What is Voice Work About?

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“There is no index of character so sure as the voice.” — Benjamin Disraeli

A lot of times when students approach us about wanting to work on their voices, it’s because they don’t like the sound of their voice. And that’s fair. We as a society have aesthetics surrounding what kind of voices we like to hear just as much as we do about body shape, facial features, hair style, etc.

Because of these aesthetics, many people think that our role as voice coaches, whether we work with actors or with professionals in other contexts, is to help people cultivate a beautiful voice. But that is actually no so much what I am interested in.

As a voice coach, I’m much more interested in exploring: is your voice connected to what you’re saying? Connected to your message? In the same way that you would want your body language to match your message. Whether that message is a pitch to client, or  you’re playing a character and speaking somebody else’s words, or whether you’re talking with friends at a pub. I find this to be a much more constructive way to work with people on their voices than by aiming to help them find a ‘beautiful’ voice. For one thing, if the voice is connected to the message, then it’s more likely that the sound is being produced in a healthy way. That connection is physical as well as vocal, because your voice is created by muscular actions that happen in your body. Vocal connection means that your breath support muscles are working efficiently, sending up just the right amount of air through your vocal folds. Healthier breathing means more of your body can resonate as you speak—- so when your voice is connected to your message, you are allowing your message to literally resonate within you.

There is good news for those of you who would like to improve the sound of your voice: aiming for a healthy, connected sound does objectively improve the sound of your voice to others. But that improvement will come from a more authentic place—- it will come from you simply expressing yourself, as opposed to you trying to sound a specific way.

Can you think of moments in your life where you’ve been truly physically and vocally connected to what you were saying? Where your body language and voice were unified with  your thoughts and intentions? How did that feel? When were those moments? We would love to hear about them– please feel free to send us an email or share in the comments below. Your stories could be great inspiration for others!

Take good care,

Christine

 

 

Training the (Inner) Voice

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In our work as voice and communication skills coaches, Lindsay and I generally work with students on ‘delivery’. That is, how the message (whether that be a play, a story, or a presentation) is being delivered physically and vocally. Key questions we consider are: how can students find open body language? How can they find healthy, full voices that are connected to their message? We spend a lot of time looking at external communication as a means for expressing the internal life of the communicator clearly and engagingly.

So you may be asking yourself why we’ve spent so much time in the last few written blog posts talking less about external communication and more about the inner voice— specifically through the lens of exploring ‘mantras’, or affirmative statements— either through simply thinking them internally or speaking them out loud (and proud!). Well, here’s why: the more I work with students on elements of their external communication, like body language and voice, the more I realize how much the habits we develop around the way use our voices and bodies to communicate have to do with how we talk to ourselves— or the ‘inner’ voice. So while the body, voice and inner voice can be worked on separately, they are intricately connected and sometimes it is worth considering them more holistically.

We are not psychologists and we don’t claim to be. Our work on the inner voice is not about psychological catharsis or healing (although if that is a byproduct— great!). Rather, our work is about acknowledging that the inner voice is a powerful tool for communication. If we ignore our inner voice, it makes it difficult to connect physically and vocally to our message— because we don’t actually know what we think or feel about it! But as with anything else, the inner voice can get into unhealthy habits in terms of how it communicates with us, which can have an impact on our physical and vocal communication. It’s hard to have open body language and speak loud enough for people to hear you when your inner voice is telling you you aren’t worthy of being heard, or you don’t deserve to be in the room.

So we here at BeSpoke Communication humbly believe that if you’re really serious about working on your voice and body language in communication, part of that journey will at some point be benefitted by training your inner voice, or working on your self-talk. Personally, I have found adopting daily, weekly or monthly mantras an excellent way of beginning to train my own (quite unruly, rebellious, obsessive and sometimes rude) inner voice. I started really getting serious about this process back in January during the 30 Day Yoga Challenge we’ve mentioned several times. Similar to training the spoken voice, I’m finding that training the inner voice takes discipline and practice, but it’s worth the time in terms of the rewards it brings.  Here is a story about a discovery I made while  working actively to train my inner voice that has strengthened my confidence in my communication.

On Day 30 of the 30 Day Yoga Challenge, the task was to choose your own mantra. I picked ‘I choose to enjoy.’ I had struggled with getting into the mantras for the first 15 days, but half-way through, I really started to get into it. In fact, it was after the afore-mentioned breakthrough in our blog post about presence that I began to realize the powerful benefits that can come from taking some control over my self-talk. So by the time I got to Day 30 and I was asked to pick my own mantra, I was ready to go! I choose to enjoy!!

