On Knowing it All

I remember helping out a grad student once when she was doing a voice pedagogy related thesis that required some input from voice teachers by way of a lengthy survey. As a thank you, she sent the participants some fridge magnets that she had made for us with a “button maker”. One of them reads “Voice Coaches really DO know it all.”

Of course this doesn’t mean that voice coaches have egos as big as a barn, though it sure sounds like it! What I think it means is that voice coaches often have to do a lot of different things, and as a result, their knowledge and area of expertise is often very, very broad. When friends and family remark about how broad my field of knowledge is, I say what I heard a colleague say many years ago: “the lake of my knowledge is very, very broad, but extremely shallow.”

To get an idea of the range of things a voice and/or speech coach might be expected to do, take a look at the documentation that the Voice and Speech Trainers Association (VASTA) created on How to Use a Vocal Coach. The big points include audibility of text, clarity of text, varieties of language, high vocal demands, actor voice use and care, plus many other things. Vocal coaches’ knowledge and skill base may have to include anatomy and physiology of the voice, breath work, phonation, resonance, articulation, diction, vocal characterization, acting, movement, text analysis, emotional connection, period text, accents, dialects, pronunciation, accent modification/reduction, meter and verse, style, care of the voice, choral work, vocal extremes (such as screaming, crying, wailing, keening, vomiting, choking, and other forms of vocal violence), singing, chanting, calling, intoning, overtone singing, voice-over technique, radio drama, etc. It’s overwhelming how much a vocal expert might be expected to know!

For someone starting out as a vocal coach, you can’t do it all. In fact, that is a really bad idea! You need to start somewhere, and that should be something systematic, that brings an approach to voice together from a single point of view. Whether it be Linklater-based, as my training was, or Lessac, or Fitzmaurice, or Berry, or Rodenburg, it should be an approach that can give you a starting place, so that you have a foundation upon which you can build. Of course, everyone who trains to be a voice teacher needs to have experience beforehand, and that will probably guide you to that choice of which methodology to start with. From there, you can bolt on various other techniques and approaches to voice, speech, text and acting that will give ou what you need to be a well-rounded teacher.

When I started out, I really wanted to be a jack-of-all-trades. I was primarily trained in voice, but wanted to teach acting, movement, singing, you name it! I thought that there was nothing I could not do! And, as a result, I put myself forward for a lot of stuff that I really didn’t know a lot about. Don’t get me wrong—I knew a fair bit, and I worked my ass off to know as much as I could. My goal was to focus on the idea of cross-over and integration, helping students blend the skills they learned in the acting, voice and movement studio into a cohesive whole.

But I asked an expert voice trainer I really respected about the best way to work toward tenure, that academic goalpost that lay ahead for me, and he urged me to pick an area of expertise and focus on it. That I shouldn’t try to do it all, but pick an area that interested me and become the global expert on the topic, the best in the world in that subject area. Write about it, teach it, research it, promote it and become known as the guy who does That Thing.

For example, take Louis Colaianni, the “phonetic pillows guy”. His book, The Joy of Phonetics,  along with workshops he gives on his approach to teaching phonetics and accents, got him a level of recognition that I envy to this day. Louis is far more accomplished than being “just” the phonetic pillows guy, but that is what his international reputation is built upon.

When you start out, there is no real way to know what you’ll end up being an expert at. The universe will align itself in some way and tell you, in time, what you need to do! Finding a way to discover what it is that you love best is also really important, as loving what you do is probably more important than anything else. “Where you heart is, there will your treasure be also,” to flip Matthew on his head! I found that my greatest joy in voice work (along with an area that I seemed to have some skill at) was in the world of accents and dialect, and the knowledge and skills that form the foundation for that work, phonetics and phonology. At the time, it seemed to me that there weren’t many people doing that kind of exploration for actors, and so it was a hole that I could fill. It was an itch that I had that I could scratch myself, and by learning how, I could help others to scratch it too. I found myself thinking about it more and more, and that kind of mild obsession is really at the heart of finding the expertise that will define you.

Do I know it all? Of course not! In fact, I am very confident how little I know! Every day I feel more confident about how little I know, and I feel more confident about how well I know that little. I do know far more now than I did starting out, when I thought I knew a lot, but I now have a much better sense of how much there is to know: it’s as if, by comparison, I know less and less, as I recognize how vast the field really is. Life-long learning is great for developing a sense of humility! I recommend it highly.

Eric Armstrong is the voiceguy. Eric is a dialect, voice, speech and text coach based in Toronto, Canada, where he normally teaches full-time at York University’s Dept. of Theatre. Eric has been teaching voice for the actor full-time since 1994, and has taught in Canada and the US, at the University of Windsor, Brandeis University, Roosevelt University, Canada's National Voice Intensive and York University. He has worked for nationally and internationally recognized companies such as Crow’s Theatre, Volcano, SoulPepper, & Canadian Stage in Toronto, and The Court Theatre and Steppenwolf in Chicago. Eric holds a BFA from Concordia University (Montreal) in Theatre Performance, and an MFA from York University (Toronto) in Acting. His mentors were David Smukler (York, Canada’s National Voice Intensive) and Andrew Wade (Royal Shakespeare Company). He has also studied at the Drama Studio, London, and Il Stage Internazzionale di Commedia dell’Arte in Reggio Emilia, Italy. He’s a long time member of the Voice and Speech Trainers Association, where he has served on the board, as a conference planner, photo editor for the Voice and Speech Review, Founding Director of Technology and Internet Services, and has written numerous peer-reviewed articles, essays and reviews for the VASTA Newsletter, the VASTA Voice, and The Voice and Speech Review.

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