Memories of voice work can be ephemeral.
When I ask actors what they did in their speaking voice classes in school, I get answers like, “Um, we laid on the floor a lot”, “Well, we did a lot of yawning”, or “A proper cup of coffee in a copper coffee pot!”
I also hear actors say they wish they could take the voice class NOW, after understanding its value in real life. So here are some reminders:
1. Use it or lose it
Pop quiz: how many muscles does it take to utter a phrase of speech? Take a guess. The answer is around 100. Isn’t that a shockingly high number?! We get so caught up in the sound that we forget it is rooted in muscle behavior.
Just like any other muscles in the body, the ones that we use for voice can be in shape (conditioned) or out of shape (deconditioned).
Your voice was probably in good shape while you were taking classes – you were warming it up and working it out. If you stop doing the work, your voice can lose strength, power, and flexibility. Just because I used to be able to do the splits, for example, doesn’t mean I can still do them now without having actively maintained that limberness.
2. The abs (not the throat) are the power source for sound
While many of the 100 muscles for speech are in the mouth and throat, the rest are related to breath. We are a wind instrument.
Breath is the power source for voice.
We speak on a prolonged exhale. This means we need to a) inhale enough breath for the task at hand, and b) be able to control the exhale in order to control our voice.
The muscles we use to control that exhale, and to push the air out when we make sound, are the abdominal muscles. Put a hand on your belly, just above your navel. Open your mouth and say “HAH!” with a sharp inward motion of your abs to push the air out.
The connection between abs, breath, and sound is the basis for breath support.
Many actors fall into the trap of trying to generate vocal power using the throat muscles, which is typically not effective and can lead to discomfort or injury.
My post about breathing goes in to more detail about this.
3. Alignment and posture really do matter
Voice is a physical act. The sound comes from, and is part of, your body. Therefore the state of your body – how you are holding it, how free or tense it is – affects the sound that comes out of it.
A common pitfall for actors is jutting their head forward when they speak. This might come fro the very real and natural impulse to reach out to the person they’re talking to. But it cuts out a lot of the voice.
Try this: jut your head forward like a turtle poking out of its shell. Say your phone number out loud with your head in front of your body.
Now pull your head back, like a chicken, so your earlobes are in front of your shoulders. Most folks don’t go all the way back when I ask them to do this, so look in a mirror (or selfie camera) to make sure your head is as far back as it can go in an upright position. Say your phone number again.
When your head is aligned, the vocal tract is more open, and the sound is more powerful. When your muscles scrunch due to misalignment, your voice is scrunched too.
4. Talk where you hum, not where you gargle
Voice “placement’ refers to where it feels like the sound lives in your mouth. We change placement by changing the shape of the vocal tract using the mouth and throat muscles.
Try this: keep your lips closed, but open your mouth wide, like you have hot soup in your mouth. Feel the big space at the back of your throat, like a yawn. Keeping that open pathway, say “mm-hmm”, like you are agreeing with someone. The sound likely vibrates in the front of your face.
Now swallow and scrunch your throat tight, plastering the back of your tongue to the roof of your mouth. Say “mm-hmm” again, and you might notice that the sound feels trapped in your throat.
The sweet spot for a free voice is placing it the front of the face. From there, you can learn to create different voice qualities for various characters and contexts.
5. Voice work isn’t to limit you, only to expand your options
Voice training isn’t about taking away your natural abilities, but rather adding to them. The antiquated idea of a “correct” way to speak is off-putting to a lot of actors, and rightly so.
Free voice is not prescriptive. It simply allows you to follow impulses.
Voice work for acting isn’t about the sound itself being good, bad, right or wrong; the voice is a servant of the message. It is there to allow you to express your character’s thoughts, feelings, subtext, and story. Why limit yourself by not fully accessing this natural part of what you bring to a role?
If you remember your old voice warmups, you can start doing them again. Or if you’d like some guidance in creating a customized workout regimen for your particular voice and needs, or (re)discovering your vocal freedom, schedule a session and I’ll help!