By the time I walk up the flight of stairs and into the room I’m working to shake the uncomfortable feeling that I’m late and the built-up frustration over finding the place in the first place. I unzip my favourite short, red boots and leave them at the door and walk into the room, glancing around as I take off my raincoat and hang it up. I see a slim man sitting yogi-like on a square brown cushion, his back against the wall, and he looks so at home that I wonder if he’s an assistant. I have no idea what to expect with this weekend voice intensive and I have more than a bit of resistance and fear.
I just lied. I do have some idea of what to expect, and that’s exactly why I have some resistance and fear. I’ve taken more than my share of voice classes, and by this I don’t mean singing classes. Although voice work benefits singers and complements their practice, let’s be very clear – this is NOT a singing lesson. I mean voice work as in finding your natural, true and honest voice in all its powerful, resonant magnificence and vulnerability, whether through song or spoken word. It’s the ‘powerful’ and ‘vulnerable’ part that creates the spark of fear and resistance within me. And also because I don’t yet know how ‘safe’ this room will be for the exploration that is to come. I’m taking steps into the unknown.
A man strides towards me, holds out his hand and looks me in the eye, “Hello, I’m Noah. Welcome.”
“I’m Terri,” I smile back. I recognize Noah Drew from his picture on his website and feel a bit of the fear slip away. I look at the others gathering in the room, and am comforted by the same look of unknowing on their faces – we are in this together. This eclectic little group of us, four women and three men, plus Noah and his assistant, Melinda, who is a kind looking woman slightly older than I am, NOT the cushion sitting yogi man as it turns out.
Noah’s website says, “Fitzmaurice Voicework is a highly physical approach to vocal training, that helps you communicate your thoughts, intentions, and feelings, with a free, flexible, and potent voice. The work combines classical voice training with adaptations of yoga, shiatsu, Reichian bodywork and other body-based meditative practices. It aims to increase freedom of breath, resonance, power, spontaneity and emotional connection – the full range of humanity that can be expressed in the voice.
The Destructuring phase of the work involves freeing body and breath from chronic tensions and “programmed” patterns, to allow deep spontaneity and presence. In restructuring, we channel the wild impulsivity stirred up by the Destructuring into an open, healthy, supported voice.”
I’m always fumble-mouthed when it comes to describing to others what it is we do in voice classes. My non-actor friends always assume I’m learning to sing. I wonder, would I notice that I needed voice class if I weren’t an actor? For me, the scene study and character study work that I do as an actress is what points the way to the inner Self work that I am called to do. I don’t want any of “my” problems, tensions, blocks to get in the way of telling the truth of the story, in honouring the playwright’s words. I need to get out my own way to let the truth come forth through my body and my voice. And sometimes that means doing some heavy excavation work.
I’m playing Theresa in a scene from Shelagh Stevenson’s “Memory of Water”, a play with high-stakes, high energy and intense emotion and I can feel the front of my throat constricting at the height of the scene. Instead of the beautiful potency of the emotions coming through, my voice is instead coloured with a shrill crawing, closing out any of the soft, underbelly tones of vulnerability.
I allow myself a moment of frustration, but only a moment. What before might have derailed me for months, now guides me to my next task; more and regular voice work. Through years of inner work I’ve learned that an expression of powerful intense emotions, especially anger, causes a constriction in my throat. The ‘flight or fight’ response kicking in. After many years living with an emotionally abusive and unavailable husband, I learned that strong emotions are never to be expressed. They were the sign of a very unstable individual, namely me. Despite the years of inner emotional and spiritual work I’ve done, my body still re-members. My body is telling me that I now need to do some physical ‘destructuring’ and ‘restructuring’ – to learn another way of being. A more balanced and truer way of being.
So I say thank you to my throat for protecting me for so long, but it’s safe to let go now. You can rest. I spend the rest of the weekend surrounded by the courage and compassion of our little group of intrepid voice explorers as we each work to free the electrifying honesty of our voices. We lie on mats stretching and moving and voicing all manner and shape of sounds. Bringing breath to parts of our body that have long been starved of oxygen. Here, in this small studio there are no ‘ugly’ or weird sounds. We move about the room voicing and babbling and sometimes bringing forth our chosen song or monologue. Seeing, hearing, breathing, exploring.
