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  • Writer's pictureActors Academy Finland

Thoughts on Free Voice by Ben Joiner

Updated: Nov 5, 2019

People often ask me what I do in my capacity as a voice coach. A typical conversation can often go like this:

Person A: “So…what is that you do?”

Me: “I’m a voice coach”

Person A: “What, like singing?”

Me: “No, for actors and public speakers”

Person A: “Oh right, you mean projection”

At this point I like to go in to a bit more detail. Yes, the end result of a free voice is that there is a projection of sorts across the space to the listener. But what is being “projected”? Is there something more important being shared than just volume and clarity. The story is much more nuanced than that.

When we are born our voices respond instinctually to our need for survival. Food, shelter, care, comfort. In a healthy care-giving relationship the child’s first cries are met with these needs being provided. The child’s nervous system then learns very early on that uncensored vocal expression of emotion will keep them alive.

This pattern remains undisturbed in the early months of life. It is a finely organised system sending impulses from the brain to the body, breathing mechanism and vocal anatomy. If there are no ability differences, the voice works perfectly to express the inner needs of the child and keeps them alive.

Move forwards to two years plus and the story begins to change. The behaviour starts to be suppressed. A dropped ice cream, a delighted scream in a library, a noisy request for food is met with…”Shh, you should hold on more tightly”, “be quiet in here” and “don’t speak to me in that voice…ask nicely”.

“Ask nicely” What does that mean for the voice? It means a secondary social response overrides a primary impulse of survival. The breath doesn’t need to drop in so deep so the breathing mechanism is shallower as there is less demand on the ribs and diaphragm,. The emotional impulse is diverted upwards into the upper chest. A smile of appeasement is more effective than an open throated cry. The throat, jaw, tongue and face now present a social posture that inhibits the voice as he/she/they learns to appeal to the care-giver in a more ‘appropriate way’.

This secondary impulse continues to take precedent for many years in various forms until often the speaker doesn’t even recognise their own primary needs anymore. At best, they learn to speak about their feelings but not reveal them. Eventually the voice loses its potency and the kaleidoscope of vocal/emotional colours are submerged under layers social, cultural and environmental conditioning.

My job as a voice coach involves providing people with experiences and techniques to help rediscover the natural freedom of their voices. The work is both deeply personal and practical. When new freedoms emerge in the voice an actor re-discovers their birthright, which is a voice that reveals the full spectrum of human emotion over a two to three octave range. This is more than vocal dynamics. A person is heard not just the voice.

It takes time to unhook oneself from habits that do not serve the fully expressive human/actor/being. Through a carefully considered selection of exercises, personal work, imaginations, play and improvisations… a deeply human voice emerges.

The areas of focus can be broken down into identifiable areas that include Physical Awareness, Voice, Resonance, Range, Articulation and Text. These are the standard subheadings for most voice practitioners working in western theatre. While these terms could be used to describe pure vocal dynamics, what’s important is that something real is underpinning these elements. Is a person’s speech filled with noise but empty of genuine human content or is it the channel through which the entire range of human experience can be revealed? Something on the inside must be felt on the outside for it to have meaning and impact.

The word ‘audio’ has the same latin root as ‘audience’. People used to speak about going to hear a play rather than watch. It’s my belief that an actor must understand themselves, their instrument, and the needs of the character so intimately that they can vibrate with a charge that affects the other actor and resonates in the audience also. This is more than projection, it is connection.

Constance from Shakespeare’s play King John puts in quite well:

“O, that my tongue were in the thunder's mouth! Then with a passion would I shake the world;”

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