The Feeling of What Happens is the title of a book by the Portuguese-American neuroscientist Antonio Domasio. In this book he examines the question of where our feelings come from and what it means to be conscious. Consciousness, he believes, comes about from our being fully present to the response of our physical body to whatever is going on around us and to what we are experiencing in the present moment.
Being fully present and ‘in the moment’ is a necessary state for an actor and performer and a desirable one too, for the non-performer, enabling communication that is authentic and meaningful. The Feeling of What Happens, very much describes an approach to working on the voice that will help one develop a physical understanding and experience of the whole process of producing sound, enabling one to speak, sing and communicate with confidence and skill.
Many performers listen to their voices and enjoy too much the sound of their own voice. Not only does this take the performer out of the present moment, it also throws them off centre. It is important to understand that we hear our voice through the bone structures of our skull and that the perception we have of our sound is very different to that which the listener hears. There is also a time delay. We hear ourselves after our voice has been released into the space in which we are speaking or singing. The sound is already out there and although the length of time it takes for it to reach our ears can be measured in micro-seconds, rather than seconds, it is long enough to pull us back and out of the moment. An actor will fall behind the flow the text and a singer’s entries will always be a fraction off the beat.
A better approach is to learn how to feel your voice rather than listen to it. But how do we go about this? The answer lies in developing an acute awareness and sensitivity to the muscle movements involved when we breathe and produce sound, and to the vibrations that can readily be felt within the body when we speak or sing.
The first thing to do is to become aware of a natural physical progression of events which take place when we produce our voice because at each stage of this progression, it is possible to sense certain muscular and vibrational activity taking place which we can identify and use to ascertain how well our voice is sounding at any particular moment from within rather than without. This vocal progression, as I shall now refer to it, can be identified quite simply as follows.
- Connection of breath to sound
- Articulation of sound into speech and language
The first thing that happens, prior to us taking a breath to speak, is that we have a thought we wish to communicate. This thought fires up a nerve in the plexus of the diaphragm – our main muscle of breathing. The diaphragm attaches to the bottom of the ribcage and the impulse received from the brain as we prepare to voice our thought causes the diaphragm to contract (tense) and drop downwards into the abdominal area. This action pushes the abdominal contents outwards slightly, along with the three layers of muscle which form the abdominal wall. The first physical activity we can learn to sense, therefore, is this forward movement of the abdominal muscles. This tells us breath has entered the body and the further down we can feel this muscular response, the better, because the deeper the breath, the lower down the abdominal response.
Once we have taken enough breath for the vocal task in hand, another impulse from the brain causes the diaphragm to release upwards and the abdominal muscles to contract and move inwards towards the spine. This inwards movement of the muscles provides us with a second indication that our vocal progression is proceeding well. These coordinated movements of the diaphragm and the abdominal muscles provide us with what is known as ‘support’. The muscular pressure of these movements beneath the lungs propels and effectively ‘spins’ our breath upwards out of the lungs and into the windpipe where it flows up towards the vocal folds housed within the larynx (or voice box) situated on top. These muscular responses of our body to breath can be tangibly felt and by becoming fully aware of them, we can begin to feel our voice working. At the end of this post, I set out an exercise for practising and bringing awareness to this coordination.
The third stage of the vocal progression is the connection of breath to sound. Breath meets the vocal folds and causes a vibration which can be felt if we gently place two fingers on our larynx whilst we speak or sing. The vocal folds draw together and close when we voice and it is also possible, with time and practice, to sense this movement. To begin with, however, the sense of vibration here, at laryngeal level, is more immediately grasped and by learning to identify the vibrations here as soon as we start to use our voice, we can begin to trust that breath and vocal folds have connected well and that the vibration or buzzing we can feel is helping to establish the core or centre of our voice enabling it to project clearly and firmly.
