Releasing your authentic voice: top voice coach Jeannette Nelson on working with actors at the National Theatre

Actors working in the theatre today face many challenges: how do you keep your voice sounding fresh and vital, day after day? How do you manage to sound natural in performance while still being audible? How do you adapt to working with radio mics? Jeannette Nelson, Head of Voice at the National Theatre, explains how actors can meet the challenges facing them. Plus, read an extract from her book, The Voice Exercise Book.

Working with people’s voices is both a privilege and a responsibility. The voice is so personal: it expresses who you are and what you think; it tells your story; it responds to your emotional and physical life. For actors, all these things are true and more, because their livelihood, their ability to do the job, depends upon their voice. They need it to be flexible, healthy, strong and reliable.

I’ve been a theatre voice coach for about 30 years and yet I still feel I’m learning the job. As society changes and new technology emerges, my work with actors has to respond to different tastes and different environments. Imagine if theatre actors still sounded like those in the 1940s and 1950s. We wouldn’t find that acceptable at all. The greatest demand for actors today is that audiences, and the actors and directors themselves, want dialogue on stage to sound as natural as it does in film and television. By and large, I believe we do achieve that. But it takes an enormous amount of skill to be authentically modern and yet theatrically clear.

Some directors will decide to use radio microphones to achieve the sound they want. Actors and I have to respond to that and it isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. The actors have to get used to the feeling, the consciousness of wearing a microphone, and then to accept that they might not be entirely in control of the sound of their voices. My advice, unless a director wants something specific, is always that they should use their voice as if they don’t have a microphone. Then there will still be energy in the voice and the language, and the sound operator won’t have to push up the volume too much. If they do have to increase the volume through the mics, there is the danger of their voices coming from the amplifiers, not their mouths. More important for the actor is that by working as if they don’t have mics, they will feel in control of their vocal choices and can play the scenes as they would like.

Over the years working with theatre actors, I have been refining my work. I began by feeling there was so much think about, so many different ways we can work with the voice, but now I know that it can be pretty simple. I find that in the pressurised world of rehearsal room and stage, I need to offer the actors direct, easily accessed ways to help them to respond to the vocal needs of a role, to prepare the voice for performance (with and without radio mics), to keep it in shape, and sometimes to manage a vocal crisis.

This is the work that is in my book, The Voice Exercise Book. I wanted to write for the voice user not the voice teacher and I wanted to share the work that I do at the National Theatre.


The following is an extract from The Voice Exercise Book: A Guide to Healthy and Effective Voice Use by Jeannette Nelson.

What your voice says about you

There is no mystery about the mechanics of the human voice. It is a physical activity, and, like all physical activities, if you want to perform well you have to practise and develop your technique. However, the voice is an expression of self like no other, and as such is subject to inner feelings and outward pressures.

Who you are

Our voice is part of our identity and it carries our history. It tells where we are from through our accent or language, tying us to place and community. That might be very important to us, and we may take pride in the accent and dialect that identifies us with the history of a particular place and group of people.

Our voice is also one of the ways we choose to engage with the world. We may use volume, speaking loudly to show that we are confident and in control, or quietly, making people listen closely. We may use tone to project a particular image of ourselves: maybe caring or careless, firm or ironic. We may use our voice to protect ourselves and hide behind, perhaps by changing our native accent, or pushing or withholding its natural energy. We may also enhance the expression of our gender by using a rather high or low pitch.

Authenticity

If you are unhappy with the way you sound and have tried to change it on your own, you may be surprised to know that people usually realise that something is not quite right. We recognise authenticity when we hear it and mistrust those whose voices don’t quite fit them. I’m sure you have listened to people in public life who you feel are not using their voices honestly or authentically, and you don’t trust them.

The work in my book The Voice Exercise Book: A Guide to Healthy and Effective Voice Use is not about forcing the voice to sound different. It is about getting to know the voice you have and working with it. Actors need to know themselves well, and be comfortable and honest about who they are, before they can transform themselves into other people. They aim to reveal truths in the world, and to do so they have to work from a place of authenticity. Voice training is an essential part of this as it teaches them how to discover and release their true voice. Then they can get to know it well and fully own it.

This is what I hope the book offers. The exercises inside are designed to teach you how to feel the breath and the voice within your own body, and then how to maximise its potential for expression and communication. That doesn’t mean it won’t change. If you work with proper care, of course your voice will change but it will still sound like you. In fact, it may sound more like you than it did before, because you will have released it fully. It will be a sound with more resonance, more range, more flexibility and more honesty.

How you feel

The voice is also a means of expressing emotion, and it is often our first response to the things that life brings us: we laugh and cry, and we make spontaneous expressive noises – oh, ah, mm, argh. Our voice can also reveal how we feel even when we don’t mean it to. We know when a friend is not in their usual state of mind, not necessarily by what they say but by how they sound. Unhappiness and anxiety tend to take the music out of the voice, which in turn can make the speaker try to force energy into it in an attempt to disguise their feelings. Insecurity and fear can lead to physical tensions that create a thin, high, husky or quiet voice.

But when we are happy our bodies relax. We can breathe deeply and freely, so the voice can be comfortable and natural. A natural voice is what we are aiming for in this book: a voice that is clear, resonant, unstrained and easy to listen to. And most important of all, we are aiming for a voice that reflects who we truly are. When working at its best, it will respond to our thinking without effort and with a full range of expression.

How others respond to your voice

The voice can also be something that is judged by others. As children we were often told to be quiet or not to say things. As adults we recognise that some types of accent or speech are more valued than others. These criticisms, if excessive or inappropriate, can lead to vocal difficulties, especially when we need to use our voice in public or professional situations.

If you learn early on that you are supposed to keep quiet, you may come to believe that what you have to say is not important. This can lead to a habit of speaking too fast or too softly, or even to being reluctant to speak at all. If you think your accent or speaking style is unacceptable, it can stop you from breathing adequately for speech. Any criticism of how you speak can lead to holding tension in your jaw, throat or shoulders.

However, a little knowledge and technique can bring about a healthier and more satisfying relationship with your voice. Then the confidence that this creates helps to overcome the external pressures that can make speaking hard. This does not happen instantly: you do have to do the exercises and absorb the technique. But learning to control your voice, owning it and falling in love with it will help you to develop self-confidence. You will find that people will want to listen to you. Think of it as regaining what should be naturally yours.


The above is an extract from The Voice Exercise Book: A Guide to Healthy and Effective Voice Use by Jeannette Nelson, published by National Theatre Publications, and available now from Nick Hern Books.

To buy a copy for £12.99, click here.

Jeannette Nelson is running a one-day workshop at the Actors’ Centre, Fall In Love With Your Voice, on Wednesday 7 June. For more information, and to book a place, visit the Actors’ Centre website.

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