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.

VASTA 2012: A Voice for Good

Lincoln Memorial

Photo by Steve Philp

I’m off to Washington D.C tomorrow for the 2012 Voice and Speech Trainers Association (VASTA) Conference, entitled A Voice for Good, and I’m really excited. This is a conference theme that I’ve wanted the association to do for many years—so much of the work that voice trainers do, and have the potential to do, can really change lives.

Many of the presenters are very inspiring to me, so I’m excited for that reason. But there’s also the fact that I’m involved with 4 panels! I’m chairing a panel/workshop on Asian Accents on Wednesday with Erik Singer, Marina Tyndall, Jane Guyer Fujita and Steven Eng; I’m doing a presentation on Japanese, which should be easy because I just did a show featuring that accent, Arigato, Tokyo, by Daniel MacIvor at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. Then I’m participating in Amy Stoller’s panel on Accent Stereotypes with such luminaries as DialectDoug.com’s Douglas N. Honorof, he of the famous Comma Gets a Cure diagnostic passage, Adrianne Moore from Utah State University, and Kim James Bey from Howard University. Hopefully I will not sound like an idiot compared to my esteemed colleagues on that one!

Then I’m representing my Graduate Program in the brown bag lunch panel on MFA programs in voice training, where David Smukler and I will plug our Voice Teacher Diploma programs up at York. We’re flying down together tomorrow morning, and we’re sitting next to each other, so we’ll get to chat about the whole thing over roasted peanuts. And we have a command performance of the Tech Panel with myself and Michael Barnes for the umpteenth time (regrettably, Phil Thompson is away this year). I think I will plug things I do with my iPad.

I’m also gotten myself involved with the Teaching Philosophy Statement support group, as I do a fair bit of review of these things with my Voice Diploma students. And I’ve been invited to a luncheon with former board members on Wednesday; I look forward to catching up with old friends and looking ahead to what lies on the horizon for the organization.

I’m very excited about lots of talks, like the Uof A’s David Ley’s talk on using personal vibrators (yes, that kind) to elicit vibrations in the larynx of people with dysphonia. Unfortunately that’s opposite the talk about the Visual Accent & Dialect Archive (VADA) that I really want to go to. I really am looking forward to singing 20th Century Political songs with Joanna Cazden on Monday evening and international songs (with easy harmony) with Judith Shahn and Claudia Anderson on Wednesday night.

So, if I don’t manage a post on Thursday for the Voiceguy, you’ll understand why! I’ll be exhausted!

Singing a Text

The last few posts have focused on approaches to the text, with Intoning, and Whispering. Today, we’ll go even further with exploring a text, by using improvising a melody to go along with the words of your text.[I certainly never made up this exercise, and though I’ve done things like this with Patsy Rodenberg and Cis Berry and Andrew Wade, I’m certain that they never invented it either. Perhaps someone was the first to publish it in a book, but again, I feel certain that person didn’t invent the exercise either.]

Girl on a bike

Photo by anyjazz65

I think that this always works best when you know the text quite well. My wife and I often joke about “riding my bike up and down the driveway,” a time when we both would spend inordinate amounts of time making up (really bad) songs about nothing. I think that many people have had this experience. As a child, you were bored, and so you made up songs about the mundane stuff around you.

“I’m walking down the street,And there are clouds in the sky.
My Mom is waving to me,
And I just squished a bug.”

That kind of thing. I’m sure you did it, too.
So here’s the exercise.

  1. Speak your text to yourself aloud once to get it into your head.
  2. Sing your text, giving yourself permission to explore the language of the text through the melody that you create. There is no pressure here to be good, to sing in a certain style, or to perform. The idea is to explore the text, through the melody. Let the text guide the tune, not the other way around! The idea is not to set your words to someone else’s song.
  3. As you sing, feel free to repeat any word, phrase, line, idea, image or syllable that you want. You can make a “chorus” out of a passage if it seems to be something that is at the heart of your text. Usually I can’t remember what I’ve sung, so I can’t recreate a chorus after I’ve sung it once. Doesn’t matter—make up a new melody for your chorus.
  4. If you find that you’ve been singing in a musical style (such as folk, musical theatre, rock, opera, etc.), don’t be afraid of that. Don’t worry if you find yourself switching into many different musical styles. (Also, it’s no big deal if it doesn’t sound like any musical style you’ve ever heard. You just created your own style!)
  5. Once you’ve sung the text through, switch back to speaking the text immediately. Allow what you discovered through your singing experience to affect your speaking so that it is transformed by the singing experience.

This exercise is a lot of fun. I love it—it’s one of my favourite things to do, and I love watching/hearing people do it as much as I love doing it. It always reveals something new about the text that I never knew was there, and opens my eyes to the potential of the text. Also, as someone who has sung a lot throughout my life, my singing skill crosses over into my speaking voice, so that my sound become richer, more expansive, with a larger range, all without even trying.