As the initial vibrations of our voice are released into the resonating cavities of the throat, mouth and skull, they activate the air molecules already contained within these spaces creating further vibrations which again, can readily be sensed. Try placing the palms of your hands on the side of your throat whilst you say MAH-MOR-MOO-MOR MAH and see if you can feel the vibrations there. Then see if you can feel how the vibrations then shift into the mouth space when you say MAH-MAY-MEE-MAY MAH. The first sequence of vowels are shaped by the back of the tongue towards the back of the mouth space and will naturally draw more upon the resonances created within the lower throat which are darker and richer in colour. The second sequence uses vowels shaped by the front of the tongue towards the front of the mouth space, drawing upon the resonances created here which are brighter and sharper in colour and also bringing the voice forwards. Here, we can also sense vibrations from our bones. The roof of the mouth (hard palate) is made of bone as is the ridge of our upper teeth and as the voice resonates here we can also feel how the vibrations almost penetrate the roof of the mouth and bounce off the cheekbones, nasal bone and even the temporal bone.
These vowel sequences, taught at RADA during the 1950’s and used by many voice teachers before then and since, are also an excellent exercise for balancing the resonators and achieving the sense of chiaroscuro I mentioned in my last post. Try speaking the whole sequence through several times and note how the vibrations begin to flow through the sounds and where you can feel them.
We come now to the final stage of our vocal progression where the sound is shaped and articulated into the vowels and consonants of speech and language. Here, we need to develop an awareness of the tongue which is our main muscle of speech, and the articulation of consonants is the most immediate sense of our voice that can be grasped at this stage of the progression.
Consonants can be either voiced or unvoiced. Unvoiced consonants are produced purely with breath whilst voiced consonants involve a vibration of the vocal folds and these can provide us with further vibrational feedback. Try saying this sequence of voiced consonant sounds and see if you can feel the vibrations produced by your vocal folds. The TH sound in this sequence is the voiced TH that occurs at the end of a word such as with or breathe: TH–V-B-D-G-Z-ZH-CH. Now notice the difference when you speak this sequence of unvoiced consonants produced purely with breath. Here we begin with the unvoiced TH that occurs at the beginning of the word thought, for example, or think: TH-F-P-T-K-S-SH-J.
The movements of the tongue as it works to shape our speech can also be felt strongly. Note how it feels when the tongue tip taps against the front upper teeth ridge to articulate T and D, or slides between the upper and lower front teeth at produce both TH sounds, for example. Try reading a poem or short text aloud over-articulating the consonants and making sure every single speech sound is spoken fully – especially consonants at the ends of words. Become aware of the actual physical sensation of speaking the words because now, we can begin to experience and enjoy the physicality and muscularity of speech. This is our pleasure and security in performing and communicating. As performers and speakers it is the process of voice that must concern us rather than the perceived sound we make. Our sound is for the audience and listener to receive and enjoy. And most importantly, if the process feels good and enjoyable, then it is likely our voice is sounding good too.
Breathing Exercise – for practising and bringing awareness to the coordination of the diaphragm and abdominal muscles…
- Lie on the floor in the semi-supine position with your feet on floor and your knees pointing towards the ceiling. Place a book behind you head to prevent it pulling back.
- Pay attention to your breathing. Place one hand on your abdomen and notice how your hand moves UPWARDS and AWAY from your body as you breathe in and DOWNWARDS TOWARDS YOUR SPINE as you breath out. during exhalation. This is the correct and natural coordination of the diaphragm and the abdominal muscles for breathing and the natural process of breathing.
- Keep one hand on your abdomen and put the other on your upper chest. Make sure that only the hand on your abdomen moves as you breathe. The upper chest should remain still.
- Round your lips into an oo shape, so you can channel and hear the outflow of breath.
- Continue breathing in and out in this way for a few minutes monitoring the upwards and downwards movement of the abdominal muscles. Become very familiar with these movements and the FEELING of this muscular activity beneath your lungs.
- This muscular process – in coordination with the downwards and upwards movements of the diaphragm – brings about a muscular pressure beneath the lungs which propels the air up and out of the lungs into the windpipe and onwards and upwards to the voice box where it meets the vocal folds and creates a vibration.
- The INWARD movement of the abdominal muscles TOWARDS THE SPINE as we breathe out needs to happen whenever we speak or sing. We can only speak or sing on the out-breath.