Remembering my teacher 1 – Lessons on Schubert’s Winterreise with Esther Salaman

My blog posts until now, have focussed on different aspects of voice technique. At the beginning of the national lockdown this year, before discovering the wonders of Zoom and Skype teaching, I realised, as I cancelled my lessons and began to sink into gloom, how teaching and working with the voice becomes a way of life. Because the voice is a ‘human’ instrument – constructed with muscle and tissue – it is constantly changing as we develop and grow as human beings. For the performer, it is very important to find a teacher who can not only help you develop the vocal skills you need to sustain a professional career but also to provide guidance and advice as you advance in your career.

I have been very lucky in life to meet and work with two teachers – one British, one Russian – whose pedagogical input has had a profound influence both on the way I use my voice, and the way I teach. At the beginning of my career, after some years of troubled early training, I met Esther Salaman who laid the foundations of the approach to voice I use and teach today. My Russian teacher, professor Yevegenia Sheveliova, I met when I was in my mid-forties and had been teaching and performing for some twenty years or so. With both teachers I worked on Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise a piece that has accompanied me for most of most of my adult singing life and which remains indispensable to me. 

My old Peters edition of Winterreise is tattered and falling apart now, and I have replaced it with the new scholarly Bärenreiter edition. My old score, however, contains markings, directions and notes made by both my teachers and revisiting the work during the lockdown, with plans to record and perform it next year, I thought about my lessons with my teachers and what I learned from them. This is the first of two posts about my teachers focussing on Esther and how, through my lessons with her on Winterreise, she taught me the importance of words for a performer and how we can connect emotionally to them. 

A cycle of 24 songs, Winterreise forms a dramatic narrative charting a winter journey undertaken by the poet-singer who, trapped within the pain of an unhappy love affair and a lover who has betrayed him, steps out into the night and sets off on a journey which takes him metaphorically through a frozen winter landscape, as well as on an inner journey into the  depths of his soul. Unrequited love in all its forms, along with a restless dissatisfaction with life, a sense of being outcast and alone and a stranger without a home, were all themes that predominated German literature and art at this time. The protagonist of Winterreise represents this restlessness and as he journeys through the winter landscape, his mind starts to unravel bringing him to the edge of madness. During the course of the journey, the elements of nature appear as symbols of his inner turmoil with nature acting as a mirror to what is going on inside him.

Winterreise was composed in 1827, one year before Schubert’s death at the age of 31. In 1822 Schubert contracted syphilis, an incurable disease at that time, and his health gradually deteriorated over the next six years resulting in his death in 1828. It was against this background of declining health as well as depression that Winterreise was written. In an interesting parallel to this, the author of the poems, Wilhelm Müller, died the year before Schubert at the equally early age of 32. The two men never met but the combination of Muller’s verses and Schubert’s music resulted in a work which formed a turning point in the development of song as an art form. 

Wilhelm Müller was perhaps not a poet in the league of Heine, Goethe or Schiller, but he was a recognised and respected literary figure and his work was popular. He also wrote with the idea that his poetry would be set to music. In 1815 he noted in his journal:

“I can neither play nor sing, yet when I write verses, I sing and play after all. If

I could produce the melodies, my songs would be more pleasing than they are now. But courage! perhaps there is a kindred spirit somewhere who will hear the tunes behind the words and give them back to me”  

Beneath the folksong-like simplicity of Müller’s writing, lay a depth of feeling and sensitivity which offered Schubert the possibility of taking the expression of human emotion to a depth not reached in a classical song before. With his settings of Müller’s poems, Schubert expanded the potential within a song for a much greater depth of expression as well as a dramatic narrative.

It takes just over one hour to perform the twenty-four songs that make up the cycle and for that time; you are completely alone on the stage with only your pianist for company. There are no props, no scenery no costumes. The drama has to be carried by your voice alone and the drama is of the deepest, most human kind. It is an existential journey that takes the singer and audience right to the heart of the psyche and is a piece that requires an intimate connection to the words and the emotions behind them as well as a considerable understanding of the workings of the human mind. 

I first heard Winterreise as a singing student at one of London’s music colleges. My early training was as a counter-tenor, and my repertoire at that time centred around the composers of the 17th and 18th centuries. I also played the harpsichord quite seriously and was taking this instrument as my second study. The sound world I was thus familiar with, whilst beautiful, striking and expressive in its own right, was quite different from what I was hearing in the German Song Class which all singing students were obliged to attend. 

