As an instrument, the human voice is unique in that it is alive and intimately bound to our whole physical and psychological being. When I start teaching a new group of students, I often ask them what brings their voice into play. I point out that as they sit listening to me, there is no voice, no sound. The answers they give are nearly always intelligent and informed – breath, vocal folds, the diaphragm, vibrations. It sometimes takes a bit of prodding until eventually someone offers up ‘the brain’ or ‘thought’. Our voice is the result of a desire to communicate something. We have a thought we wish to express, that thought inspires the body to take in a breath, and that breath initiates the vibration of the vocal folds which becomes the sound wave upon which we speak.
Our voice is a coordination of thought, breath and muscle, responding directly, therefore, to our desires and emotions and forming a bridge between our inner, imaginative and spiritual life and the outside world. It is the means by which we can make known our desires, joys and sorrows, thoughts and opinions and, for the actor, carries the potential for the dramatic expression of the entire range of human emotion with every possible shade and nuance of thought and feeling. A play text remains print on page until the actor brings the words to life with their breath and the vibrations of their voice. But to enable this expression to take place effectively and safely, the development of a healthy vocal practice, together with an understanding of how the voice is produced, is essential for the professional speaker and performer and can be of great value to the non- professional.
Professional voice differs from the non-professional in that it needs to be able to sustain the expression and communication of dramatic text and emotion in a way that does not strain or damage the muscles and organs involved in producing sound. It needs to have stamina, strength and flexibility, to be interesting and varied, capable of being heard and understood in all kinds of performing space, and to be responsive to the actors thoughts, imagination and the emotional implications of the text.
These qualities are desirable in every voice and the wish to improve vocal quality and range is something that brings many people to training for both professional and personal reasons. As the great voice teacher Cicely Berry said in the 2005 documentary film about her work, Where Words Prevail, ‘we are drawn to a voice which vibrates and which has resonance’. I also think that to know our voice and to understand how it works, as well as to understand what happens when it does not work, is also to understand more of ourselves and of what drives us forwards in life or holds us back. As the voice becomes freer and stronger so we too become freer and stronger as people, performers and communicators.