruction’ from these three parts… “I know I have a head, it moves easily over my spine, so I can think of air going up as I decide to make a louder sound”. Did the way you made the louder sound change?

The BodyMinded process teaches you how to generate instructions for yourself and others that are built from the relation between general or overall coordination; cooperation with human design; and a constructive action plan. Each part of this triumvirate can be ‘unpacked’ and explored over time, leading to a wonderful and effective set of dynamic tools for your own performance and your teaching.

“Unless stated otherwise, this article represents only the views of the author and not the views of the AVA”

Greg Holdaway is Director of BodyMinded: Sydney Alexander Technique, where he trains Alexander Technique teachers.  Greg has developed a unique professional training, BodyMinded which integrates up-to-date science and Alexander Technique principles for actionable practical skills for use with clients and students. www.alexandertechnique.com.au