Whilst some of the more well known Schubert songs were already familiar to me, I had not experienced the emotional intensity of the songs found in Winterreise.Nor had I experienced the way emotion was so directly and almost piercingly expressed through both the vocal writing and the piano accompaniment. The songs of Robert Schumann and Hugo Wolf brought further revelations but with Winterreise, I was also struck by the way the story unfolded dramatically through a sequence of songs the telling of which was undertaken by one singer and a pianist. Being a solitary person who enjoys working and doing things alone, I immediately wanted to find a pianist who might feel similarly about this work and learn and perform it myself. But this was to take some years.

I did not complete my training as a counter-tenor. I left college early and sang for a few years with some ensembles specialising in Baroque music and also gave piano lessons before deciding to retrain my voice as a bass-baritone. I had already begun experimenting with my natural voice and some of my counter-tenor repertoire – certain songs by Henry Purcell especially – worked quite well within the bass-baritone range I had so far developed, but I realised I needed the help of a teacher if I was going to take my bass-baritone voice further, and found my way to Esther Salaman in Highgate.

I had been reading books about singing and found Esther Salaman’s book, Unlocking your Voice – Freedom to Sing in Westminster’s Central Music Library. Esther’s bookoffered answers, it seemed, to some of the vocal difficulties I had been experiencing with my practice – accessing the upper part of the voice especially – and I arranged to have a lesson with her. She taught from a rather ramshackle studio at the end of her garden which with its pink walls and rush matting, books and music piled on almost every available surface, portraits and paintings, an old Blüthner grand piano and faded curtains at the windows, reminded me of interiors I had seen belonging to members of the Bloomsbury Group. Esther was encouraging about my voice, unstinting in her criticism of the way I was using it, but offered alternatives which made sense to me and agreed to take me as a pupil. An association thus began which was to last until her death some fifteen years later. I did not realise at the time of my first lesson that Esther was almost eighty years old.

A few weeks after I had begun my lessons, Esther mentioned a tenor she was teaching whom she felt had an important talent and who was beginning to make an impression on the professional musical scene. His name was Ian Bostridge and a year or two later, I went with Esther to hear him sing Winterreise at the Purcell Room on London’s South Bank. I had started working on Winterreise myself, by this time, and a question which frequently came up in my lessons, was that of expression and the emotional implications of the words. I remember, from that performance almost thirty years ago, the intensity of Ian Bostridge’s singing and a vivid physical and emotional connection to the words and text. Esther challenged me to move away from what she described as an instrumental approach to singing and we began to consider an approach that took a deeper involvement with words and text as its starting point.

This was indeed quite a challenge. The focus of classical singing training is traditionally placed on developing a beautiful sound and the term bel canto, which describes the style of singing developed in Italy during the 17th and 18th centuries – upon which most classical singing training is still based – literally translates as beautiful song. The voice teacher Cicely Berry, interestingly suggests in her book Voice and the Actor that for a singer, the meaning of a song is conveyed through the particular disciplines of sound – its energy being found in the resonance of the voice. For the actor, on the other hand, the energy lies in the word. Singing training must of course focus on developing a voice which is not only beautiful but which will also withstand the demands of a professional career. But it also important to build a voice that is fully responsive to the emotional and technical demands of the text as well as the performer’s imagination. Here, the singer faces a unique challenge because one has to effectively ‘build’ an instrument whilst at the same time learn to ‘play’ it. The human voice is produced by a coordination of breath and muscle and singers have to learn the fine coordination of the muscle movements involved in forming the voice. At the same time, one has to learn the skills needed to meet the demands of the music – skills such as range, agility, dynamic contrast and the articulation of the vowels and consonants of speech and language. Artistic expression and technical development, however, can go hand in hand. Esther believed that if a person possessed a true desire to communicate  the text or message of the song, as she called it, the voice would respond. Even at a formative stage of training, a balance of technical knowledge and skill and an emotional response to the words and music, could lead the singer to a point where the voice was able to respond truthfully and spontaneously to both music and text. 

