Breath and the Vocal Folds – a Musical Theatre Perspective (page 2)
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.
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GK: A second turning point came a little later on when I was into my professional career (I performed professionally for about 12 years and then turned exclusively to teaching) in my late 20s. I experienced a vocal collapse.
This is not at all uncommon in singers who have an inadequate technique. Some get over it, others do not. By the time I got over mine I had become so fascinated by the mechanics of the singing voice that I found it a lot more interesting and rewarding to teach than to perform.
To return to the “collapse”—it happened just at a time when my career might have taken off from post-student small-time jobs to bigger venues and contracts. I started to experience voice loss whenever a concert was coming up, so I was advised to do some bodywork.
Surprisingly, singers know very little about their instrument as a rule, and there is not a tradition in classical singing training, at least, of “voice-body” work. There was and is an interest in the Alexander approach but it tended to be used as an “add-on” for singing training, rather than being embedded in the everyday singing lesson. Nowadays we have singing teachers who are also trained Alexander practitioners: but they weren’t around 30 years ago, to my knowledge.
The bodywork was great and I have maintained an interest in such approaches ever since, but—to be honest—it did not really solve my own problem. It went some way to helping me to find a state of physical equilibrium and mental balance. But because there was nothing in my training, nor in the body work, that enabled me to gain awareness of my vocal muscles, I was still left in the dark about “how the voice works” and I still experienced the same vocal difficulties.
It is at this point that many singing teachers resort to “the psychological”—meaning I can’t fix it, “they” can’t fix it, so it must be in your head! This is something that still makes me very angry when I come across it in the stories of my own clients. Yes, sometimes there are psychological issues underlying vocal problems and voice loss; but since these problems are very often somatised in the vocal muscles, we can use techniques to help us address those muscular patterns and regain control over our voice, even in psychologically stressful situations.
So that is two steps on the journey. Another influence that happened almost together with the second part of the journey was meeting and working with Andrew Wade at the East 15 Acting School.
Andrew was the voice teacher there and I taught singing. We were both very open with each other about our individual approaches and often used to sit in on each others’ classes and even ran joint sessions. I loved learning how an actor approaches their text—it made such sense to me—and I have always felt that, especially in the concert repertoire for classical singers, this approach can help singers enormously in interpreting the poetic texts of so many wonderful songs.
I also liked that Andrew had a process. Singing teachers tend to be gurus and often don’t like to reveal their process. Andrew’s teaching wasn’t like that and it influenced me in my approach. I started writing down exercises, making my own teaching more systematic—if you are teaching in a group setting you have to do that anyway—and it solidified my practice. When I came to write Singing and the Actor all those written records of exercise routines were enormously helpful because they had been tried and tested both in group and one-to-one settings.
Meeting and subsequently working with Jo Estill was the next step. As you probably know, Jo’s approach was to “de-emphasise” breathing and she steadfastly refused to discuss breath in the 1990s. Since then, I have noticed that the Estill organization has—perhaps literally—taken a leaf out of my book and now include the “Accent Method” approach to breathing in their training courses.
What Jo brought to the singing profession from her research was a willingness to talk about the vocal mechanism and to use this positively as a training tool. In this she may have been influenced by the work of phoneticians like Laver and Catford who taught that discrete settings of the vocal tract were controllable. This really was new stuff for singing teachers in the UK in the 1990s and it influenced me greatly. In particular, it helped me to understand that when I got stressed about my own singing, this manifested as laryngeal constriction. And suddenly there was the possibility of “answers.”