It’s the last exercise on the last day and once more the fear begins to slowly spread tentacles throughout my diaphram, threatening to squeeze my breath up into my chest. A boa constrictor wrapping his way up to my throat. We are sitting comfortably on the floor, some on cushions, some stretching out on yoga mats. I take my water bottle and notebook and set my meditation cushion against the wall beside Steven my brave new yogi sitting friend. I need to feel the support of the wall behind my back as Noah describes how to approach our last performance. We each have fifteen minutes to explore the stage area. We are in complete control right down to ordering our fellow class members to not pay attention to us if that’s what we want. We choose when to be the intrepid voice explorer, listen to our bodies and step onto the stage when we feel the electric impulse to move.
I wait until there are only two more of us remain, moving before the fear can paralyze my muscles. When I am performing in a play or on set acting in a film or TV series, I might have a flutter of butterflies flittering through my body but I never feel fear. This, however, is entirely different flock of flying creatures because I can’t hide behind a character.
“No one pay attention to Terri!” Noah calls out as I unfold from my cushion and walk to the middle of the stage area. I walk slowly and turn around to look at the bowed heads of rest of my classmates. A couple are writing quietly in notebooks, several more rest their heads on their arms. No one is looking at me. I turn my back to them and breath deeply down into my belly, swinging my arms and jumping softly up and down. I glance back at my still inattentive audience and am amazed at how relaxed and free I feel.
I stand facing them, close my eyes and start voicing, gliding up and down, becoming a roller coaster starting deep in my abdomen and soaring up to the roof of my soft palate. I close my mouth and hum, imagining the sound vibrating behind my eyes, out the back and top of my head, the back of my throat, filling the satellite dish behind me and bouncing back out to the front of the room. I play with a few lines of my monologue.
“Who can find peace in such extreme times
Ah, wretched man! Would I had died a maid”
“I want Gordon to pay attention to me.” I demand, and smile back at Gordon as he raises his head to watch me. I notice a frisson of heightened excitement in my chest and bounce on my toes and shake my hands to let the feeling run through me rather than get stuck. I try a few more lines.
“Ah, wretched man! Would I had died a maid
And never seen thee, never borne thee a son”
Before I know it I’ve spent fifteen minutes playing with my voice, my body and with the attention of my audience. I have just the men pay attention, then just the women, sometimes all of them and sometimes none of them. I ask them to see my heart, to find something in me to love, to find a piece of joy in me. I crouch and whisper, I stand back and become loud. My throat opens to allow the anger and love of Shakespeare’s Margaret to stream out. I feel completely relaxed and at home.
“Can I work with you?” Noah asks, and with my happy “yes” he offers me small suggestions. He brings my attention to when I lean forward at the waist for emphasis, which causes my voice to constrict, then to the slight forward thrust of my chin.
“You are the Queen, make them come to you,” he advises.
I move to the far back of the room and begin again, moving my hand to the base of my head to remind myself to keep pulled up and not thrust out.
“Who can be patient in such extremes?
Ah, wretched man! Would I had died a maid
And never seen thee, never borne thee a son,
Seeing thou hast proved so unnatural a father
Hath he deserved to lose his birthright thus?
Hadst thou but loved him half so well as I,
Or felt that pain which I did for him once,
Or nourish’d him as I did with my blood,
Thou wouldst have left thy dearest heart-blood there,
Rather than have that savage duke thine heir
And disinherited thine only son.”
I have no problem finding the breath for Shakespeare’s long stanzas, in fact I don’t even think about it, it just happens naturally. I can feel my voice vibrating in my eyes and my throat remains open and relaxed right to the end of the angry, emotional speech.
“Wow,” Noah says simply, “what a powerful voice.”
I can feel the power of the vocal vibrations throughout my entire body as I performed my monologue. It feels like release and complete freedom. Release and freedom from that internal, oftentimes unconscious, internal Judge that constantly passes sentence on every word that comes out of my mouth.
This is what voice work does for me. It offers liberation from a lifetime of constriction and brings breath to parts of my body that have been long starved of oxygen. It loosens and dissolves the mask of protection that has become so a part of me that I’m not even aware of its tight restrictions until it’s gone. It allows my truth to be spoken without impediment. It offers a path to awareness and healing.