I have been a professional actor-singer all my life, it seems. When I was studying theatre at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County– many moons ago–we had no voice training as actors. We were often told “I can’t hear you” or “Project!” or “I can’t understand what you’re saying”. But that was the extent of our training.
Unfortunately, we had to figure out what to do with those criticisms. I did, however, take singing lessons by a very fine instructor during my university days. I learned how to use my voice very effectively–as a singer, and occasionally found myself observing that my speaking voice was receiving some benefit from that singing training, too, but I didn’t know quite how.
It wasn’t until I went to graduate school at the Dallas Theater Center that something revolutionary happened to my voice and my attitude towards my use of it–both as a speaker and a singer. What I discovered was that the focus and resonance I had learned as a singer was no different that what was needed for an effective speaking voice as well.
I discovered that the difference between singing and speaking is one of dynamic range–the highs and lows, the sustention of notes beyond what would be considered as ‘speaking’ is more extravagant, but the training should be the same. The instrument being used is the same, the most intimate instrument that we play, because it is produced solely from within. If we begin to think of our speaking and singing voices as one and the same, we can apply all the rich, focused vibrations we learn to produce while singing directly to our speaking voice.
Breath does not control the tonal quality of the speaking/singing voice–that is produced by working as if we’re not using any breath at all. Of course, we need a constant supply of breath to create the vibration of the vocal folds, but after that breath stream becomes a sound stream, it’s up to resonance and wave reflection to take over. The sound is conducted through the bones of the face and head. So, when we learn to focus that sound stream onto the hard palate, and upwards into the nasal bone, forehead and cranium–we produce a beautiful unforced resonant quality–especially when we also create a more generous open cavity in the mouth.
So what’s to stop us from speaking the way we sing? Try this experiment: Create your own little melody in your mid-range for this phrase: “This is the way to feel the focus”. Focus your voice (by thinking it there!) onto the hard palate as you do this rather slowly. Then speak the line while maintaining that feel of the vibration on your hard palate, sailing up into your head (hopefully).
Don’t you enjoy that placement, that richness of tone? It can be yours for the asking–when you have the feel of singing while you speak! So, don’t be satisfied with a singing voice that works one way–and a speaking voice that is lodged in the back of your throat, raspy, or of another sort of poor quality. Let’s not leave the speaking voice out of the quality equation. Train the whole voice by remembering to always have a ‘little song in your speech, and a little speech in your song’!
- Guest contributor, Nancy Krebs