When late voice pioneer Alfred Wolfsohn was on the battlefields of World War I, he heard the multioctave death cries of a wounded soldier. This led him to think about the full-throttled squall of the newborn infant. He came to believe that, in between those two existential roars, we live a half-voiced life. He considered the voice the muscle of the soul, and he devoted himself to uncovering its potential.
Wolfsohn's student and disciple, the late South African-born, RADA-trained actor Roy Hart, taught actors to use their voices in the fullest way possible, engaging multiple octaves to express the deepest and most varied emotions. In the Hart approach, no sound is ugly per se: All sounds are permissible as part of the infinite range of human expression. I've heard the astonishing results of this type of training onstage: The sounds can be unearthly.
I start with this example of radical vocal technique to give you an idea of the options available to the actor. Many other prominent teachers of voice and singing—among them Catherine Fitzmaurice, Kristin Linklater, and Seth Riggs—have their own methods, taught not only by the masters but also by certified teachers. Others teach a combination of various techniques.
But do you need this type of training, especially if you work primarily on-camera? Consider this: An actor came to study with Los Angeles singing teacher Derek Graydon. She was taping a new TV series, and the director was having trouble hearing her speak, even with a boom mike: Her low range was weak. The teacher gave her scales to strengthen her voice. "She phoned me a few days later and said it worked," Graydon told me. "I told her that singing would help establish her speaking voice."
Not every actor has trouble projecting, and certainly not every actor intends to work in musical theatre (although the more skills you acquire, the more marketable you are). But if an actor doesn't know how to use his or her voice properly, that can cause problems onstage or on-camera.
The two most important elements in the use of voice are tension and breath. According to the teachers I consulted, singing and speaking are all about tension and breathing—finding and eliminating the former, relearning the latter. They say unless you have specific vocal training, not only do you risk temporarily losing or even damaging your voice but also you are not making full, creative use of your instrument.
To get a general idea of what that means, I attended a voice class at American Conservatory Theater. "My emphasis is on relaxation and touching into sound in a gentle, spontaneous way," the teacher, actor Cynthia Bassham, tells me. "In addition to freeing things up and finding what the body wants to sound like, it's about making choices, directing the sound without being rigid." She adds, "Some actors can do the mechanics of producing sound but can't always touch into the core self, so it doesn't feel authentic."
We start with exercises invented by New York–based master teacher Catherine Fitzmaurice. Called destructuring, they offer (writes Fitzmaurice) a "deep exploration of the autonomic nervous-system functions… allowing sound vibrations to extend beyond the conventional resonators of chest and head throughout the body, adding harmonic range and natural volume to the voice." Bassham says, "Destructuring drops people into their core in a way no other approach does for me."
We lie on mats on the floor, and Bassham guides us in exploring how we feel in each part of our body. We use imagery to send our breath to the tips of our toes, our fingers, etc. We assume yoga-like poses, in which we are guided to soften our belly—which supports our breath—our face, and our jaw, to feel how our bones touch the floor, and to pay attention to the slight tremors that result from stretching certain muscles. Bassham says the tremor is a way to find out where our tension is so that we can release it, breathe into it.
For more details, I call Fitzmaurice, a British-born actor who trained with Cicely Berry and others. (Her son, Saul Kotzubei, teaches her method in Los Angeles.) "A lot of training gets caught up in doing things with the voice," she says. "We can go high, low, loud, speak the text this way or that. What interests me is the inspirational, or creative, use of the instrument in terms of how we use our bodies to breathe, use sounds, articulate. So I work with the full body, not only mechanical, muscular behaviors but also the neurological contribution of breathing and thinking and language-making and imaging and the imagination and what creativity and spontaneity are."
She adds, "The breath is fascinating; it runs from mechanical to spiritual. Breathing is my passion. The way one breathes impacts the voice enormously. The breath is the player of the vocal instrument. If you're a beautiful piano that no one plays, you won't make much music. It's the way you're played that gives expression."
Clearly, there is more to this voice work than I imagined. "Actors can be quite poor at [this]," says Fitzmaurice. "They'll blow through their voices, or try to throw too much emotion in there. Emotion is a byproduct. [Actors] tend to work from the neck up. They get into all kinds of trouble, getting hoarse, feeling not connected to their center, losing their voice." She says actors tend to want to look good, but aren't so clear on wanting to sound good. "But," she emphasizes, "my focus is not on sounding good as much as having a huge range of expressive choices and maintaining a healthy instrument."
Actors tend to think the voice emanates from the neck, rather than from the larynx, continues Fitzmaurice. A famous actor once came to her midway through a Broadway run. Her vocal folds were swollen and injured, and her doctor and director wanted her to leave the play. She was hardly able to make a sound, and the more panicky she got, the more effort she made around her neck. In three days, Fitzmaurice taught her to breathe into her ribcage, "where the air is," a technique Fitzmaurice learned as a child.
