This is the second in a series of three articles I posted on the Magic Cafe in 2005, during my days performing escapology as Helen Held. Though this was written for magicians, the principles described are the same for anyone looking to develop their voice for the stage or any other setting. Just ignore the stuff about card tricks and straightjackets.
In the first part of this series, we looked at basic deep breathing techniques and getting a good source of power. This time, I’m going to discuss the issue of nerves, stage fright and ways to stop these things affecting your voice.
One of the biggest obstacles to getting a strong voice is that we are socially accustomed not to be too loud, and as was pointed out in the responses to my last article finding somewhere to practice where you won’t disturb others can be really hard. Even then, there is a natural reticence about really letting go, because to do so is an assertive and therefore scary gesture, particularly as you might not like the sounds you initially make.
So the first thing to do is to make the decision to just go for it, however bad it sounds, and to hell with anyone who tells you otherwise. If something’s loud and wrong, we’re at least halfway there and can work on whatever needs to be done to correct mistakes. If something’s quiet and wrong, there’s much less to work with.
A good example comes from my beginning singing students, who very often ease off and sing quieter the higher they get, in case the note sounds bad. This is in every way a self-fulfilling prophecy, because a) they’re letting nerves instead of confidence dominate (I’ll discuss what this means in physical terms presently) and consequently b) their technique goes down the toilet. When singing high you are trying to make your larynx vibrate especially fast, and as we discussed last time this needs especially strong airflow. So as I sing higher I try to anchor even more than usual to my abdominal trigger and make a decision to go for it. Incidentally, I’ll look at dynamics and how to properly deal with quiet moments of dialogue in the next article.
The very fact that you’ve had the courage to go out of your way to perform indicates a certain amount of ego and confidence, so what you need to do is let that confidence control what you do and overcome the various obstacles that we’ll be discussing.
How not to relax
Being relaxed is to be in control; at various points we will be trying to relax various muscles, but before we do there is something I want to make clear by way of an exercise.
Hold your arm out in front of you as if making a raised fist salute. Now, focus on your arm and tell it to relax.
Nothing happening? If anything, it’s probably getting even tenser, isn’t it?
Now focus on your other arm instead; you’ll find that the raised arm will relax and drop of it’s own accord.
Muscles are made to do two things; to engage and to release. If you send a muscle a direct message of any kind it will interpret it as an order to engage, because that’s all it knows how to do. So to relax you have to learn to think in overall abstract terms, to make suggestions rather than commands. Trying to directly tell yourself to relax will do nothing.
A brief overview of fear
The body has a number of natural reactions to stressful situations (for example, when you’ve just stepped on-stage in front of a number of people looking your way), one of the first of which is the release of adrenaline into the blood; this, of course, is a big part of the addictive rush of performing. Whether or not that adrenaline rush is as a result of any actual threat, the brain will instinctively associate it with fear.
Now, fear isn’t a bad thing, it’s a vital part of our survival mechanisms. Those here who perform dangerous tricks will know that knowing and respecting fear and danger is what keeps you safe. Show me a man without fear and I’ll show you an idiot.
But how you deal with fear is important. If you can’t control it, you panic. When you panic, you waste energy, your confidence and coherent thought processes go up in smoke and no matter what you’re trying to do, it’s just not going to happen.
Geoff Thompson, British martial arts and self defence guru and author of the controversial “Animal Days” method, puts great emphasis on learning to work with fear early on and says the only way to do it is to seek out situations that trigger fear, to pick one thing that genuinely scares you (however trivial – it doesn’t have to be dangerous) and to confront it. In so doing you will learn to physically deal with fear as it comes and work rationally through the situation without succumbing to panic. Like everything else, if you practice enough it will eventually become instinctive.
The false vocal folds
Coming back from the he-man stuff to the main topic of these articles, another instinctive reaction of the body to stressful situations is to close up the false vocal folds.
The false vocal folds are a pair of muscles at the top of the vocal tract and their job is to close up and prevent stuff from getting in the windpipe and lungs that shouldn’t be there (if something does get in, it’s expelled at once by means of coughing).
When trying to project your voice, this instinct is an utter nuisance, because at exactly the time you need to be pushing out maximum airflow these muscles close up and significantly reduce the amount of space you have to push the air through. This results in “constriction”, the tightness in the throat that you feel when singing high.
Fortunately, this instinct can be overridden. The classic method of doing this is to train yourself into the action of yawning, a time at which the false vocal folds are completely open. My favourite wheeze though is to mentally focus down towards the ground the higher my voice gets (don’t actually look down). This does two things; one, it helps anchor the effort down around the abdominals where it should be (think of your legs as shock absorbers), and two, it focuses your attention as far away as possible from those wretched false vocal folds, so with luck they won’t get the signal to engage.
Everyone’s a comedian
I’ve mentioned already that being loud is something we are not socially conditioned to do and practicing vocal technique (particularly singing) invariably leads to a certain amount of ribbing from the people around you.
One of the reasons for this is that everyone has a voice and everyone can sing, if they are prepared to work at it. Not everyone has the confidence or inclination to put that work in though, and it’s human nature for people to react badly to seeing others doing something that they aren’t, can’t or won’t.
So with singing especially, you need to develop a thick skin to deflect the jokes, heckles and criticisms that will inevitably come while you’re learning (they never really go away anyway). The voice is an instrument, to get it sounding good you have to work at it, in the meantime you will inevitably have long periods when things are out of tune, incoherent or just generally not quite right. But then we know full well those faults are there, that’s why we practice, to work on them. Keep that in mind, keep telling yourself that you can and will accomplish what you set out to do and tell the smart-alec who’s making funnies at you to take a hike.
In the next instalment, I’ll look at some more general tips on vocal technique, stagecraft and communication.