Laura geeks out over Puppetry and Voice

We all know that I'm a self-professed voice geek, but an extra tier to my geekiness is my interest in Puppetry and Voice. Puppetry is a fascinating discipline, and everyone who becomes involved in it seems to become obsessed!

My first real introduction to the world of puppetry was through Whole Hog Theatre's production of Princess Mononoke, adapted from the Studio Ghibli anime film of the same name. I worked with Whole Hog as their Voice Coach, and was struck by the range of challenges faced by the puppeteers, vocally. Not only were they required to make strange, ethereal noises, but they had to support heavy and often awkwardly shaped puppets whilst doing so. The actors and puppeteers took this in their stride, of course, as actors are wont to do, however I was left to ponder the challenge from a vocal perspective. I worried about the vocal safety of the performers, due to the extreme physical effort required when puppeteering, and any strain it might put upon the voice.

So, naturally, I wrote an MFA dissertation on the subject! [Hence why I haven't written a blog post for almost a year...] If anyone would like to read it in full, then do get in touch and I'll send it to you, but I warn you: it's 15,000 words long. The gist of it is: I researched the topic by analysing literature on related disciplines such as dance and voice; I interviewed industry professionals such as Mervyn Millar; I led a workshop to test my findings; and much much more. My research focused on the question of whether voice training should be different for puppeteers than for actors. The general consensus was that no, their voice training should not be different. Actors are required to do strenuous and awkward things with their bodies, just as puppeteers are, it's just that puppeteers are likely to have to do it more often. What was clear from my research was that puppeteers are not currently receiving the same level of vocal training as actors, unless they have first trained as an actor and then transitioned into puppetry. 

Herein lies the issue; one which is rather tricky to solve as one lonely voice teacher. Puppeteers need more intensive voice training! I hope, as do many in the industry, that as the discipline grows and as more training courses are set up, that voice will be a strong element on those courses, so that puppeteers can look after their voices and achieve increasingly outstanding results.

I'm not going to set up petitions and rallies in the streets, yelling "EQUAL VOCAL RIGHTS FOR PUPPETEERS!", but I look forward to continuing to work in the industry and to helping puppeteers to develop their voices safely. I don't really have a choice, anyway. They've sucked me in and now I'm obsessed, too. 

How can voice and singing lessons be of benefit to you in everyday life?

A student of mine recently suggested I write this blog after noticing a marked difference in her breathing patterns and jaw tension, both following singing lessons and after repeating exercises at home. 

We read about the amazing impact singing and performing can have on dementia and Parkinson's sufferers, or on babies in the womb, but how can it help you? Let's consider a few possibilities: 

 

1. Jaw tension

Most people become aware of jaw tension through their dentist, as it can be evident through the grinding of teeth. Dentists will often prescribe a mouth guard to protect the teeth, however we can also work on ways to get rid of the root problem: the tension itself. One such exercise, delightfully named 'Heavenly Waters', goes as follows:

Clean each of your teeth, front and back, with your tongue. Do this for a few minutes and do not swallow - you should build up a pool of saliva in your mouth (lovely!) Next, swish the saliva around in your mouth as if using a mouthwash. Swallow in three gulps. Bare your teeth in a cheesy grin, and then chatter your teeth 36 times. Let your jaw hang open, and notice how free it feels!

This can be a pretty off-putting exercise, but it can work wonders, especially if you do it just before bed. It's also helpful to have a free jaw for speech and for singing.

 

2. Calming nerves

Do you find your nerves hard to control before a meeting / phone call? Does your voice wobble during confrontation? This is perfectly normal, but know that there are ways to manage nerves so that the adrenaline doesn't send you into fight or flight (or freeze) mode.

In voice and singing lessons, we work on releasing your abdominal muscles to allow for a free breath to occur. If the abs are relaxed then the diaphragm is free to move as the lungs fill with air, meaning we usually see a slight protrusion in the belly area as the viscera (guts etc.) is displaced. This deep, relaxed breath can be much more calming than a tight, shallow 'clavicular' (upper chest) breath, and therefore helps the rest of your body, including your larynx, to relax too. 

Once you've found that relaxed, easy breath - it's sometimes easier to feel when lying on your back - it is important to remember to breathe out! This is easily forgotten when nervous, and excessive in-breaths can lead to hyperventilation. Try breathing in for four counts and out for ten to address this, and trick your body into calming down.

