Voice Coaching

Written in the Body


When I was completing my master’s degree, my advisor told me that her wish for me going forward was “that you spend time every day just being in your body.” She had noticed my habit of intellectualizing voice work. I believe this can be a strength for a coach: investigating the structure of languages and researching the meanings of words. I value the clear articulation of complex thoughts through the spoken word.

But the human voice is bodily process, a physical action. I do now spend time every day being in my body, and I seek new ways of developing and honouring this physical side of voice and text work.

Recently, I had an opportunity to work with Deaf artists on Shakespeare text. This extraordinary group of performers challenged my traditional approaches to text work, executing exercises in ways that were completely different from what I’d experienced before, adding new meaning and resonance to the texts. As I perceived through interpreters, the signed languages were communicating something far beyond a literal meaning. And this turned my phonocentric exercises - used by hearing actors to uncover layers of deeper meanings - into something of a game of catch-up.

My sense is that ASL expresses, through the body, not only poetic structures, grammar, and images, but even metaphor, temporal aspects, or emotional states. Of course this is particularly exciting in Shakespeare performance, which is always a process of interpretation – there is no objective ‘Hamlet’.

For me, it’s also a fitting reminder that words and ideas don’t reside solely in the brain. I have often thought of words being physical: muscular and filled with kinetic energy. But it’s also true that our bodies are linguistic. Now I find myself circling back to hear my mentor’s voice, “be in your body”. So maybe that’s my homework: investigating the structure and meaning and signs in the language of the body.







The Words We Use Matter.

Today I listened to an interview with a woman who is a researcher at a respected Canadian university.  The topic was the reporting of terrorist attacks.  Her assertion was that words matter – that the words chosen by reporters can define as well as describe the event, and therefore affect public reaction and political response.

She was an intelligent woman and she made strong points.  But it was her own use of words that struck me.  She frequently used “fillers” -- the umms and uhhhs, those little habitual placeholders we throw in while organizing our thoughts.  “Y’know” was a biggie, but the one that really got me was “sort of”.  It got me partly because she used it a lot, but more in her particular placement of it.  

Each time she made a strong assertion, she preceded the strongest or most definitive word with “sort of”:

“…an act is terrorism if it, sort of, clearly provokes terror and fear…”

“The, sort of, actual risks…we’ve all seen those charts that show the, sort of, actual statistical probability of dying in a terrorist attack…”

“…in the, sort of, immediate coverage…”

 “The recent shooting was…a typical example of the, sort of, folly of, y’know, hasty and careless reporting…”

How is something done “sort of” clearly?  Can statistics be “sort of” actual ?

I want to be clear: I do not mean to ridicule her or diminish her arguments in any way.  They were rigorous, observant, well constructed and backed up with good evidence.  She was articulate and well educated, clearly an expert in her field.  Yet when she spoke, she undermined her status.  Her “sort of”s served as apologies for her statements.  Ever so subtly – maybe subconsciously – she was ensuring that what she said wouldn’t make her appear too strong, too assertive.
Of course men use fillers when they speak as well, but in my experience they generally place them in between thoughts: “So, y’know, the point I’m making is…” and so on.  Once the thought has been formulated in the brain, it’s spoken without being subverted or undermined along the way.

So is this another form of “don’t speak up too much or too often”?  “You don’t want to come across as a strident, opinionated harpy”?  Do we need another hashtag, #TalkLikeAWoman, to go with #DressLikeAWoman?  Because I’m not crazy about #IAmSortOfAStrongConfidentWoman, or #IAmSortOfAnExpertInMyField.  When women own it, as they very much and very often do, I want to hear them own it.  Full stop.

The famous voice teacher Patsy Rodenburg says, “we have to stand by what we say”.  It’s a big thing to do, to commit fully to the words we utter and the ideas carried through them.  It’s not always easy.  But we are living in adventurous times and, as uncomfortable as it is to put ourselves on the line, our lives may get much more uncomfortable if we don’t.



Burned Out On The Fry

Who isn’t talking about vocal fry these days? Google will give you 509,000 responses in .28 seconds and they come from journalists, speech therapists, actors, job coaches, physicians, singers, politicians…

In a Guardian newspaper article, Naomi Wolf called on young women to “give up the vocal fry and reclaim your strong female voice”: 


A response to that article accused Wolf of “missing the point”. Complaining about vocal fry, says Erin Riley, is just another excuse not to listen to women:


In some ways I agree with both points of view. It seems (anecdotally, at least) that we are often more critical of women’s voices than men’s. Traditional authority figures still, in 2016, try to discount the voices of young women in particular. However, standing up for the right to be heard also means resisting pressure to conform to a popular sound which could damage your voice. I hope that women, especially young women, can be true to themselves -- expressing themselves with authenticity, and saving and cherishing their precious voices. Our voices are the means with which we tell the world who we are.

This debate came up for me again in a recent visit to a Women’s Studies class at Vancouver Island University.

The students expressed differing points of view, and some admitted they had not previously been aware of vocal fry, or had never carefully considered their own voices. By the end of the discussion, they were excited to continue reflecting on these questions, and inspired by the possibility of harnessing the power of their authentic voices in their careers and their personal lives.

That Was Then, This Is Now

Here's a photo I found in a old file folder, taken when I was coaching ‘Romeo & Juliet’ at the Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival in 2007.

Here's a photo I found in a old file folder, taken when I was coaching ‘Romeo & Juliet’ at the Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival in 2007.

...and here's another one, taken recently by the genius Mark Halliday, during rehearsals at Bard on the Beach again this summer.

...and here's another one, taken recently by the genius Mark Halliday, during rehearsals at Bard on the Beach again this summer.

These pictures track a decade of my coaching life.  I'm now bespectacled, goofier, and apparently still unable to speak without the hand.