There was a big surprise about how the video was structured on Day 30, which I won’t ruin for those of you who want to do the challenge, but at the time I didn’t enjoy the surprise. At all. In fact, I found it deeply unsettling. I kept trying to keep up with the practice in the video, really not liking what was happening, with my inner voice slowly sinking into a negative diatribe about how ironic it was that I had chosen the mantra ‘I choose to enjoy’ on a day when I was so not enjoying myself. At some point, I moved into a Runner’s stretch. The opening in my hip allowed my breath to open and my inner voice suddenly said clearly: ‘This practice is difficult but I am enjoying this moment.’

That was my way into my mantra. I might not enjoy the surprise, or that day’s practice overall, but I could commit to finding moments within it that I did enjoy. Having the mantra helped me actively look for those moments, rather than totally shutting down or turning negative— which would have had a real impact on my ability to move, open up, and breathe. The experience I was having with the yoga practice, instead of turning negative, suddenly became a positive challenge: where could I look for moments of enjoyment, even in an experience I was finding difficult?

What if we all approached life this way, not just yoga? More specifically, what if we approached our communication in this way? So many of us find speaking in public (whether as ourselves or as a character) a difficult experience. I have found that training my inner-voice with mantras has helped me cultivate a habit of more positive self-talk in general, but also in communication contexts. This has benefited my external communication—- because my body is more willing to open up and I’m more willing to breathe deeply and send my voice to others when I’m speaking–directly because of the more positive way I’m talking and and relating to myself. Even if that moment of communication is difficult.

What do you think? Does this all sound too new-age-y to you? Or have you been doing this for years? Mantras are just one way into self-talk. Have you found another way that works for you? We would love to hear about it.

Christine

Putting your Mouth where your Mind is…

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Photo courtesy of Little Voice, one inspiration for this post…

In Christine’s most recent blog post she explores the many conundrums and complications associated with presence—what it means to “be” present and how we might feel our own presence, or lack of it. We talk about this a lot, which probably isn’t a surprise and we worked through the Yoga With Adriene 30 Day Yoga Challenge at the same time. Like Christine, I found the mantras challenging. As a person who believes in self-talk and its positive impact AND a voice teacher who is always encouraging people to make and explore sound, it flabbergasted me that early on I often felt so…embarrassed speaking the mantras out loud. Over the 30 days I discovered Adriene’s brilliance in gently challenging my division of mind and voice, in my yoga practice and outside of it.

Finding freedom of expression and feeling is a holistic body/mind process. Yoga poses expand and challenge our bodies creating moments of surrender, stretch, release and any number of sensations. Our mind is challenged to remain focused and explore every corner of the experience. There are moments of feeling wonderfully receptive and moments of disconnection, frustration, and discomfort. Rarely though, do we voice any of these feelings. Especially in a public class! Working through an adjustment with a teacher might lead to a terse exchange and a smile when things are shifted into place, but I’ve never seen a person grounded in a warrior one pose suddenly say “I am strong” or a pensive hero pose yield the statement “I love myself.” And that’s fine. We could get into a whole discussion of the roots of yoga and curtailing ego, which would be valid and interesting. Today though I want to suggest there are benefits to voicing mantras in home yoga practice and daily life, so long as the space feels safe for you.

Most of the time social conditioning implores us to maintain a state of neutrality in public/professional situations that might vacillate from chipper to mildly disgruntled, but never reveals too much of the emotional spectrum. The mindset might be that expressing our sorrows makes people uncomfortable and being too happy is just obnoxious. Emotional honesty and its expression are not part of day-to-day public life. Which is fair enough, it’s often easier to say “I’m ok a bit tired” rather than launching into a diatribe on your latest existential crises at work. But what does that do to us? Would it be so bad to use the body/mind to voice some honesty to your me, myself and I (Beyoncé throwback there)? Mantras provide an avenue for celebrating, strengthening, and acknowledging ourselves. Self voicing self, for self.

The term “Mantra” has many meanings and applications and in the yoga challenge took on a meditative, celebratory role. As I learned to get over my sheepishness I began to enjoy the feeling of my voice rising with the breath out of a pose, allowing myself to enjoy fully expressing an aspect of me. I’ve begun using mantras in other ways too, sometimes just as a rallying point on a challenging day: “Today is difficult but I am strong and capable.” There’s a palpable relief for me in making an honest statement to myself in a bathroom mirror or on a yoga mat. My mouth is physicalizing the mind, and often that external manifestation gives me some perspective: I can feel joyful, proud, or realize I need to let go. If on occasion I appear to be an eccentric talking to myself, so be it.

I hope this will encourage you to try some mantras in a context that appeals to you, please let us know how it goes!

A final thought…

“I’ve always felt that the quality of the voice is where the real content of a song lies. Words only suggest an experience, but the voice is that experience.”

-Jeff Buckley

With Love,

Lindsay and Christine

 

 

To Be or Not to Be: What is Presence?

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Presence. Everyone seems to be talking about this word at the moment. As Lindsay astutely observed in our first blog post, Mindfulness is ‘so hot right now’, and presence is a key principle in Mindfulness. I have taught several communication workshops lately where I’ve stated from the beginning that ‘presence’ was going to be the theme, and no one ever questions it. I guess being present with oneself and with others seems like a logical concept to consider when working on one’s communication— in fact it is a concept that is mentioned all over the place on this website.

But what is it? What does it mean to be present? How can it turn from a hot buzzword into something we can embody or be? What can we do to be present, or is presence simply being? As Kurt Vonnegut wisely said: “I’m a human being, not a human doing.”

I have struggled with being present my entire life. To me it seemed like this ethereal, mysterious thing that I was always in pursuit of and could never quite find. I cultivated my talent for not being present from an early age— I was a highly imaginative child and loved to let my mind wander anywhere other than the present moment. There isn’t anything necessarily wrong with that, but as I grew up and the demands of life increased, that talent for my mind wandering became increasingly more about worrying about the past or planning for/thinking about/worrying about the future, rather than being in the current moment I was in.

When I began studying to be an actor, my acting teachers at various points in my training picked up on my talent for not being present. A big part of acting training is learning how to listen to your impulses from moment to moment. But I was so busy thinking about the way I had planned the scene the night before or how my performance would be received after the scene that I often struggled to connect to my impulses. Hell, I had spent so much of my life not in the present moment that I didn’t even know how to listen to my impulses. My teachers would just tell me— “Get present. Be in the moment.” And I would think— but what does that mean??? And how do I DO it???

This is why I love voice work. Voice work provides a vehicle for exploring these ‘buzz words’—which are so often conceptual and hard to reach—physically and vocally. It was through voice work that I learned that ‘presence’ is not just a state of mind. In fact, it was through voice work that I learned that I’m not just a disembodied head with a brain in it! I have a body! I have a voice! And it is created not in my head, but through muscular actions that happen in my body. This body can feel, breathe, and respond—and it operates as one organism that works with and for the mind. This might not be news to any of you, but it was a shocking discovery for me. Through voice work, I learned that presence is not finding some ethereal state. It’s about learning how to acknowledge your whole self— your mind, body and voice.

‘Presence’ is one of the major concepts in Fitzmaurice Voicework (R), an approach to voice training that I now teach. (You may at this point be asking yourself, how does this woman have any business teaching ‘presence’ when she’s just admitted she’s bad at it? Fair question. I’m a work in progress.) Saul Kotzubei, a Master Teacher of Fitzmaurice Voicework, defines ‘presence’ as: ‘the ability to be with one’s internal experience and relate to one’s external environment— simultaneously and fluidly.’ In other words, it’s the ability to check in with what’s going on inside of you, as you are aware of the outside world— at the same time. A big part of that work is ‘practicing’ this ability to be present; by developing proprioception of the body, by working with the breath, by working with the thought— and by continuously coming back to what’s happening in the body, in the breath, with the thought— over and over and over again. Because that’s all it is— being present. Noticing what’s happening from moment to moment.

And that includes noticing—‘I don’t feel present in this moment.’

It was my struggle to be present physically and vocally that led me to pursue an interest in voice work, which is what I now teach. I’ve been working on cultivating my ability to be present for several years now, and I’ve been feeling pretty good about it lately. So you can imagine my dismay when, as part of a 30 day yoga challenge that includes a mantra, or an affirmation, with every day’s practice, I fell flat on day 10 when the mantra was: ‘I am present.’ **

It was as if, when my brain heard the mantra, it decided to rebel (it often does that). I kept trying to practice the mantra, but my body was doing one thing and my mind was somewhere else, and ‘never the twain shall meet’. I was getting more and more frustrated and angry. ‘Don’t I teach this for a living?’ I thought. I wondered what my students would think of me in this moment— all while moving from warrior two to downward-facing dog. Why couldn’t I just stay present?

And then I realized— I was still trying to go for my idea of being present. I was still expecting to find some ethereal, mystical state. But actually— what was happening in those moments as I moved through that yoga video— that is the practice of being present. This is how I can ‘do’ being present. I notice I’m not. That my mind is somewhere else. That awareness gives me power, because in that awareness, there is choice. I can choose to come back to focusing on the moment— on what my body is doing, on how I am breathing, on what sensations or emotions I am feeling in the present moment, or not. And I get to make that choice every time I become aware that I am indeed no longer present. Can you imagine what the world would be like if we all decided to have this kind of awareness in our communication with others?