In class, we continue on to Fitzmaurice's restructuring exercises. It's a way of getting out of your head, says Bassham, and allowing your voice to do different, spontaneous things. Fitzmaurice has defined restructuring as "the management of a breath pattern"—that is, allowing the way you breathe to affect your acting choices and to trigger an authenticity that is true to the text and to your deepest personal sensations.
We make noises and accompanying gestures that express opposite pairs of emotions or qualities (love/hate, joy/anger, etc.). We pass sounds around the circle and allow them to morph into other sounds, always with the full body involved. It feels like part improv exercise, part vocal warm-up. We deliver monologues, allowing our voices to change naturally in response to shouted-out commands. The purpose of the two kinds of exercises is to first learn how to support your breath and then give yourself freedom to playfully access all kinds of surprising sounds and voices. Riding home on the Metro, I find myself vocalizing sotto voce. The next day, my leg muscles are sore. This voice business is not for sissies.
Bassham says students come to class with all sorts of behaviors that need modification. Several muscles may be a little atrophied, while others have been overused and need to relax. Students have habitual places in their bodies where they hold emotions, which need to be unlocked because they are blocking the best available sounds. They hold their shoulders tight, lock their knees, wear tight jeans so their belly never releases, or raise their eyebrows every time they emphasize a word. "It's a detective story to try and find the tension," says Bassham. The tension is a guide toward finding the actor's true voice.
Ultimately, voice work is about who you are and what you want to communicate, says Bassham. How can you technically get the sound out there? Early on in the process it can be effortful. "It's all a reflection of what we do naturally, but expanded upon," she insists. Lions use "structured" breathing when they roar, as do babies when they cry: They automatically use ribs and bellies. Onstage we need to be able to do that, too.
The next day I call one of the actors in the class, Don Schwartz, to ask him how the method has worked for him. After about 18 classes (both voice and speech), he says it's been a revelation. Shortly after starting the classes, he booked a union shoot and nailed a hard scene in his on-camera acting class, and he attributes those successes to his newfound vocal skills. He was initially surprised at how critical it is to relax, he says, and even the way he talks has changed. He intends to continue the classes indefinitely.
Kristin Linklater, who teaches at Columbia University, and who published the bible of voice work for actors, Freeing the Natural Voice (1976), writes that "The voice is composed of three or four octaves of speaking notes that can express the full gamut of human emotion and communicate all the subtleties and nuances of thought. Its great value is in the directness and immediacy of its communication and in how much it reveals about the person who speaks. That is also its danger. The voice learns early in life how to prevaricate, how to defend, how to mask the truth....When the voice is blocked, held back, choked, suppressed, life gets blocked, too. If you are an actor, you need open, free channels of vocal and physical communication and unblocked access to your emotional and intellectual energies." In Los Angeles, teacher Natsuko Ohama has distilled Linklater's method to focus on the breath: In her classes she helps actors connect "their intellect, emotions, body, and the vibration of their voice." (Ohama was overseas and unavailable for comment for this article.)
Tone Cold Sober
Singing, it turns out, involves a few of the same lessons as voice work. Once again it's about breath and tension—and lots of other things, several of them apparently mysterious. "Exactly how the various components of the vocal mechanism work together is a matter of continuing investigation and elaboration by science," writes singing teacher Dora Ohrenstein in Journal of Singing (September/October 2003). She pinpoints three prime physiological structures—the respiratory apparatus, laryngeal musculature, and vocal tract—as being in constant variation during singing. It takes practice, she writes, for singers to become kinesthetically aware of all these moving parts, but they must do so to overcome tension.
Science aside, I had an all-important question to pose to a few experts: Can anyone learn to sing? Even moi? "Nobody has a tin ear," declares Ava Victoria, who teaches at American Conservatory Theater and sings with big dance bands in Southern California. "If you can distinguish a car horn, a trash-can lid, and a foghorn, you're not tone-deaf. If you're incapable of holding a vocal chord long enough to maintain a certain pitch, that's a muscular problem. You have inflection in speech, so you can match tones. Once you can match a tone, then the task is to maintain that tone for a period of time. It's all based on getting tension out of the throat and tongue."
Derek Graydon says, "If you're tone-deaf, every note sounds the same. If I hit a note on the piano and you can't match it, you're tone-deaf. In all my years of teaching [more than 30], I've only come across two people who [were] actually tone-deaf. The other problem is fear. People are afraid of doing something wrong." He says he's had students burst into tears when they hear a voice coming out that they've never heard before.
