Why Voice Actors Need Strong Physicality
Voice actors need strong physicality. In the performing arts world when we talk about voice there can be a tendency among the uninitiated to focus on two things: your mouth and your throat. After all the mouth is used to shape the words and the sounds are made by your vocal cords. So, what relevance does the rest of your body have to the sound of your voice?
A lot. An awful lot. It’s true that the squeak made by the folds of your vocal cords originates in your larynx, which is barricaded behind your Adam’s apple. It’s also true that you use the articulators of your mouth (tongue tip, tongue blade, tongue root, teeth, hard palate, soft palate, lips) to create intelligible words. But where does the actual tone of your voice come from?
Well, from your body of course!
Basically speaking, the shape of the cavities of your skull amplifies the sounds made by your vocal cords. They help to shape the resonance and cadence of your voice. As these cavities are unique to you, they confer on your voice a unique sound. You are also helped by the vibrating cavities in your chest and back. Next time you hear an aficionado of Musical Theatre lamenting/celebrating the prevalence of “chest voice’ in the West End today you know now what they are talking about. “Chest voice” means that the singer is concentrating the resonant effect of their singing in the cavities of the chest.
You now also know what “head voice” means.
Does this mean that the strength and condition of your body can influence the quality and power of your voice? To put it bluntly, yes. Yes, it really does. Everything you do physically affects your voice. From the way you stand to the way you sit. From aches and pains in your knees to stiffness in your shoulders. The way you breathe has a massive impact on how your voice sounds. The irony of all this is because voice actors need strong physicality to make the voice work to best of its capability you need to take care of all the parts of your body that are not your voice.
Patience and good teachers pay off
When I started at Drama School in 2001, I thought I was a pretty good voice user. I had spent two years at college doing a couple of shows a month and had had some singing lessons when I was 17. I’d sung on stage dozens of times in musicals and with bands and I’d done open-air Shakespeare. “Voice work is going to be the least of my problems” I confidently thought.
When it comes to the science of voice use, natural talent can only get you so far. I had figured out how to speak resonantly and had even got my voice “up into my head” when singing. Unfortunately, I had anchored the support for my voice in my neck and shoulders. This was not only bad for making best use of my range but was storing up stressors that would eventually cause lasting damage to my voice.
For someone aspiring to an actor’s life this was not a sustainable situation. It was just as well I decided to go to to Arts Educational Schools, London.
One of the reasons why you go to Drama School for three years is that you usually need to be vocally and physically unmade so to speak before you can be built back up again. Broadly the three years break down like this:
Eliminate all the student’s bad habits and return them to physical and emotional balance.
Rebuild the student’s skill set and imbue them with the sort of good habits that will last a lifetime of performing at the highest level.
Give the student as many opportunities as possible to show off their newly trained brilliance to the industry.
With hard work and guidance I discovered my vocal potential
I spent most of Year One feeling like I was perpetually going backwards. It was frustrating to find myself unable to sing as I had done before. For quite a few months I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t improving.
My wise and experienced teachers knew what they were doing though. They gradually removed my dependence on neck and shoulder tension to support my voice. In its place they built up a powerful support framework based around my diaphragm and core muscles.
Key to this process was a lot of physical exercise and training. Hours spent in dance studios doing everything from Ballet to Capoeira. Working so hard and so long that watching the sweat dripping off your nose into a puddle on the floor was a common activity even in winter.
Little by little we all improved. I learnt that the stronger and more flexible my body became, the better I could control my voice. I came to realise that my instrument isn’t the larynx in my throat. My instrument is my whole body!
Good training never leaves you
Nowadays, whether I am performing A Christmas Carol onstage or recording an audiobook at Flying Pickle Studio, I still take a whole-body approach to performing. Because voice actors need strong physicality and to maintain that, on days when I have no stage performance to provide a good workout, I need to add appropriate physical activity to my day. There’s no better activity I’ve found for this purpose than yoga. With just your own weight and a mat you can exercise every part of your body and take care of your heart-health too.
My Yoga of choice is DDP Yoga. I get to work with one of my wrestling heroes (spot the Monday Night War geek) and the effect it has on the quality and stamina of my voice is marked. I train three times a week for a minimum of 25 minutes per session. So, whether on stage or in a recording booth, my voice and the body that powers it is always strong enough to go the distance.