Breath and the Vocal Folds – a Musical Theatre Perspective (page 1)
Last year the Voice and Speech Teachers’ Association in America (VASTA) approached Gillyanne to be interviewed for their bi-annual Voice and Speech Review.
The resulting interview with VSR’s Editor-in-Chief Rena Cook has just been published.
Breath and the Vocal Folds – A Musical Theatre Perspective
Rena Cook (RC): I had the privilege of working with Gillyanne Kayes in 1999. As part of the Voice Studies curriculum at the Central School, we were introduced to Vocal Process, an approach to voice training advanced by Kayes in her book Singing and the Actor.
Through numerous workshops and private tutoring, I began to see that her very specific and detailed approach to the vocal tract was an extremely useful component to the comprehensive voice training model I was in the process of integrating.
I was delighted when Gillyanne agreed to be interviewed about her views on breath for VSR. Her pedagogy is widely recognized for its practical, immediate and accessible techniques now used throughout the world, not the least of which in London’s West End where many of her students regularly perform. Her work on the specific subject of breath and its relationship to the vocal folds provides a fresh and unique take on traditional performance breath approaches. What follows is a portion of that interview.
RC: Could you start by telling me about your journey with breath? I mean, as a singer, then a young teacher, and now as a world-renowned voice trainer, what has been your process to awareness of the voice and, specifically, breath?
Gillyanne Kayes (GK): The voice and breath, yes, it’s been a fascinating trip so far. My original training was as a singer and musician: I played three instruments including voice and opted to take a Bachelor’s degree in music. After taking a degree I went to study singing more seriously. Having always sung quite naturally, not really having to think much about technique. I just “sang.” So looking back, it seems as though some of my early teachers rather obsessed about breath.
And I don’t mean in a positive way. You know, that way of talking about “the breath” in a disembodied way, as though it was some mysterious “external” that I had to find. I think I wrote in Singing and the Actor that it was like a “holy grail of breath.” The effect is to makes the student focus on and about breath so that any intuitive awareness of breath and voicing are in danger of getting lost. The whole thing becomes a mystery that only the teacher can reveal.
But there were some good things in my early training too. Ilse Wolf, who was my teacher for several years, introduced me to the idea that learning to breathe was best done by breathing out. Her catch phrase was “breathe-out-to-sing.” At the time that was an eye opener. She wasn’t keen on filling up with air and that was certainly refreshing in the environment of classical singing, where “getting through the phrase in one breath” seemed to be a defined goal.
Ilse’s approach to breath and phrasing was that you could take a breath anywhere you wanted if the interpretation was right and that an audience would not notice but just say “what expressive phrasing!” This approach stood me in good stead when I came to work with actors, where the focus is much more on breath being aligned with intention.
So, returning to the catchphrase “breathe-out-to-sing”, I suppose, up until that point, I must have either been told, or had assumed, that getting the air “in” (and plenty of it) was the key element of breathing technique. Without having the language that science-friendly singing teachers have today, Ilse understood that breathing is a “reflex” action, which you will mess up if you focus on filling up with air; and she also understood on an intuitive level that the key element in phonation (whether singing or speaking) is breath and voicing—a balancing act between the breath and the vocal folds. So, we come to one of my personal hobby-horses, which is that phonation is interrupted airflow.