Time for a New Coat of Paint

Paint can and brushAfter many years, I have decided to go with a new design1 for The Voice Guy. This should have a better responsive design to work on phones2, tablets and computers, and just look “fresher”. In the days and weeks to come, as I get the machine of the blog going, there may be a few glitches. If you notice something, please let me know! And thanks for your patience.

  1. By which I mean a new THEME in WordPress.

  2. and maybe these footnotes will work with a touch interface?

Posted in Blog

What have I been up to, 2014 edition

Back in 2012, I wrote a post that outlined what I’d been up to for the two years that I had been on hiatus from voiceguy.ca. Well, it seems like it is time for me to do that again! I’m hoping to get back to blogging as the VoiceGuy once more, and it might be fun to do an update on my coaching and teaching life for the past couple of years.

The biggest distraction from my blogging here has been my work at York University. This week marks the end of my 3-year term as Graduate Program Director for the MFA Program in Theatre. This role was on top of my usual teaching, service, research job at York, and demanded a lot more of my attention. It meant that my research really had to focus in on coaching and that left less time for stuff like this (which I guess the university would think of as “knowledge mobilization”). I quite enjoyed my time as GPD, but I will definitely be enjoying not doing it far more this coming year.

Of course, I was also coaching for theatre, film and television. More recently I’ve worked with SoulPepper Theatre on a couple of projects, Gigli Concert and 12 Angry Menboth of which feature actor Stuart Hughes. I found both projects very enjoyable to work on, and so I hope to get more coaching with them in the months and years to come.

This year marks my second sabbatical at York. My first sabbatical, 2007-08, saw me create the VoiceGuy blog, and a lot of coaching in theatre and, most notably, on the film Orphan(2009). My how time flies! Often, when people ask me about my sabbatical, the assumption is that I will be traveling, as many professors manage to do quite a lot of travel as part of their sabbatical time. Unfortunately, family demands make long-term travel impossible for me, apart from short jaunts to conferences and workshops. I had hoped to be spending my time working on a large project for which I had applied to SSHRC for a big whack of funding. Unfortunately, I was unsuccessful in getting my grant, so I’ll be working on other projects instead.

For instance, I will be revising my workbook for learning the International Phonetic AlphabetIntroducing the IPA, and “beta-testing” what I come up with through friends and colleagues across the country and North America. The last edition of the workbook came out in 2006, and I’ve learned a lot since then, so it’s time for a major upgrade.

I hope to land quite a lot of coaching work across the city this year, whether it is in film, tv, theatre, or, a new one for me,  performance capture for videogames. I did my first coaching on a new DLC (downloadable content) for the next instalment of an Ubisoft franchise this week and it was a lot of fun! As one of the actors said to me, it’s like a mix of theatre (endowing the space with all sorts of qualities it doesn’t have), animation voice over work (with lots of character voices and accents), and film (as the performance capture is shot on camera as well as motion-capture.  Of course, I had to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement, so I can’t talk about it… I’d like to tell you, but then I’d have to kill you (in a virtual kind of way).

This summer will also see me return to the VASTA conference, this year in London, UK. For the past 3 years I’ve been presenting with a team on various under-represented accents, with an Asian accent panel at the 2012 conference in D.C., a Scandinavian accent panel at the 2013 conference in Minneapolis, and this year, a panel on South Asian accents. I’m focusing on Tamil accents from Sri Lanka, Tamil Nadu, and Bangladesh. So that will keep me busy for the next month in preparation of the conference.

I’m also overseeing a BFA student who I’ve hired to create resources for the International Dialects of English Archive (IDEA). Funded through grants from the School of Arts, Music, Performance and Design and the Research at York  (RAY) program, we’re working to get as many samples recorded from IDEA’s list of most wanted accents. Filling in some gaps should make the archive more useful and comprehensive.

Finally, my family is spending the summer coping with a new addition: a puppy! Our beloved black lab, Murphy, passed away a few weeks ago, and we’ve decided to get another Labrador Retriever, a “Fox Red” puppy that we’ve named Ember. She comes home from the breeder, Cooperslane Kennels, on July 4, and will fill our lives with joy and interrupted sleep!

Fox Red Lab Puppy

Ember, our new Fox Red Lab.


Posted in Blog

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.

Posted in Blog, Text Tagged with:

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.

Posted in Blog, Speech Tagged with: , ,

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!

Posted in basic, Blog, Voice Tagged with: , ,