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.

Posted in basic, Blog, Voice

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!

Posted in Text

Asian Accents Panel

[ This post marks my return to blogging for the Fall of 2012! My hope is that I will be able to post on a bi-weekly basis. We’ll see how that goes. To people new to the blog, welcome! ]

Asian Accents poster image

This year at the VASTA Conference in Washington, D.C., I chaired a panel on Asian Accents and invited a great group of people to present with me: Erik Singer, Marina Tyndal, Steven Eng and Jane Guyer Fujita. We each took an Asian language and presented a very brief introduction to the accent associated with each one.

Steven Eng: Mandarin
Marina Tyndall: Cantonese
Eric Armstrong: Japanese
Jane Guyer Fujita: Korean
Erik Singer: Vietnamese

I think the best way to look great is to surround yourself with greatness, and so, by association, I think I looked pretty fantastic! I was so pleased with the presentations. Due to our limited time, we could only do a “driveby shooting” of the accent—quick in, quick out— but I think that participants in the audience learned some useful things on the day.

But more important that that, the group created a very important resource for actors who need access to Asian Accent materials: a website with audio (and in many cases, video), handouts and helpful guidance in order to learn these accents.

I hope that this will get out to the community of Asian actors, as I think that these can be very helpful tools. Of course, accent coaches also need these resources, but ultimately, we want to support actors in their work.

Finally, Steven Eng, who is not only an accent coach but also a fairly accomplished Asian actor, agreed to be interviewed on video so that he got an opportunity to talk about the pressures on Asian actors who are often expected to be able to do any accent at any time, and almost always with no support or resources.

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Hiatus for remainder of August

Due to a bunch of projects that I’ve put off ’til the end of the summer, I’m going to have to put the VoiceGuy on hiatus for the remainder of August. Blog posts will resume on September 6th. Thanks for your patience!

Breathe! We’ll be back shortly.

(When I studied in Italy in August of 1987, everywhere I looked shops were Chiuso per Ferie, closed for the holidays. I, unfortunately, won’t be on the Italian Riviera!)

Posted in Uncategorized

Looking back on the VASTA conference 2012

VASTA Party at 2012 Conference Day 1My flight back from Washington DC has been cancelled and they moved me and my colleague from York University, David Smukler, to another flight 4 hours later. We’ve been sitting, catching up with our reading, and I thought I might start a blog post on my experience this week at the VASTA (Voice and Speech Trainers Association) conference held at George Washington University’s Mount Vernon campus this week. I can’t seem to get on the net, so I will have to post when I am back home.

This year was VASTA’s 25th anniversary, and so there was a lot of celebrating the past, and a fair bit of looking ahead to the future, too. Unlike many of these kinds of conference, this year there was quite a lot of food provided for attendees, which made life much easier as we didn’t have to seek it out so much, and we could easily bring a box lunch into a session.

Brent Blair introduces “Archetypal Activism”

Since 2005, VASTA has been increasing the number of opportunities for members to present at the conference. Initially, there was only a single day of member presentations (and 3 days of workshops with an invited team of guest Presenters); this year the conference was full of members showing there work, with relatively few presentations from invited guests. Two of those guests really stood out: Brent Blair, who is a Linklater voice teacher, a Jungian psychologist, and a Boàl-based Theatre of the Oppressed practitioner, and Michael Rohd, who is a devised theatre guy from Sojourn Theatre in Chicago, who works in, and teaches at Northwestern University, devised theatre for civic engagement. Brent was returning to VASTA this year, as his first workshop at the VASTA conference in Chicago last year was so popular that they asked him back right away. His initial session was very powerful, and got the conference off to a very moving, deeply felt start. Though I missed Michael Rohd’s session on how he works, I did make the session he lead on examining where the VASTA membership would like the organization to go, and he managed to get us to go deep and to work very successfully at identifying goals without getting people’s noses out of joint. His rigor with the work, and his insistence that we carefully watch the time so as to use it effectively was as inspiring as the results we were able to achieve.

Michael Rohd leads the workshop on VASTA Visioning

For me, the conference was a whirlwind of presentations that I was involved in. My first contribution was a panel on MFA programs in voice training, hosted by Betty Moulton from the University of Alberta. David Smukler and I presented on York, so attendees could compare us with UofA, Central school, ART/Harvard, and Virginia Commonwealth. Tuesday morning I was on Amy Stoller’s panel about Stereotypes in Accent coaching. The panelists weren’t fighting it out as I had imagined maybe they would—we all generally agreed that stereotypes, with great care and caution, might have a place as a cultural shorthand, and that they can be used, in the right hands and at the right time, to make people think about what their preconceived notions might be.

Michael Barnes and I respond to a question at the Tech Panel

Next up was my share of the Technology Panel, which is a standing gig that I do with Michael Barnes, and Phil Thompson (who was away this year). It went really very well in spite of not spending much time preparing, and I found myself talking about how I use my iPad at least as much as my laptop these days. Then I had the panel that I organized myself, which was on Asian Accents, with my panelists Erik Singer, Marina Tyndall, Steven Eng and Jane Guyer Fujita. It was a real lightning round with us only getting to talk for 12 minutes each after a technological delay. But we have all put some fabulous resources up on my website at yorku.ca/earmstro/asia/ that should be invaluable to our colleagues. The other panelists were very inspiring, far more so than I was, and their resources are great. I hope you will check them out!

I also found myself talking a LOT at the brown bag lunch Support Group for Teaching Philosophy writing. Because I guide my Voice Diploma students in the process, it’s something that I have thought a lot about, and it was a great way for me to give back to the organization and to get to know the younger members better.

David Ley teaches some rapt participants how to use a vibrator for “good”.

One of my favorite sessions was with UofA’s David Ley, who presented on how to use a personal vibrator to do voice work by applying it to the larynx, and various parts of the skull, to enhance and encourage vibration. I tried it out myself for about 20 minutes and it did make a remarkable difference. I expect that we’ll be hearing a lot more about this approach in the years ahead.

Another one of my favorites was watching my mentor and colleague, David Smukler, do an autobiographical talk about his development of a number of exercises over the years, and how they evolved. At one point he got very emotional as he remembered his very first day studying in the Kristin Linklater workshop where he trained to be a teacher, doing his very first instance of floating his elbows, wrists and fingertips up, and then doing his very first roll-down. Lovely stuff.

VASTA wouldn’t be what it is without the wonderful people who make it all possible. Patty Raun, the president of the organization, made superhuman efforts to get this conference to work, due to some challenges that arose when the original planner had to step down for health reasons. In many wys this year’s conference was better than ever.

I present my slides on Japanese

And of course, for me, much of the joy is the time for our community to come together, to celebrate each other as peers and friends, and to share what we’ve discovered in the past year. I so value my time with friends from my time as a board member and officer, time singing together, or talking over a meal or a drink. Their supportive words about the challenges I’m facing in my personal life are very uplifting, and I feel recharged not just as a teacher, but as an all-round person. And delightful to have former students of mine, like Erika Bailey who I taught at Brandeis in 2000, now presenting and teaching me about their own discoveries. Erika’s talk on text and embodying the structure of the language was delightful, and full of stuff I hope to appropriate for this Fall. Fantastic.

One word of thanks: to my beloved wife, Amy, who made it all possible for me by watching our boys this week while I got to work and play and socialize in D.C. She is my foundation.

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