Whispering the Text


Photo by Simon Smetryns

Generally speaking, whispering is not considered very good for your voice. Because your vocal folds are held stiffly together, loud whispering can dry out the vocal folds very quickly. So you don’t want to whisper for long periods, and certainly not if you’ve injured your voice: that’s just going to make matters worse.

But as a private exercise, something to do for yourself, a little whispering won’t kill you. Of course, you’re going to want to be well hydrated, so have your water bottle handy.

The point of this exercise is to find a personal, intimate connection to a text. This is, perhaps, similar in intention to the Hand Touch Exercise, in that the hope is that whispering the text will help you connect to the language more strongly. For some, I might recommend that they do this exercise first with their eyes closed in an attempt to internalize the speaking process as much as possible. Then, on a second pass through the text, or in the second half of a text, once a strong, personal connection has been established, open the eyes and connect with someone in the space (or, at very worst, an object that you can talk at.)

It’s really important that you don’t try to be heard by anyone. This is for you. Feel the substance of the language, the pop and crunch of the plosives and affricates, the shush of the fricatives, the hiss of sibilants. Try to open your throat wide so that the vowels are even more silent. With your throat wide open, you’ll be “spending” more breath than normal, so you may need to breathe a bit more often than you would when you speak the text aloud, but keep thinking this is small, and quiet and personal.

Once you’ve been through the text once or twice on a very quiet personal whisper, you should speak the text, again quietly, on voice. Try not to lose the sensitivity to the texture of the consonants within the text, the personal connection to the language, but gently turn the language out, from your inner self, to yourself in the world. Affect a partner, make them change, get them to think or act differently, to see the world as you see it.

A whisper may not be strong like a shout, but it has a power to bring us to attention, to focus, and draw us to our personal centre. Next time you need to connect with a text on a deeper level, try a whisper.

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Photo by Greg Walters

This exercise can be used as an early step in a vocal warm-up, to help get on voice and to encourage resonance, or as a text exploration. For now, let’s focus on the voice side of things.

Intoning is a way of speaking that basically means speaking on a monotone, with a flat pitch contour. Imagine speaking like a monk chanting—why not try reading this text all on one note. The challenge here is that you may be tempted to sound robotic (mp3), with all the syllables of the words equal. You need to sound non-robotic (mp3), by using all aspects of your voice, its tempo, rate, vocal quality, and loudness, to accent the words and syllables that are important, all while sticking to the same pitch. If you know a piece of text from memory, why not speak it now, and see how it feels.

With each breath, you should pick a new pitch. You can choose to start somewhere lowish in your range and slowly work your way upward to higher pitches with each breath, or you can work in a more random way, jumping around from high to low to medium with each breath. The key is not to get stuck on one pitch only.

To focus on voice, you could do this as if you were speaking gibberish, or merely use a single syllable sound like “huh”, “muh”, or “bay” IPA: [hʌ, mʌ, beɪ]. But that gets pretty boring pretty quickly, so I would recommend that you use gibberish or omnish (gibberish that uses all the sounds of the world’s languages, not just a few sounds). Why not “say” something in some way, even if it isn’t really text?

So how is this not singing?

It isn’t singing because you’re still making sound like you’re talking, and, if you’re doing it right, you’re not listening to yourself to make the sound “pretty”. This might not be very easy for someone who has done a lot of singing. If you’re struggling with this idea, try speaking a little bit of text and then switch into intoning, and see if you can maintain the vocal quality that you have from speaking, just flattening out your pitch. Or think of yourself as the most boring speaker, using a monotone like Ben Stein.

You want to challenge yourself to work your way down as far as you can go in your range and then up as far as you can go (comfortably). You can flip into headtone/falsetto if you want, but often it is good to just stay in chest tone for as long as you can, and then come back down.

Emphasis through Length

In order to make words stand out, we often use pitch to emphasize a key or operative word in a sentence. Here we don’t have that luxury. Instead, you need to use loudness and length to reveal the importance of words. Using a text now, intone the text. Remember to keep changing pitches at the end of thoughts, but to stay flat on a single pitch through the thought. It’s easiest to lengthen important words, but don’t forget that you can also make words stand out by shortening them, though I’d be the first to admit that this is trickier and works better with some words rather than others.

Resonate the Tone

Whichever pitch you’re intoning on, there is a natural, sympathetic vibration that will happen in your body and/head for that pitch. Try to feel where that resonance lies in your body, and do whatever you can to enhance it. As you move up in pitch, you’ll likely feel that the vibration moves higher in your body/head; if you move lower, so too will the vibration. As you intone, work to make yourself as buzzy as possible.

We’ll come back to this strategy in the future, but this is a great early step in a warm-up, as a way to get on voice, and it’s also a great resonance exercise ¾ of the way through your warm-up, and it’s a great text exercise that you can do at the end of a warm-up. Of course, you would never want to use this one exercise three times in a single warm-up, but it’s potential to add some spice to your warm-ups is very strong.