 

3. Being heard over a crowd

Even if you've avoided alcohol, it is common to feel vocally tired after an evening of talking with friends or colleagues in a bar or pub. Competing with music and crowds takes its toll on our poor voices, especially when repeated.

However, can you think of certain friends who seem to be heard more easily, with apparently little effort? They are probably using oral twang. This accesses higher frequency sound waves which cut across the low hum drum crowd frequency, and therefore travel more efficiently to our ears. This does not mean that you need to speak at a different pitch, but that the vibrations made at the level of your vocal folds resonate in a particular way in the vocal tract before they leave your mouth. 

A simple way to access oral twang is to either cackle like a witch, or to imagine you're a taunting child; "na na na na na". Feel the vibrations towards the front of your face and then try to speak whilst still aiming the sound to that place. 

Note: Oral twang is very different to nasal twang, where the sound comes out of your nose. Nasal twang does not carry well and can sound unpleasant. Oral twang should simply give a brighter, clearer sound. 

Singers and actors use twang to brighten their sound and to help it to travel to the back of an auditorium. It can also help those professional voice users such as teachers, stage managers, or tube station assistants - basically, anyone who needs to be heard!

 

My lessons are quite lively, allowing my students to engage their entire body, making for a more energetic, 'alive' sound and experience. This can also help in life outside of lessons, for example with:

  • Posture
  • Alignment
  • Alertness
  • Engagement with others
  • Mental well-being

This blog is merely an overview, but if it has piqued your interest then please do get in touch with myself or a teacher nearer to you, to see what singing or spoken voice lessons can do for you. 

Flyering - Don't let it ruin your voice!

Flyering takes its toll on the best of us! Have you found a good technique for cutting across the crowd? Or do you find yourself straining to be heard? 

We're now halfway through the Edinburgh Fringe and I, for one, am noticing a cacophony of tired, croaky voices on the Royal Mile. If you feel you are adding to this (or not able to contribute at all!) then please read on...

These tips should set you on the right tracks for a healthier, more effective 'flyering voice':

(Please also make note of my previous blog on how to look after your voice at the Fringe, to ensure you're doing everything you can to treat your voice well)

  • Warm up!

You warm up for a performance, so why not for flyering? Try to do a full body, breath and vocal warm up before heading out for the day. 

  • Use your upper resonance

This has many different names, some accurate in description and some less so. What it means is that you can be speaking at the same basic pitch as usual, but you can access higher 'harmonics' which travel well, allowing you to be heard above the general hubbub of a crowd.

One simple way to begin to access these higher harmonics is to add this exercise to your warm up:

Speak for a few minutes with your tongue completely out of your mouth, so that the body (not the tip) of your tongue is resting on your lower lip for the entire time - never retreating back into the mouth. The challenge is to make sure you can still be understood, despite not having the habitual use of your tongue. This will be very tricky at first, but make sure you don't cheat - either try it in front of a mirror or ask a friend to check for you. 

The result should be that after a couple of minutes of speaking with your tongue out, when you come to speak normally once more, you will have greater awareness of your tongue in your mouth, and you will be accessing higher frequencies as a result of loosening the back of your tongue. If you are new to this exercise, then do not expect the results to last all day - your tongue is a creature of habit and will try to retreat once more - it may even do so as soon as you swallow! Build the exercise into your daily routine to train a new habit. 

Another way to access these higher frequencies is to use 'twang'. If you already know to achieve this then go ahead and try it when flyering! If not, then it may be best to book a lesson with a voice coach to make sure you find the correct sound. 

  • Don't try to be louder by pushing too much breath out!

It's a common myth that more breath = a louder sound. This is not scientifically true - for more information, attend day course with Anne-Marie Speed and Ed Blake on Breathing, Support and Estill. The bare bones of it are that pushing more breath out means your teeny tiny vocal folds (in your larynx / voice box) have to work really hard to vibrate - and it's the vibrations which make the sound waves which travel to people's ears, not the breath!  Your vocal folds are really clever and they will help you to regulate the out-breath, so let them do what they're good at!

You can try to keep on top of this by making sure you're not engaging your abs and squeezing the air out whilst speaking / singing. Try to keep that area free from tension, so that it can work freely for you. 