Esther’s teaching was based on the bel canto approach -an approach she discovered late in her career. She was open about the vocal difficulties she had experienced as a professional singer and the fact that when she found an approach which worked for her, it was too late for her to really use it as a performer and so began what she described as a ‘continuous adventure in teaching’. Her teaching was very specific and she offered me a structured approach to practising which identified the basic vocal skills, and provided me with exercises which worked on each skill in isolation but lead to what she called a ‘totality’ – each and every skill triggering off the rest. I had already been singing professionally as a counter-tenor for a few years before I met Esther, but my training and practice until then had been rather disorganised and more metaphorical than anatomical and I was never quite sure of what was going to happen when I took the first breath at the beginning of a concert. Sometimes it worked beautifully, sometimes it didn’t. Esther taught me to know where the first note was going to come from and how it was going to come and I began to understand how knowing the muscular and physical process that took place when I spoke or sang, brought confidence and provided what I still think of as a ‘platform’ upon which to stand when speaking or singing in public.

Esther also taught me the importance of vowel sounds and how they carry the voice and form the emotional centre of a word and express its feeling (consonant sounds provide meaning). She offered me a set of exercises for vowel centring  which I still practice and teach thirty years after my first lessons with her. Centring, deepening or focusing the vowel, helps us to find an emotional connection to the sound and therefore the word. We can change the emotional implications of a word by the way we speak or sing the vowel sound. The word love, for example, can be spoken or sung with a feeling of love, hate, anger, fear or doubt (amongst other emotional states). Our emotional response to a word colours the vowel sound and gives it a particular emotional quality and deepening or centring the vowel, can awaken this emotional response.  

When I began my lessons with Esther, my approach to vocal music was indeed instrumental – coloured considerably by the fact that I had studied piano and harpsichord for a long time before beginning serious singing training and it was also influenced by the fact that most of the works I performed as a counter-tenor had been settings of religious texts which did not, perhaps, ask for an overly emotional approach. The German songs I now wanted to sing, however, demanded the deeper emotional connection and commitment to the words that Esther was talking about.

I am rather ashamed to admit that when I began singing in German, whilst I had a grasp of the overall mood and meaning of a song, I did not know the literal meaning of every single word and often couldn’t answer when Esther asked in my lessons what certain words meant – which was something she was wont to do. Language classes at college concentrated more on teaching the correct pronunciation rather than facilitating any degree of fluency. But as I began to build my repertoire of songs by German and Austrian composers, I also began to gain a grasp of the language and build up some vocabulary. And by the time I started to learn Winterreise, Ihad sung several whole recitals of German songs. 

A dramatic work such as Winterreise, however, requires the performer to become a singer-actor and I decided to approach the piece in the way an actor might approach a role such as Hamlet or Macbeth. An actor has to look at the world through another’s pair of eyes, slip their feet into another’s pair of shoes, make the characters thoughts their own and take ownership of the words. The first stage, of course, was to learn the words and there was the added job of translating them as I am not fluent in German. There is a wonderful book, however, called Lieder Line by Line by Lois Phillips who translated hundreds of German songs literally, as well as poetically, including the twenty four songs of Winterreise. Esther suggested writing out the German texts by hand in a little notebook with the English translation on the line above in a different coloured ink, and carrying the words around with me. Doing this enabled me to ‘live’ with the words, as she said, and to think about their meaning and underlying mood as I waited for a bus or sat on the tube. 

I spent a lot of time walking with the text around London parks and across Hampstead Heath in all weathers and at different times of day. Wind, rain, frost and snow appear throughout the journey and I wanted to experience these whilst I sang the songs in my head. I also thought about the time frame of the work as a whole – but as time in this piece is ambiguous and the journey a metaphorical one, it is very difficult to set a real time scale. Nevertheless I formed the idea of a night and a day spent walking, then a night resting in a coal burner’s hut before continuing on through the morning until mid-afternoon when the low-lying winter sun begins to set. It is at this point the poet/wanderer has the vision of three suns in the hazy, winter sky and meets an organ grinder standing barefoot on ice in ghostly twilight.  

Walking with the songs in this way also helped me identify the way each song contributed to the unfolding drama – the songs which, for example, carry the drama forward and  express what is happening in the present moment, and those in which the wanderer pauses to ruminate or reflect on his dilemma. I coined the terms ‘songs of movement’ and ‘songs of reflection’ and walking helped me find a tempo for each song which followed Schubert’s directions but which also took my own walking pace as a starting point. And the songs of reflection offered the opportunity to sit on a bench for a few moments or to stand and gaze across the view of the city from Parliament Hill.

