The Path to Granny’s House

[I called my late grandmother, Jill Cragg, Granny, never Grandma. She was a wonderful person in every way. ]

This week, I’ve been working in my voice class on Shakespeare Sonnets. We’re nearing the end of dune unit, and so I am doing a lot of coaching on the pieces, one-on-one with the students. Coaching in this manner is one of my favorite things to do, it is literally a thrill, one of the best parts of the day.

I frequently use metaphors when coaching text, the more idiosyncratic the better. Quirky, and unapologetically so. Here’s the story of one of them.

A student is working on the text, speaking clearly, working to understand each word. But the sentence doesn’t feel right. They’re not actually engaged in the process of talking to someone, really. Perhaps, because the sentence is convoluted, confusing, and the words are unfamiliar (even though they have done their research can tell me what they mean), they’re focused more on sharing that meaning than they are  on communicating.  And that’s a problem. Because of the way they memorized the text, as they begin their first thought, they are thinking merely about the first words, and not about where they are heading. Their journey with the text is a hopscotch of one small text chunk at a time, not a race to the finish line.

I argue that they need to be looking to the horizon. The words at the start of the sentence are only a means to get to the heart of their sentence, which in Shakespeare often lies at the end of the sentence. They need a mental map of where they are heading.

Of course they need to know all their actor homework, their objective, who they are talking to, what they want them to do, what obstacles lie before them, etc. Of course.  Those are a given. But the words have to spring from a sense of a destination, or a very least a waypoint along the route to that destination.

And so the image of Little Red Riding Hood pops into my head, heading to Granny’s cottage in the woods. There is a lot to pass on the way, but Li’l Red has the image of where she is headed clearly anchored in her mind. It needs to be there before she leaves ( it needed to be there when she packed her basket, didn’t it?). So too does the actor need this destination anchored in their mind. They need to memorize it, too, so that when they go to start they have that in mind, and not just the first words.

So Granny has become a regular metaphor in my class, beginning with the end in mind. It’s not fancy, it’s not complicated, but it gets the job done.

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F***ing Around with your Voice

When people ask me what the best way to get better with making the sounds of language, whether it be English sounds, or new sounds of the world, my answer is simple: “F*** around with your voice.”

I say this fairly often, I’m afraid. I believe that the people who have the most success with changing the way their voice sounds are the ones who change the way their voice sounds all the time. People with a strong sense of play, who are willing to make noises, to do impressions, to sing publicly, to be audaciously outrageous, these are the people who have a sense of confidence, who are willing to take a risk, who ultimately develop the skills necessary to aural/oral acrobats of the mouth.

Dudley Knight's Speaking with Skill  Book coverIn his new book, Speaking with Skill, Dudley Knight describes a process he calls vocal gurning, where students move their faces around slowly to make funny faces, and then copy that process with their sound making abilities, sounding while gurning with their articulators and the rest of their vocal tracts. This is masterful F***ing around with the Voice.
In the book The Complete Voice and Speech Workout Book and CD, I described an exercise about vowel sliding and gliding. This is the same principle I describe in my post Riding the Wave of the Tongue and Riding the Wave of the Tongue Part II.

Complete Voice and Speech Workout book cover

But play can happen anywhere and at any time. When I listen to the radio and I hear an accent that is unfamiliar to me, I make a point of at least mouthing the sounds I hear that seem interesting and new to me; if I’m alone in the car, I do it aloud, for sure. I’m constantly experimenting with my ability to make sounds in ways that are new to me, and ways that I’m familiar with—this is my practice, my daily work to maintain my level of Mastery, as described by George Leonard in his great, highly recommended, book.Master book cover

There are as many ways to play with your voice as there are people. I encourage all my students, and all my readers to mess around with your voice at every opportunity you get; I assure you that it will take you further than you ever imagined.

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Gravity and Breath

Letting breath “drop” is a common expression amongst a certain kind of voice teacher, including myself. It’s connected to the feeling of letting breath into the lower part of the abdomen, with a contraction of the diaphragm and a release of any tension in the abdominal musculature. With that release, gravity pulls your guts, your viscera, down and forward on the impulse to breathe. It’s fast, it’s easy, it’s pleasurable. If done right, you get the sensation not of “taking a breath”, but of “the breath taking you”. Delightful.

Standing up, breath releasing down on the inhalation is accentuated by gravity, but that release is fairly limited in its sensation. By kneeling on all fours, you can let your guts drop with gravity in a more dramatic way, feeling the sensation of the drop toward the floor very clearly. As you exhale, and the diaphragm rises back up, you feel your guts come back toward your spine. Breath in you feel full down low; breath out you feel empty down there.

Lying down on your back, in a semi-supine (with your knees bent) position, gravity pushes against this movement in the belly on the inhalation. The musculature of the diaphragm has to push a wee bit harder as the viscera move forward and “up” toward the ceiling against gravity. There is a greater sense of engagement here. On the exhalation, whether on sound or merely on breath, gravity “helps”, as the viscera drop toward the floor, toward the spine.

Rolling over onto your belly (“prone,” as they say), the movement of breath into the belly is somewhat impeded by the floor. With breath movement moving the guts, the spine rises toward the ceiling, at least somewhat, and the lower back ribs spread wide as the lower back expands. On the exhalation, gravity presses the body down onto the guts as the diaphragm relaxes up toward the heart.

Pushing back into a “child’s pose,” with the knees spread so that the belly can again drop with gravity, the pelvic floor becomes available for movement—the sensation of breath “dropping” moves down into a stretch sensation in the perineum. The lower back also pushes up against gravity, especially if the knees are kept together to restrict movement of the belly downward with gravity.

Finally, one can return to all fours with yoga poses called “cat” and “cow”: as you exhale, round your back up into an arched cat-like pose; as you inhale, and your guts drop toward the floor with gravity, curve your tailbone up to the ceiling and look up (so-called “cow”). This movement exaggerates the movement of your belly by simultaneously moving your spine.

Gravity can be your friend in learning about breath basics. Explore this sensation and feel where you can go with it!

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Breath in the Belly

Ball TossIt’s the start of a new year at my university where I teach voice to the acting students in the Dept. of Theatre. We begin, as you might imagine, with breath. The first day, we do an exercise that I borrowed/stole/appropriated many years ago from Christine Menzies when I was an associate teacher at the National Voice Intensive in Vancouver. We take a largish ball and throw it up in the air and catch it. As simple as that. We explore the idea of breathing “out” with the ball going up, and “in” while the ball comes down and we catch it. In this exploration, the ball is a metaphor for the air we’re breathing: air goes out, ball goes up; air comes in, ball comes down.

Then we switch it up. We reverse the pattern so that as we throw the ball up, we inhale, and as we catch the ball, we exhale. Up is “in”, and down is “out,” if you will. Then we discuss.

And what comes up is that, for some, one way of doing it is more comfortable that the other way. For some, the action of throwing and exhaling feels right: the effort of the action is married to an exhalation, which is what many of them have been taught to do for sports, or weight lifting; the inhalation is easy, like catching the ball. For others, the expansiveness they feel on the inhalation is more easily married to the upward toss of the ball; the compression and closing of the body involved in catching it matches nicely with the sensation they feel as they exhale.

Who is right?

I think it will come as no surprise to my students and colleagues that I will say that “no one is right.” Both experiences are appropriate responses to the exercise, and though one might feel more comfortable for some students than the other, it’s likely that about half the students will prefer one way, and the other half will prefer the other. Perhaps a small smattering of students will have no preference.

I love this exercise to underline the idea that we breathe in many ways, and that some are more comfortable, more familiar, than others. Each of us is different, and we may have habits that inform our experience. Personally, I like the metaphor of the breath IS the ball, so that when I exhale I toss it up, and when I inhale it drops into my core. But I recognize that the natural rhythm of my breath, which at rest goes something like in—out—rest | in—out—rest, fits more comfortably with the other pattern of tossing/inhaling—catching/exhaling—wait to toss the ball again. In the reverse pattern, one cannot stop and rest while the ball hangs in mid-air.

But part of the reason why I’m attracted to the inhalation on the catch is that it reinforces a sensation I feel in my gut, where “breath drops in”. This is an image that is at the heart of the tradition of Iris Warren/Kristin Linklater/David Smukler voice work, to which I am deeply connected. The feeling of allowing breath into my core is one that centres me, grounds me, and connects me to my partner and to the moment at hand. I love it, and this ball tossing thing gives me an opportunity to relish that feeling in a most satisfying way.

Today I began working on helping the students in my class, the ones for whom breath sensation in their core is a foreign experience, find the movement of their abdomen, their bellies. For a small few, this is familiar territory, and I reassure them that things will get challenging later in the year when we invest in the ribs in a big way. But for now, we need to deepen our connection to the action of the diaphragm, and to the movement of the abdominal wall, to allow breath to move us in a downward-and-outward direction. It’s slow going, and it requires not just a “wish for it and it will come” approach I feel. We experiment with different breath actions, small coughs, preparations for a sneeze, the memory of vomiting, folding ourselves into a ball, to feel the action of the abdomen in our personal body experience. Each of these actions connect with part of the experience of breath into the core, but not the whole of it. I’m pointing towards the breath I hope they’ll experience, but not making it happen. I know that, in time, their body will remember, their breath will drop, and they will find the action we seek. Forcing it won’t help, but searching for it with all of our imaginations, our intellects, our sense memory, our emotional core, all of it can come into play. All ways are explored, and no way is rejected.

Breathing from the core is, in my mind, the single most important step towards an embodied practice of acting, and finding that breath is essential. It cannot be rushed, but we must seek it out with determination and vision. It holds the key to so much that the actor needs. For some it is easy, for many it is scary, but my goodness, it is worth it.

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Text Four Ways

4 ways meet in one placeThis post puts three previous posts back on the table. In my posts Intoning, Whispering the Text, and Singing A Text,  I laid out three approaches to working with a text (and proved that I am totally inconsistent when it comes to Post titles!). Each approach brings a certain characteristic to the text that you’re working on, and shines a light on how you work with it.

The idea for this post is a pretty simple one: combine these exercises for one super-exercise where you layer the learning from all the different ways of playing with the text. This is a classic exercise. I believe that I learned it, or something like it, from Patsy Rodenberg, who (I believe) learned it from Cicely Berry, who probably learned it from her teachers, people like Barbara Bunch. [In fact, I think I was first exposed to this exercise by teachers of mine that had worked with Patsy Rodenberg long before I ever had a chance to work with Patsy at a VASTA conference in 1995.]

So here’s the pattern:

  1. Speak the text out loud,
  2. Whisper the text,
  3. Speak the text out loud again, but seeing/feeling if there is any hold-over from the whispering,
  4. Intone the text,
  5. Speak the text out loud again, but seeing/feeling if there is any change due to the intoning,
  6. Sing the text,
  7. Speak the text out loud one last time, try to feel any hold over from the singing.

As you can imagine, doing the text 7 times takes some considerable time. It’s a great way to consolidate your learning, so that you’re solid on the text; if you’re not very comfortable with memorization, doing this process will help to integrate your memorization process so that you can embody the text you’ve learned. The most important part, I think, is to return to the “plain” speaking of the text in between each iteration of the text so as to monitor its effect on your appreciation of any effect it may have had on you. You want it to change you, so please don’t try to rigidly keep it the same!

When I go through this process with my students, they report that there is an accumulative effect, where each layer of the process encourages a greater, more expansive exploration of the text. By starting intimately with whispering, then growing to intoning and finally to singing, the text blossoms, and they find things within the text and themselves that are surprising. Also, most people probably don’t do their text 7 times in a row uninterrupted. The discipline and focus that it requires takes them to a new level, one that shows them what a little hard work can do.

As I often seem to do at the end of a blog post, I must say that this process can cross-over to many ways of learning. This *interleaving* of the text allows for exploration and consolidation of skills through a longer process than just doing a simple exercise. One could easily concoct many of these kinds of patterns of repetition that will allow you to see many different sides of a piece of text, and to help you enrich your connection to it. For instance, you might interleave speaking a text with moving in response to the text in a variety of ways. You could mouth the text, you could “fuff” the text, think the text while pulsing on a lip-trill, etc. So many options!

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