Right, so I promised I would talk about voice next. As always, I will try to keep it extremely general, so you can look at it as a broad guideline of things to work on rather than a detailed criticism of different techniques.
When you first start out as an actor, voice can be one of the big things that hold you back, particularly if you are doing stage work. Screen work is more forgiving because you don’t need to project as much, but you’ll still need good vocal technique for emotionally and physically difficult scenes. Women in particular can struggle a lot when they first start out because a naturally high voice is difficult to hear, and smaller frames can mean smaller lung capacity. Don’t let this get in your way, it can be improved with a little time and effort – but firstly you need to be aware of what you need to work on.
Regardless of whether you have a light voice, you should include regular voice work as part of your practice. It’s exactly the same as physical work – even if you have a lovely body/voice, you still need to have strength and stamina. Acting is tough on your body and voice and you need to know how to prevent injury and maintain its wellbeing. If you’re aware that people have trouble hearing you or you have trouble comfortably using a lower range (you’ll probably get this feedback from directors if this is the case), then you may want to spend a little extra time each day on breath support and extending your range.
What does a ‘good’ voice sound like? How do I know if I have one?
Let me just clarify. NEVER aim to sound like anyone other than yourself. Your voice is unique, and manipulating it to sound like someone else is the vocal equivalent of foot binding or wearing a corset. It’s not good for you. You might think sounds great but it’ll just cause problems later. What you can do is aim to have a strong, healthy, flexible voice.
Now for the more confusing stuff. Just because you have a high voice (for example) and I’ve told you not to try to sound like anyone else, doesn’t mean you can’t develop your lower range. It’s very similar to people who say, “I have tight hamstrings, I can’t touch my toes” – this generally isn’t a permanent issue, unless it’s from injury or disability. If they aim to touch their toes every day, they’ll usually be able to get there in a few weeks or months. They just may not be able to get as far as someone who can touch their toes easily, but they’ll usually improve with a little regular effort. To a certain extent, your body (including your voice) is built in a distinct, unique way, and some of it you will not be able to change; but it is also resilient and capable of much more than you expect, and will be happy to adapt to what you need if you work slowly and safely. Work your voice as you would your body – build up slowly to the hard stuff, listen to what it’s telling you, and always stop if you’re in any pain. Going for fast results could permanently damage your voice, so always be careful.
So how do I ‘exercise’ my voice?
Your current vocal warm up – if you have one at all – probably consists of a few tongue twisters and, if you have a singing background, maybe some scales. You need much more than that to prepare your voice for performance, and still more than that to really develop your voice. I’d recommend finding a vocal tutor for some private lessons, or at the very least, keep an eye out for workshops happening in your area. If you can’t afford private lessons, sometimes tutors will allow groups of 2 or 3, which can be a good way to lessen the costs. If you don’t think you need lessons, just consider that actors who go through training institutes do several hours of vocal lessons each week. They are prepared for whatever is needed vocally for each role, and that increases their chances of getting work tenfold. Even if you have no problems with your voice, some vocal tuition will help you become a more flexible and employable actor.
Private tuition is really invaluable – and the quickest way to improve and the safest way to learn to use your voice, as a tutor will be on the lookout for any potentially dangerous habits. If it’s a good teacher, even a few sessions will help. Go to the best teacher you can afford. Remember that you don’t have to commit to a year’s worth of lessons, just go for a few months and then take a break to work alone. I actually recommend taking a break from lessons every now and then, even if you can afford to keep going – it will give you a chance to let your lessons sink in. Of course, that will only work if you keep practising in your time off.
One of the best things you can do to develop your voice by yourself is a regular warm up, even if you’re not performing. If you feel like you’re overloaded with things to do, find small ways to fit it into your schedule. Doing a few vocal exercises while you’re in the shower, driving to work, or doing the dishes is better than nothing. You don’t need to work for hours every day to have a great voice.
Classes and workshops are the best way to learn vocal exercises, but you could also hit up the library or hunt on Youtube. There are also some reasonably priced phone apps for warm ups, though singing warm ups will be easier to find than spoken. Singing warm ups are still good for developing your voice, but you should really try to include spoken exercises as well – it’s possible to develop a lovely singing voice but still not know how to apply that to your spoken voice, so don’t kid yourself that singing will do the work for you.
What you need to include in your warm up
Again, I’m going to be very general because it’s best if you find exercises yourself. Overall, your warm up needs to encompass these categories:
Physical. Your voice is part of your body and will work better when your body is warm. Whatever gets your blood pumping will work here.
Resonance. Build up the vibrations in your resonance chambers – basically feel the buzz in your chest, nose, forehead. Humming, whining, buzzing, etc is the way to go. Start with closed sounds and move to open.
Breath support. This is not just about your lungs, but also about waking up the surrounding muscle groups that support them. Working with sustained breath or sustained sound, or shorter sounds that engage the muscles quickly, is common.
Articulation. Engaging or relaxing the tongue, lips and jaw as needed. This is where your tongue twisters will help you.
Combinations. Exercises that combine categories – exercises that check whether you can move and speak at the same time will be particularly helpful!
It generally won’t do much harm to change the order of those categories, but that’s the order that usually works best and is safest. 3-5 minutes on each section is a good minimum where possible.
My favourite exercise
Again, always be careful because I am not a trained vocal teacher, but I learnt this exercise from one so you should be ok if you proceed carefully. The most useful exercise I’ve ever done to develop my vocal strength and range is this:
Practice speaking with your tongue out.
Stand in front of a mirror and stick your tongue as far out as it will go, ideally reaching for the bottom of your chin. Tongues are all very different so don’t worry if yours doesn’t go very far, just notice where it gets to and try to keep it at that spot.
Practice a monologue, aiming to keep your tongue at the same point. It will want to retract on certain vowels or consonants, so just notice what they are and practice those particularly.
Aim to speak fairly loudly, but you may need to build up to the point where you can project as you would on stage – if it feels painful then try it softly first and work towards a louder volume.
You need to make sure you are engaging your muscles for breath support! (My preferred technique for breath support is to release your core as you breathe in and contract it as you breathe out. I’m sure other practitioners will disagree with me but you can always give it a go and see if it works for you.)
The reason this exercise is so effective is that your tongue needs to be forward and down to be in a safe position for projection, but it is extremely common for your tongue to pull back from fear or out of habit (often from trying to sound like someone else!).
So hopefully that gives you something to go on, and hopefully you’re not too overwhelmed yet. I know I’ve discussed that you need to do regular physical and vocal work, and that is the goal, but don’t be too hard on yourself if you can’t incorporate it into your life just yet. Acting is a juggling act, you will always be juggling a million different things, so you just have to learn to be smart about it. Sneaking in 5 or 10 minutes here and there will still make a difference, so create some short exercise sequences that you can do so you’re prepared for times like these. In fact, I’ll dedicate my next post to the sneaky things you can do to save time as an actor.
Good luck, don’t panic, enjoy the learning process! 🙂