This is where I am with practicing presence. What about you? What are your thoughts on what ‘presence’ is and how you can be present? With yourself and with others? What are your struggles? What are your triumphs? Let us know in the comments below— we would love to hear!

** This was, however, a fantastic 30 day Yoga challenge, made by BeSpoke’s official favorite yoga teacher, Adriene Mishler.

Christine

 

Self-Talk to the Talking Self—Early Musings on the Mindful Voice

“Be mindful of your self-talk. It’s a conversation with the universe.” David James Lees

Mindfulness is—in the words of the Zoolander villain Mugatu—“so hot right now.” There’s no shortage of speculation on the reasons many people are seeking ways to reconnect to presence, a key concept of mindfulness. Reasons range from the deeply cynical to, what I consider, optimistic to the point of delusion. I place myself somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. Mindfulness allows me to ease fixation on the past and anxiety about the future while appreciating and observing moments of existence as they occur. Over the years it has become increasingly connected to the way I understand my communication internally and externally. We’ll get back to that in a moment. First allow me to give you a little context on my relationship with mindfulness.

Not to sound like a hipster at the latest local microbrewery, but I was into mindfulness before it was cool. That’s an exaggeration, but it was certainly before lifehacker.com wrote about a study evaluating 700 mobile mindfulness app options (link here: http://lifehacker.com/the-best-mindfulness-apps-ranked-in-one-chart-1726392024). I’ve always had a bit of a neurotic streak. This was not helped by the trials and tribulations of high school, where I began experiencing my first ever-existential crises. Probably partly in the hopes of reducing the number of visits I made to his office, a student advice counselor lent me CDs (yup, CDs still very much a thing at this time) of Mindfulness pioneer Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s guided meditations. I didn’t really get it and admittedly felt a bit silly when I sat on the floor trying to monitor my breath. If any of you ever watched “Tiny Toon Adventures” there was a New Age, mediation, chanting expert called Shirley

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From: http://tinytoons.wikia.com/wiki/Shirley_the_Loon/Gallery

“the Loon” McLoon (real subtle wordplay there; I did indeed do research to verify this character’s identity) and that’s kind of what I felt like—a loon. But I liked that there was no agenda except focusing on the breath, clearing the mind, and becoming aware of the present moment.

Over the years I’ve dipped in and out of regular mindfulness meditation during times of stress or health-kicks and now I practice it regularly alongside yoga. I do use the app simply called “Mindfulness,” which has a feature allowing you to choose times of day to receive a mindfulness notification like, “Take six breaths with full awareness.” And I find that helpful. Where it’s really become influential recently is my development of ideas on how our thought patterns influence our communication skills. The concept of “self-talk” is another current hot topic across many contexts involving some kind of performance, whether athletic, artistic, or traditional presentations. My understanding, based on the pop-neuroscience reading I’ve done, suggests that our internal (non-voiced) and external (voiced) thoughts affect our brain’s neural pathways, which in turn impact the body on a number of levels. In my mind this chain reaction contributes to different behaviors manifesting in our internal and external acts of communication.

That process is why I am so intrigued by the relationship of voice/body work to mindfulness. How we think about challenges, events, and good moments in our day affects the way we communicate them to the outside world. I notice these shifts most at two extremes: tired/stressed and happy/energized. In the first my voice sits in a croaky place that’s often disconnected from my breath, leading to monotone, de-energized sound. With the second I feel the fullness of my voice being powered by the breath and find playful shifts in expression.

Obviously these are two very clear differences and there’s a vast spectrum of emotion and sensation we interact with day-to-day, but the way mindfulness fits in for me is the ability to notice how I’m impacting my own self-talk. Taking ten minutes to focus on the breath, on presence, opens up the possibility of choosing how I respond to fatigue and stress moment by moment. Making the choice to focus on the breath helps the voice and body function better and makes me feel more grounded and capable in my communication with others, even encourages the voice to regain some vitality instead of leaning in to a low-energy mentality. Many people have experienced moments where they’re forced to make this shift, doing a fake-it-til-you make-it to get through a presentation or any important day when you’ve been up all night. My interest is how actively linking a sustained mindfulness practice to communication might change the ways we talk: inside, outside, about the self to the self, about the self to others, and of course, to others about themselves and the world.

Consider this a preliminary discussion, I’ll be looking at more focused aspects of mindful communication in upcoming posts. It’s important to bear in mind that mindfulness is still very much in the subjective realm, although this NYT blog post my mom sent me discusses some new research that seeks to nail down scientific evidence for overall benefits of mindfulness: http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/02/18/contemplation-therapy/?smprod=nytcore-iphone&smid=nytcore-iphone-share&_r=0

(Thanks, mom!) The point is, remember to honor your experiences and feel free to send any thoughts on what this provokes for you.

Happy talking and self-talking!