The Vault

Voice For The Actor

By Carol Gill Malik


I was struck by a simple incident that occurred a few days ago on a London bus. A large, comfy Jamaican woman stepped onto the bus, and seeing a good friend of her's sitting at the back, her face lit up with joy. She flung her arms above her head in a warm gesture of greeting, and called out in a good ringing voice to her friend, "Mavis!"

The moment was noticeable because it was large and loud. Apart from that you might think nothing of it. There is nothing particularly out of the ordinary in this scene. However, it was more that just loud to me, for in that spontaneous moment of joyful greeting, she did not lose her poise. Her broad back was the author of her joy, her arms and her voice. It was simply delightful to witness. This Jamaican woman shall serve as the illustration for my talk, in which I shall focus on the vocal needs of the actor, with particular attention to the problem of vocal entanglement.

For the purposes of explanation I shall divide the reasons why the voice gets entangled into two broad categories:

1. Physical. The internal co-ordination that produces the voice is lacking in some way.

2. Emotional. When there is a demand to express heightened emotion, the co-ordination that produces the voice fails to support it.

These two are, of course, inextricably bound together in a person, but for the actor there are two stages to working on the voice. The first step is to understand how to simply use the voice well. How the voice is supported, and the mechanics of it all-I do not mean to imply that good mechanics can be achieved without expressing anything. for this would be a big mistake.

The second step is to continue using those good mechanics, even in the throws of passion. As a rule, it is taboo in civilised societies to express oneself in emotional extremes, whereas the actor is given licence to do so for the purposes of art. Apart from good management of speech-which is governed by the language centre of the brain and which is all we real1y use the voice for in our everyday lives-the actor must learn to reconnect the voice-the non-verbal, non-intellectual-to the whole person again. It was connected as a small baby. Babies can express basic needs of hunger and frustration, and so on, in full throat without any damage to their voice whatsoever. The actor must acquire athletic strength and know how to be able to meet the extreme emotional demands without harm to the voice. Keep in mind King Lear carrying the dead Cordelia in his arms and crying five times a long and agonised, "Howl"!

As Alexander teachers, we are very aware of the benefits the Alexander Technique can bring to the individual, especially one who needs to use their voice in any way. It is Alexander's story. To discover that our breath is supported by the same mechanism that supports our uprightness, and that our breathing is in fact part of that 'uprighting' support, serves the actor in the discovery of the voice very well—how the voice is largely supported by the back, as the Jamaican woman demonstrated so admirably.

In practice, however, communication is an intriguing and delicate balance between internal and external factors, and an harmonious co-ordination between the intellect, and the non-verbal, non-intellectual minds within a person. Functions of perception and projection combine, in that moment when an idea, a thought, begs to be expressed. Peter Brook says it begins with a 'flicker.' The flicker is sparked by something in the environment, and is picked up by the internal systems. The systems through which the flicker works its way to overt expression, must be prepared to express not only that flicker, but all possible flickers. The body, the face, the voice, must all be possessed by the flicker and be prepared to express its meaning. In fact, one's capacity for expression may well be determined by the whether the flicker will originate in the first place. For the actor, the external and the internal form a true system, in which capacity of each affects the other. For our Jamaican lady, the flicker was sparked by seeing her friend.

It is useful to keep in mind therefore, that the voice is part of a whole communication activity. We are actually drawing on three non-verbal, non-intellectual minds simultaneously: the mind of the voice—as distinct form the language; the mind of the emotions; and the mind of the body. In his book, Performing Power, H. Wesley Balk refers to these as the vocal/hearing mode, the facial/emotional mode and the kinesthetic mode. He has observed in his work with singers and actors, that it is usual for one of these modes to dominate habitually, whether it is appropriate or not. When it all works well, even though one or another of these may be leading the moment, all are engaged constructively. Hark back to the ebullient Jamaican lady on the bus.

Alexander's whispered 'aah' had these things in mind. And it is such an exercise that can lead one towards managing the more demanding vocal excursions—for the saying of whispered 'aah,' it is intended that the vocal supports all get into gear. Usually, at the start of one's vocal endeavours, none of them are in gear since they are not recognised! So what do I mean by the supports?

Firstly, I mean the support of lengthening in stature, for as you allow the in-breath, you lengthen and widen, and during the out-breath, you continue to lengthen and widen, engaging the support scaffolding for uprightness—which supports the breath and the voice. This is a key point. The out-breath can pull one down and close one together. The downward pull must be inhibited on the out breath if lengthening and support are to occur.

Secondly, I mean the support of the content—Alexander's 'funny idea' which engages not only the vocal muscles in an appropriate way, but also the inner systems which become ready for expression of other ideas.

It takes time and patience to progress from the joyful whisper, to the agonised 'Howl' of Lear. There are many steps to the journey, and usually quite a few strong habits to undo. Nevertheless, the same openness is needed, not only for the protection of the voice at such moments, but also for the truthfulness in the expression. The actor learns to find support in those very places which so easily cause entanglement!

The Alexander Technique give us the opportunity to find the true co-ordination of breathing in an indirect way: following the means whereby; inhibiting the unwanted; and directing for an improvement in the whole.

We find fault with the Voice teacher, who falls into the trap of end-gaining for the mechanics to be right. It is often the cause of much unwanted effort, and eventual strain. On the other hand, it is important for us to keep in view the complexity of the challenge facing the actor. The Voice teacher criticise us for taking away the vitality in people. I'm sure we would all say, "No, no! It is not what we intend. After all the Alexander Technique is about breathing! Breathing brings vitality. The kind of vitality that makes the job easy!" Like the Jamaican woman, who stepped onto the bus.


1. Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self, Gollancz, London (1985)
2. McCallion, Michael, The Voice Book for Actors, Public Speakers and Everyone Else Who Wants to Make the Most of their Voice, Faber and Faber, London (1988)
3. Balk, H. Wesley H., The Radiant Performer: The Spiral to Performing Power, University of Minnesota, USA (1991)
4. Husler, Frederick and Marling, Yvonne Rodd, Singing: The Physical Nature of the Vocal Organ, Faber and Faber, London (1965)


Carol Gill graduated from the New College of Speech and Drama, London as a Voice and Speech teacher in 1973, and from the Alexander Technique Training Centre, Devon, England as an Alexander teacher in 1984. As a Voice teacher, she taught at various theatre schools in both London and Berkeley in California.

She was Head of the Voice Department at The Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama.

After graduating as an Alexander teacher, she moved to San Francisco, where she worked with various theatre and dance groups, including solo performers. Since moving to Providence, Rhode Island in 1990, she has been on the faculty of the Alexander Institute of Boston, an Alexander training School. She currently teaches Voice and Alexander in both Boston and Providence, whilst also maintaining a position as Voice Teacher for the Trinity Repertory Conservatory of Providence, Rhode Island.

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