  • Work with a Voice Coach

There are many other ways to keep your voice ticking over nicely and to make loud, safe sounds, yet most are best achieved through one-on-one voice work with a teacher.

Throughout the Fringe, Nicola Redman and I are offering pay-what-you-can voice coaching for anyone who feels they need/want it. If you'd like to know more, get in touch with one of us and we'll be happy to help! 

If you've left Edinburgh already but feel that voice lessons would be beneficial for you, then do still get in touch - I work privately in London, and Nicola is based in Manchester. We may also be able to recommend teachers elsewhere in the UK / the USA.

If your voice is HURTING:

The best thing for you is vocal restDon't push yourself to the limit as this might lead to bigger problems further down the line. This is easier said than done when you have performances to do, but if at all possible, please heed this advice. See my previous blog for further advice on looking after your voice.

Happy flyering!

6 ways to protect your voice during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is a wonderful experience for all involved, but it can leave the old voice a little exhausted, to say the least! What with all the performances, flyering, and (occasional) drinking, it's difficult not to strain. I've decided on my top 6 tips for keeping your voice safe so that you can enjoy the Fringe to the max.

1. Hydrate! 

Water takes 4 hours to reach your vocal folds once you've swallowed it, so make sure to drink way in advance of your show.

Tip: To hydrate your vocal folds even more effectively, try steaming. I recommend Dr Nelson's Inhaler, but a cheaper option is to steam over a bowl of boiled water (no menthol) with a towel over your head. Take care not to burn yourself!

2. Avoid dehydration

I won't tell you to avoid caffeine or alcohol, as this is unreasonable. However, (are you sensing a theme here..?) HYDRATE afterwards! This will help to offset all the dehydration that the coffee / wine will have caused. 

3. Warm down

We all know to warm up before a performance, but it's also vital to warm down, especially if your show involves high intensity vocalising, for example shouting / belting / screaming etc. You can warm down by: sirening down from high to low (your voice slides from the top of its range to the bottom on an 'ng' sound); counting from one to ten on vocal fry (creak - the popping noise made when your vocal folds are very slack and relaxed); and slowly working your way back to your normal speech register. 

This is important so that you don't push, vocally, whilst in the pub or walking home after a show. Think of it as the same as working out in the gym - you need to stretch and warm down afterwards. 

4. Sleep!

Your body is going through an awful lot at the Fringe, and adrenaline will play a huge part in your life on most days. Remember to rest as much as possible in order to say 'thank you' to your body for looking after you so well! 

Your voice is a part of your whole body, so if you feel physically de-energised then your vocal mechanism may try to work harder to overcompensate, resulting in potential difficulties further down the line.

5. Eat well

Another part of looking after your body is giving it the fuel it needs to help you perform. Eat a healthy, balanced diet as much as possible to help your body, and in turn, your voice.

Some people find that certain food groups affect them vocally. This is somewhat disputed in the voice world, so figure out what is true for you. I find that eating / drinking dairy products (especially chocolate) can result in a build-up of mucus, which can make vocalising less reliable. Citrus and spicy food can leave my pharynx (back of the throat area) feeling a little raw and tickly. Again, we are all unique so analyse your own vocal pattern after eating.

Tip: try not to eat just before bed, as this may cause acid reflux which affects your voice greatly.

6. Losing your voice? Use natural remedies!

If your voice is struggling, try natural remedies such as honey or non-medicated sweets. Cough sweets and medicines may cause more trouble, because they numb the pain and therefore we don't notice if we're pushing / hurting the voice further. Many cough sweets also dehydrate you and therefore leave you needing more and more. 

My go-to solutions are always honey and hot water, and steaming (mentioned earlier). If things get serious and you are really struggling to speak, then I would recommend complete voice rest.

Need more advice?

If you're experiencing any difficulties with your voice, or if you have any questions, please don't hesitate to get in touch and I'll be happy to help! 

I will also be up at the Edinburgh Fringe for the month, along with my good friend and fellow voice coach Nicola Redman. We are offering pay-what-you-can voice coaching for festival performers, meaning we'll accept anything from a pint / comps / a fiver / to our going rate of £50 per hour as payment for our expert services. All we ask is that you're honest and pay whatever you can afford. 

Our hashtag is #FestVoice and you can find us at:

@laurahuntvoice and @nicredmanvoice

Have a great festival, and see you up there!