I also started a collection of postcards depicting scenes suggestive of a winter journey. Caspar David Friedrich was a contemporary of Schubert and his Winter Landscape which hangs in London’s National Gallery, shows a haunting scene evocative of the desolation and isolation experienced by the Wanderer (he does not encounter another human being until the very last song of the cycle). Another powerful image – also by Friedrich – was that depicted in Wanderer Overlooking a Sea of Fog which can be found in the Kunsthalle in Hamburg. A man stands alone on a rocky precipice with his back to the viewer. Fog swirls in front him through which the shape of mountains and rocks can dimly be seen. 

It is not the snowscape one would expect to accompany Winterreise but it is one which  portrays all the Romantic ideas of solitude and man, who as hero or anti-hero, is pitched against the elements of nature, searching for a place where he might find respite from his restlessness, longing for past joy or love that has been lost. 

My last lesson with Esther followed my first public performance of Winterreise which took place in February 2004 in the music room of Burgh House, in Hampstead, North London with pianist Angus Cunningham. My final lesson with her was a few weeks after the performance. She was in the audience and we talked about understanding the text deeply and responding to it. What was missing, she felt, was what she called ‘the sparkle of the imagination’ and a ‘spontaneity of thought.’  ‘Let the audience see the formation of the thoughts behind your eyes’ she said, ‘make them long to hear the next thought. Write the song for yourself, it’s not only Schubert’s music but your poem as well. Hear the whisper of thoughts in your head, think the words through as you bring the song to life.’ 

Esther died the next year at the age of 91. We had spoken on the telephone a few months before and I had planned to go and sing to her so she could ‘hear where I was at’ as she said. The sudden death of my mother, however, a few weeks after our conversation, and the family responsibilities I had to attend to following that, meant I didn’t get to Highgate and Esther died shortly after my mother. 

From the work I did with Esther I learned that one has to earn the right to perform in front of an audience whether as a singer, instrumentalist or actor. There is a duty to the composer, the poet or writer, whose words or music you are bringing to life with your breath and the vibrations of your voice.  There is also a duty to one’s own integrity and talent as a performer. This right comes from work, done on one’s own privately, in solitude, investigating every layer of a song or text word-by-word and every note of a composition, finding somewhere inside yourself a response to the meaning of the words or the music. Then the expression of the text becomes organic and authentic.

The Feeling of What Happens…

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.

  1. Thought
  2. Breath
  3. Connection of breath to sound
  4. Resonance
  5. 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.

MAH-MOR-MOO-MOR-MAH-MAY-MEE-MAY-MAH.

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: THV-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.

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. 

Your Voice

Your voice is the main means by which you communicate your thoughts and opinions, wishes and desires. It plays a major part in the way you present yourself both professionally and socially.

What can go wrong?

Most of us are born knowing how to use our voices freely and easily. As babies and young children, we knew instinctively how to use our voice to communicate our need for food, warmth and comfort, spontaneously and tirelessly, without stress or strain. Our body and voice responded naturally to our needs and to what we wanted to say without our thinking about it.

As we grow up however, we become shaped by our environment and life experiences. School, college and the workplace all leave impressions on us which, if negative or restrictive, can slowly rob us of our natural freedom of speech and expression, cutting us off from our feelings, limiting our communication and performance abilities, as well as diminishing our confidence and self-trust.

As a result, many of us arrive at adulthood with voices that are compromised and tied up by different physical and psychological tensions that block the free flow of breath, and  in turn, affect the quality of the sound we produce as well as the ease by which we communicate and express ourselves. 

Our voice may feel tired, sound hoarse at the end of the day, for example, or we may experience tightness or discomfort in the muscles around the voice box and neck. Some of us may find it difficult to project our voice and so to make ourselves heard, we push in an effort to force our voice out leading to further strain and tension.

We can also experience problems with speech sounds – finding it difficult to pronounce certain consonant sounds correctly and, as a result, lisp, stutter or stumble over words. We may feel we are running out of breath when speaking in public or giving a presentation, be told we mumble, speak through the nose, or sound too high or too low.

How can a voice teacher help?

Historically coming from a theatre background, the voice teacher’s job traditionally focuses on helping actors develop their voices to the level where they can meet the demands of a professional performing career. Actors need to be heard and understood in a large space, to be articulate and to have the strength and stamina to sustain speaking for long periods of time. They also need to be capable of expressing a wide dynamic and emotional range without tiring or straining the voice.

These skills, however, are available and achievable for every voice, and working with a voice teacher can help you develop your voice and speech  to the highest possible level, as well as increase confidence and improve oral communication.

A bridge from your inner world…

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. 

%d bloggers like this: