I am somebody who tends to think big picture and then get into specifics. When it comes to vocal technique, I always remind people that the use of the voice is a full-body event. Yes, we tend to focus on the itty-bitty vocal folds or the space inside of the head and chest where we might experience parasympathetic vibrations. But particularly in theater and singing where we use the voice dynamically, we should be able to access all things available to our individual instruments, from the soles of our feet to the tops of our heads.
A voice is as individual as the person from whom it is emerging. Learning how to use your voice more efficiently starts with deepening your awareness of your physical body and with accessing your imagination. Here are five things to think about to help you approach the tools you already have available to you.
The purpose of vocal technique, in my opinion, is to train the physical body to work as efficiently as it can and to refine thought processes and awareness to sustain the way the body works. Through balanced alignment and proper muscle development, you can use your voice in a way that is somatically intelligent and breeds a feeling of wellness. Starting from the bottom up, you can gain awareness of a sense of weight over the arches of the feet, loose knees, vertical alignment of ankles-hips-shoulders, space between the molars, tip of the tongue on the lowest teeth, and the intake of air through the perception of the lowest rib moving outward. Creating a plumb line from the crown of the head to the ankles allows you to have a posture that can maintain efficient use of the voice.
The second technical element on which to focus is breath, the flow of the process of inhalation/exhalation and management of air. In other words: air goes in, air goes out. We speak and sing on exhalation. The outgoing breath causes the vocal folds to oscillate which cause vibrations. These vibrations are amplified through the nasal and oral cavities and are articulated by that favorite mantra of actors: “the lips, the teeth, and the tip of the tongue.” You can enhance your voice by deepening your awareness of your breathing habits. Try this breath exploration:
- Find your lowest rib with your pointer finger and thumb (this is where the diaphragm, the major muscle of respiration is connected)
- Inhale and notice the movement of the ribcage moving outward
- Exhale on an “S” sound like a tire deflating
- Inhale with your mouth remaining in the “S” formation
- Exhale on an “F” sound by resting your top front teeth lightly on your bottom lip and blowing
- Inhale with your mouth remaining in the “F” formation
- Exhale making the sound “OOO” for as long as seems comfortable
- One more inhale
Exploring the performance of your breathing apparatus can provide deeper understanding of your respiratory function, reduce excess tension, and increase expressivity.
We are aware of the simplistic starting place of beatboxing by making the sound of the words “boots and cats” without the vowels (do it yourself at least eight times in a row and try not to dance along). What we notice is that without the vowels, we are left with the percussive hisses, clicks, and pops of language. But speech relies on the slurred, flowing line of sound created by vowel sounds following each other. The 17th century philosopher Baruch Spinoza theorized that consonants are the body of language, and vowels are the soul.
Vowel formation has implications for resonance, or the prolonging of sound by bouncing around the oral and nasal cavities. These resonances are altered by the movement of the throat, mouth, tongue, jaw, and lips. As such, recognition of how you create vowels gives you options to create the most dynamic sounds that your body can produce.
Evolutionarily, as the human brain grew larger and increasingly complex, the voice developed from the need to communicate. Through communication, a person gains the trust of another through thoughtful intention. An actor must strive for complete commitment to connect to their audience and fellow performers. That might mean simply thinking about what they want to express and how they want to express it. In preparation, they might set goals for what elements to practice to gain acuity of their perception of their voice. In performance, they can use their voice to deliver the memorized text, fascinating character, and placement in a clearly defined story. The goal of vocal work is intimacy and authenticity.
Adults are used to focusing work within the confines of a regimented routine. But creative exploration can be an important aspect of building skills. You can find the sonic colors toward which your body naturally gravitates. These include noises like the hum of relief of sitting in a warm bubble bath, or the whine of a kid on the verge of a temper tantrum, or the ping of a cuckoo clock. Have fun with the sounds that you can make! The process of finding the range of colors in your voice can help you develop your expressivity and your process of self-formation as an artist.
Michael Mohammed received his doctorate from the music and music education program at Teachers College, Columbia University. His dissertation used narrative inquiry to explore the use of the voice as a means of personal and cultural expression by elite Black theatre and opera performers. His research continues to look at the representation of persons with historically excluded identities in theatrical and operatic performance. He is on the voice faculty of San Jose State University, College of Marin, and the San Francisco Community Music Center. He has been invited to give presentations at Stanford University, Opera Philadelphia, Pacific Voice Conference, Bowling Green State University, and Earlham College. He works throughout the US and Canada as a stage director, choreographer, and performer. Recently, he co-created What's Known To Me Is Endless with baritone Kenneth Overton and pianist Rich Coburn for the inaugural season of Amplified Opera, a Toronto-based company that places equity-seeking artists at the center of public discourse.
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