Victoria helps students release tension and increase range. The tension is often in the jaw, and it comes from posture and habitual speech patterns. Sometimes students come out of Shakespeare classes with a tendency to chew, enunciate, and clench, and they can't get their tongues down to sing freely. "It's a lot of physiological and mechanical work," Victoria says. The tongue is the strongest muscle in the body for its size and weight. Singers struggle to keep it down. "In singing, the tongue has to flutter very quickly and be able to stay down for long periods of time in a relaxed way," she says. For many singers, it's an ongoing battle. Others simply need to build endurance. Her exercise class is a combination of vocalizing and breath work.
Singing in the Brain
Los Angeles teacher and musical-theatre performer Dan Barnett finds that incoming students tend to breathe very shallowly, in their chests, not using their diaphragms. Pupils have tight jaws, tension in the muscles of the neck, head, and face, and they may have difficulty with rhythm. He uses, among other exercises, a technique trademarked by Los Angeles master teacher Seth Riggs called speech-level singing. It is based on using the lower larynx, the speech-level larynx. "When you speak, your larynx doesn't rise in your throat; it stays horizontal and level," explains Barnett. "But when a lot of people sing, they think they have to chase the note above the larynx. You want it to stay low, as in speaking, not go up in a strange position." The result is the ability to sing without working so hard, and a pleasanter sound.
Speech-level singing is also about knowing how to properly place speech in the head cavity to create a more resonant sound. "In speech-level singing, you use three resonances—sinus, forehead, and pharyngeal area—instead of just speaking off your hard palate," says Barnett. That makes the voice sound richer, less nasal.
"Speech-level singing connects the head voice with the chest voice," Barnett elaborates, by creating a pissagi, or bridge, from one to the other. This results in a continuous sound, one note relating properly to the next. Singers such as Bernadette Peters, Natalie Cole, and many others reportedly use Riggs' technique.
Graydon teaches bel canto, an Italian school of singing that produces full, even tones. Opera singers such as Renée Fleming and Cecilia Bartoli are known for bel canto, as was Maria Callas. "I don't believe in breaks in the voice; I believe in one complete register from bottom to top," says Graydon. "Each tone should have head and chest in it: Too much head, and it's thin, or too much chest, and you'll break. That's one of the most common [problems] with singers, and more so with female voices today because so many female [roles] require a mix." He cites the lead female in Miss Saigon: "She's not a soprano, she's a mix." The same is true for Les Miz, and for Sondheim's work. Graydon swears he has a secret technique for getting the break out of the voice. He says it takes only 10 minutes to even the voice out, and the break goes away. A singer can have a three-and-a-half-octave range without breaks.
Other problems that actors present: They open their mouths too widely. "If they kept their mouths more closed, their voices would be more focused," says Graydon They think their diaphragm is located in the stomach area. "It's not! It's just under your ribcage," he says. They get hoarse because they're speaking from the throat, not the diaphragm. A Broadway actor playing a witch in Macbeth came to Graydon. There was no singing involved, but he was getting hoarse. In only a few lessons, Graydon showed him how to support his voice.
Improper singing can cause all kinds of damage. You can develop nodules, little calluses on your vocal chords, which will eventually go away, but that can take six months. In Journal of Singing (March/April 2004), David Alt reports on an informal survey of musical directors, asking them how they rated the singing abilities of recent college graduates. The directors said the young singers were skilled in transitioning in and out of belt voice, had workable ranges, and were able to sing in a variety of musical theatre styles—but did not understand vocal technique well enough to sustain eight performances a week. In another article in that same journal (November/December 1995), voice therapist Jean Westerman Gregg reports that most of her clients come in with nodules, polyps, cysts on the vocal folds: all a result of overloading the larynx in phonation. That is, the singers are "going for the burn"—forcing the muscle to overwork. She helps them to release muscle tension, maintain good posture, and achieve body alignment. In yet another article (March/April 1998), Richard Miller warns of the dangers of "laryngeal abuse."
How long should you take voice or singing classes to achieve a measure of skill? The answer is: anywhere from a few sessions to a few years. Victoria says in 20 hours you can acquire the vocabulary and learn the exercises. Some students have stuck with Graydon for six years. Fitzmaurice doesn't like to work with an actor less than five or six hours (not all in one day); she says it takes awhile for people to change old habits. Barnett suggests six months, with at least one lesson a week. "It's all teachable," he says. "But it takes time." BSW
Dan Barnett (Santa Monica), (310) 229-5235, www.mastervocals .com. Roy Hart Theatre (Southern France), www.roy-hart.com. Fitzmaurice Voicework (Los Angeles), (323) 965-8333, www.voicecoachLA.com/vocal. Catherine Fitzmaurice (New York), (212) 532-8718, www.fitzmauricevoicework.com. Derek Graydon (Los Angeles), (323) 656-9356. American Conservatory Theater (San Francisco), (415) 834-3200, www.act-sf.org. Seth Riggs (Los Angeles), www.sethriggs.com. Kristin Linklater (New York), (212) 340-4762, www.kristinlinklater.com. Saul Kotzube: (323) 965-8333. www.voicecoachLA.com.