We are drawn to a voice which vibrates and which has resonance…

Resonance is the process by which the initial vibrations of our voice, generated by our vocal folds, are literally ‘re-sounded’ and amplified. In the same way a piano sound board or the belly of a violin or guitar reinforces and reverberates the initial sound produced by the strings of the instrument, the resonating spaces within the body take our initial vocal sound and amplify it. 

Resonance adds substance and energy to the voice helping to carry it forward in space enabling us to be heard. It also has the potential to reflect our individual character and personality and draw people in to listen to what we have to say. We are heard as a person rather than a voice. For an actor, a fully resonating voice that is able to communicate the meaning and emotional sense of a text clearly and distinctly, is a skill that should be encouraged and developed to the highest possible level. For the non-actor or non-professional speaker, developing a warm resonant voice can be life changing. I have, for example, often been moved and sometimes saddened by the stories students tell me when I ask what has brought them to voice training. One young man, good-looking, warm and personable, told me he was fed up with sitting round the table in the pub trying to join in the conversation whilst his friends talked over him. Whilst an interesting and friendly lady, holding a senior position in a company and whose voice sprang to life when she spoke of her passion for opera and travel, felt the men in her office didn’t listen to what she had to say or take her seriously.

Resonance can only happen in spaces which contain air and the main resonators of the voice are the air containing spaces of the throat and mouth and, to a lesser extent, the nasal and sinus cavities in the head. The resonance created in these air containing spaces is known as primary resonance and is therefore air-conducted. The effects of the vibrations generated in these spaces, however, can also be felt along the spine, across the chest,  and in the bones of the face and the head where it is known as secondary or sympathetic resonance and is bone-conducted. Whilst our bone structure cannot physically contain or produce vibrations within itself, it can, nevertheless, provide us with a useful sense of our sound. If we can feel or sense vibrations around the roof of our mouth, across our cheekbones or in the bones of our rib cage, for example, we can trust that our primary resonators are free of unnecessary tension and are vibrating optimally. Unnecessary muscular tension will limit and dampen these vibrations, however, bringing tightness and constriction to the sound and tension and its release will be the subject of another post. 

The throat and mouth spaces, and the nasal and sinus cavities are interconnected and the  sound wave released from the vocal folds when we start to speak or sing, is able to flow into all three, disturbing the air molecules already contained within and setting them off into vibration. These vibrations add volume and texture to the initial sound wave and as it flows through the throat and mouth space, it absorbs the different tone qualities and colours that can be drawn from each, influenced by the different shapes and configurations we can create within these spaces, producing a sound that is totally unique to the individual. 

This is especially important for an actor because an effective balance of resonance not only enables the voice to project more easily in a theatre space, but also makes available a wide range of colour and vocal qualities upon which to draw when building a character. And for the non-actor, voice and speech becomes more interesting, varied and expressive to the listener and more satisfying and pleasurable to the speaker. Our pleasure lies in the sensual physical aspects of speaking (or singing) whilst the sound of our voice is enjoyed by the listener.

Each resonating space can bring a number of very specific qualities to the voice. From the lower throat we get warmth, depth and richness, for example, whilst the mouth space adds clarity, definition and brightness and helps our voice to project. The nasal and sinus cavities are smaller spaces which are fixed and therefore less malleable and their contribution to the balance and blend of our resonance is fairly limited. But the higher frequency resonance that is produced in these smaller spaces is important, because it adds brightness and carrying power to the sound and can also provide us with useful sensory feedback.

The throat and mouth spaces are the largest of the resonance cavities and the most flexible. We can change the shape of these spaces in a number of ways producing many different qualities of sound and colour. Lowering or raising the larynx, for example, will make the throat space longer or shorter changing the quality of the sound immediately. Spreading the lips in a ‘smiling’ position and closing the jaw, will immediately lessen and diminish the warmer deeper qualities that originate from the lower throat and produce a sound that is shallow and thin in texture. Opening the jaw, on the other hand, will also open up the lower throat allowing these warmer, darker tones to infiltrate and blend with the clearer, brighter qualities produced in the mouth space adding substance and texture to the voice. And raising the soft plate (the soft part of the roof of the mouth at the very back) will bring a sense of space and height.

So it is important to learn how to balance the resonators. Too much lower throat resonance will produce a voice that sounds rather dull, muffled and possibly pompous to the listener and will also be difficult to project. Too little, will result in the shallower, thinner sound I mentioned above. The key is the release of the jaw. When the jaw is released, the throat and mouth spaces open into each other in a way that the space is maximised and breath and sound are able to flow through unimpeded. When this opening of space is achieved, we can then blend these two different resonance qualities more easily. And at this point we can encounter the phenomenon of chiaroscuro. Chiaroscuro is a technique used in painting where light (chiaro) is blended with shade (scuro) producing a quality that is three dimensional in effect. Both Leonardo da Vinci and Caravaggio were known for their use of chiaroscuro and the term has long been applied to classical singing. But it is quite possible, I think, to apply it to the spoken voice and this blending of the different resonance qualities produced in the throat and the mouth spaces brings about a spoken sound that is three-dimensional and, crucially, whole – a sound which vibrates and has resonance and, as Cicely Berry said, and one which will draw people to listen to what we have to say. 

In my next post, I will write more about the blending of resonance and the importance of feeling the vibrations rather than listening to them and how we can achieve this. 

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