For director and voice teacher Max Hafler, good vocal training is vital for young people – and not just for those preparing for a career in the performing arts. Here he explains the benefits of a holistic approach, and how his new book, Teaching Voice: Workshops for Young Performers, can help teachers and facilitators with little formal experience of voice work to bring out the best in their young people…
Our voices are vital components of our lives. We use our voices – naturally and instinctively – to express ourselves and to relate to others. We’re also amazingly sensitive to other people’s voices, able to pick up on what a speaker is feeling from the slightest inflection. Our own voice is a source of great power – something we learn almost as soon as we start using it. And it quickly becomes as much a part of our identity as our face or body.
Yet despite this, voice is given very little attention in our schools. Often it is just ignored or dealt with only through the limited pathways of ‘speech and drama’. As so often in education these days, the onus is on a skill being ‘useful’ for prospective employment. Voice is certainly that, of course: we have only to make a list of the jobs that require good clear speech and communication skills to realise how essential it is. But it goes beyond that. Anyone who works in this field knows that the impact of encouraging a young person to explore their voice in a positive, imaginative way is more than just improving their job prospects. Immeasurably more. By doing voice work with a young person, you are literally giving them a ‘voice’. It ought to be part of the social and educational remit of any school, youth theatre or liberal arts course.
I have always felt that whilst the technical element of voice work is important, a holistic approach is essential for the health of our young people. For their voices to become fully expressive, we have to help them connect voice, body, feelings and imagination. Right now I feel that young people are being increasingly denied the opportunity to develop their imaginations by the finished, ready-made images presented to them by mainstream media. I often use an analogy with the way the imagination works when reading a book, as opposed to watching a filmed version of that book. The images created by the filmmakers are never the same as those created by our own imagination, and they never have the same power. When you watch the film of a book you know well, it’s almost always a disappointment. Our imagination is a deeply personal place, and a place of absolute power.
The need to connect up the physical, emotional and imaginative components of our creative selves is at the very core of the acting technique developed by the Russian-American actor, director and teacher Michael Chekhov, a pupil of Stanislavsky. While his technique is used primarily in actor training, I have found it an immensely useful way to awaken and enliven the voice, and reconnect it with our bodies. If we want the sounds we make and the words we speak to really come to life, we have to find a strong impulse for them. And we can do that most effectively through the body and imagination.
I have been working with young people on voice and acting for decades in a whole range of settings (youth theatre, university, drama schools, non-vocational courses and special interest groups), and I have long been aware that there are a great many facilitators and teachers who want to employ voice work in their classrooms and studios without necessarily embarking on full-time training. My book, Teaching Voice, is intended to fill that gap. It will serve those with experience in voice teaching, and also those with very little formal experience. As well as offering workshop plans, it provides the reader with a programme of work to develop their own skills. While I fully recognise that approved training courses are invaluable for those who have the time and resources to devote to them, my aim has been to be as helpful as I can to as wide a range of people as possible: anyone who might say ‘I want to teach voice to my young people’. I wanted to address the issues of assessing the needs and desires of any particular group, and the time constraints which exist when we work in youth theatre or school drama clubs. I wanted to give the book a structure that made it flexible enough to be used by new teachers just as readily as by more experienced ones.
Anyone who has worked with me knows that I am far from being a theorist! Whilst I wanted to share my ethos throughout the book, above all I wanted it to serve as a solid bedrock for a practical and grounded approach to the work. At the centre of the book is a set of workshop plans which focus on particular areas such as rhythm, projection, realism and Shakespeare, supplemented by micro sessions and a chapter on incorporating voice in productions, both scripted and devised. My approach is to combine traditional vocal training exercises with those that work with the imagination and body. Energetic and visceral exercises such as Consonant Characters and Verbing the Body are included alongside more conventional drills and floor work. Radiating and Receiving, a principle I’ve adopted from Michael Chekhov Technique, is used in tandem with familiar exercises in projection.
This combination of traditional and holistic approaches makes the work much more energetic and engaging – so important, particularly when working with young people. Underlying it all is my belief that voice training is not only for acting, but for life.
Max Hafler teaches Voice and Chekhov Technique on the BA and MA programmes at the National University of Ireland, Galway. He has taught voice in youth theatres all over Ireland for the National Association of Youth Drama. He discusses his work extensively in his own blog: www.maxhafler.wordpress.com.
His book, Teaching Voice: Workshops for Young Performers, is out now, published by Nick Hern Books. To buy your copy for just £10.39 (RRP £12.99), visit the Nick Hern Books website.
The photos accompanying this article were taken by Sean O’Meallaigh at a workshop run by Max Hafler with members of Dublin Youth Theatre.