SAG Foundation Event Offers Vocal Technique Tips

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“The voice is a truth thermometer,” said Kristen Linklater. “It’s the way you connect with your innermost impulses.” Linklater, author of “Freeing the Natural Voice” and professor of theater arts at Columbia University, was one of five panelists discussing “Breath and Voice: Vocal Health, Technique and the Creative Connection” at the Oct. 16 SAG Foundation Life Raft event.

Throughout the night, the discussion of voice and grounding in truth returned to breath. It sounds basic. And it is. Healthy vocal technique relies on a foundation of proper breathing, which is why vocal coach Deric Rosenblatt recalls that he lay on the floor during his own voice lessons learning to breathe and barely making a sound. According to Rosenblatt, to produce healthy speech or song professionals must first learn “how to efficiently use your air and compress breath so that the vocal cords can vibrate at their healthiest, freest, most efficient, so you get more result for less effort,” which is different for each performer. The problem for so many with vocal troubles is that they force sound and hold tension in the cords, rather than allowing sound through relaxed muscles.

ENT specialist Dr. Linda Dahl said that most of the performers she sees—both pediatric and adult—actually damage their voice offstage in everyday use. “It’s not like you have two different instruments,” Rosenblatt said. Performers need to make conscious choices all day, every day. No screaming at the bar—or the playground, for that matter.

For Linklater, Jane Guyer Fujita, and moderator Shane Ann Younts, breath is not only the key to vocal production but also the key to meaning in acting. Linklater’s method derives from an attempt to answer the question, How do you link the basic voice with language? During the evening, four performers had the opportunity to work with Linklater, Fujita, or Rosenblatt on a section of text or song—a chance to explore this link. Without fail, the moment the performers connected with their breath, their words gained meaning. These workshops proved that intention originates internally, emerges through breath, and manifests in the articulation of words.

From Rosenblatt and Younts’ focus on breath to Linklater and Fujita’s concentration on diffusing tension in the body through arm swings and muscle relaxation, all of the panelists agreed that the best approach to the voice is a full-body one. Aside from technique, Rosenblatt emphasized that good general physical health, sleep, hydration, and a positive relationship with your doctor are the keys to maintaining vocal health. Dahl pointed out that, while there is a stigma in the performing community about visiting an ENT, “it should be like a football player who sees their doctors and trainers. It’s just good practice.”

Rosenblatt admitted that some unhealthy practices are stylistically unavoidable. “Some things [like the raw rock sound] are just not going to be healthy, the way that what a gymnast does to their body is not healthy,” Rosenblatt said. But with improved technique comes less damage. The same is true for film actors. As Younts said of horror films, “If you have to do 42 takes of screaming at the monster, you better know what you’re doing.”

True vocal health comes from conditioning—as in any sport. The voice is a muscle to be trained, maintained, and rested when injured. With the demand to perform, actors must be their own advocates. But as Linklater reminded, “The voice is intrinsically very strong.”