Patsy Rodenburg’s The Right to Speak: Working with the Voice examines impediments to clear, natural, confident speech. It’s a practical workbook that contains exercises and tips, and provides a step-by-step approach to using the voice effectively. It considers the effect of social media on communication skills, the need for empathetic listening, how scientific discovery now illuminates why and how voice exercises work, and cultural and global issues of ethics and storytelling.
Now published as part of the Bloomsbury Revelations series, the book has been described by Sir Ian McKellan as a testament to Patsy Rodenburg’s work and evidence of why ‘politicians, clerics, rock singers, as well as actors, queue up to train their voices under her supervision.’
The extract below provides an insight into how society tends to treat children’s voices in a way that often impedes the development of child-like curiosity that accompanies certain verbal expressions. It offers a unique perspective on how such internalised expressions can often influence adult, professional (voice) actors.
THE GROWTH OF HABITS
I often wonder if our society actually likes to hear children? ‘Children should be seen and not heard’ is an all too popular and widely accepted axiom.
A child should always say what’s true
And speak when he’s spoken to,
And behave mannerly at table:
At least as far as he is able.
– Robert Louis Stevenson
We see parents in supermarkets constantly shaking and ‘shushing’ their children in the most threatening manner. When we do allow children to speak we discipline them to say only what is polite and unthreatening. ‘I was brought up with one saying ringing in my head: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all!”’ That’s how one of my students in Texas summed up her early verbal training. Yes, I do think we are told too often to be quiet on the one hand and only say what is nice on the other. Think of the habits those two directives engender!
It seems to me that as a society we violate the child’s right to speak and enjoy sounds … the ‘bum notes’ and the ‘grace notes’. Obviously there are many families who engender a right to speak from the very start. They encourage an imaginative exploration of verbal dexterity, a feel for words, debate and discussion at the dinner table and a choice to speak one’s own mind. Even if you are just 5. Yet the experiences I have collected from both students and adults I have worked with and from other teachers are dismal. People have been disciplined from the earliest age not to speak and certainly not to make noise. To be ‘mannerly’, yes, but in the process to become too mannered.
A well-cared-for baby, nurtured and encouraged, makes the most extraordinary range of ‘mewling and puking’ sounds. Babies have a free, tireless stream of vocal energy always at their command. The hard part is keeping them quiet. New mothers and fathers can certainly tell you that. They are in fact eager to speak and become suppressed only through conditioning. To our adult ears the sounds a baby makes may not always sound attractive but they are certainly natural and open ones. Just listen, for instance, to the variety of notes a baby can intone. The sheer experimentation in harmonizing or distorting sounds in the resonating organs – head, mouth, nose, throat, chest – and in the articulating organs of the mouth, tongue and throat muscles that will prepare them for later speech, all this and the sheer volume they can achieve in cries and shrieks leaves a voice teacher like me astonished. And to think that all this is done with only 3 mm length of vocal folds makes you stop and ponder: a) how it is possible and b) why do we surrender that capacity as we ‘mature’? Do we not, in fact seem to ‘immature’ vocally as we grow away from infancy? What goes wrong?
As a child develops, first vocal and later speech restrictions are levied on them by parents and teachers. We are first told to hush and then told what not to say. I can remember at a very early stage sitting in the back seat of a car with my friend’s father driving, making those childish nonsense sounds that invariably led to words: ‘auck, buck, cuck, duck, euck, f—’ Suddenly, almost as if from out of nowhere, the back of a hand struck my mouth and I heard an enraged ‘Don’t you even speak or make that sound again!’ Of course I didn’t know what the word meant, but I never stopped experimenting with words, though I probably hesitated for a while and kept it limited to nice words. The point is that all sorts of pressures, well-intentioned discipline and even a benign finger up to the lips limit a child’s access to his or her own voice and the capacity and right to speak.
Obviously as the baby tunes up, babbles and toys with first one sound and then another – almost duplicating a series of vocal exercises like the kind I’ll be offering in Part Two – certain expressions are encouraged or discouraged depending on the parents’ language and culture. Try, for instance, getting a group of younger or older adults to: blow a raspberry; move their facial muscles in ways that resemble funny faces; or play with non-intellectual sounds like ‘la la la’ or any number of tongue twisters. They all collapse in laughter or embarrassment at any of these commands. Probably in course of experimentation the baby stumbles on the sounds ‘da da’ or ‘ma ma’ and the baby is encouraged to cease experimenting but focus energy instead on ‘daddy’ and ‘mummy’. We learn rather swiftly to stop pleasing ourselves and please others with the sounds we make.
I am certainly not trying to make any deep and original discoveries here on the level of child psychologists like Piaget or Bernstein. But I do want to make you aware of how our own voice and speech begins to get manipulated from a very early age. For the sake of education, a necessary step, a large bit of our vocal potential also becomes sorely limited. We remember the slap across the face, the mouth washed out with soap, the repetitive focus on ‘daddy’ and ‘mummy’ to the exclusion of other sounds. Our sounds are focused to gratify and impress others rather than ourselves. A powerful instrument full of sounds and capacity is suddenly curtailed by limits of one kind or another; fertile ground for habits to develop. A baby on waking will gently warm up and play with its voice before getting down to the real business of the day and calling out to the world. How many of us, as adults still do that? How many of us would rather go through the early part of the day in total silence, not uttering a word to anyone?
At night many babies and young children will wind down the day’s activities by chatting through the day’s events. Every day to a child is another vocal excursion into novel and exciting terrain. They speak in order to know the world, to identify it, to give it names. The exploration is unabashed and honest in its directness. I’m not suggesting that we should maintain our childlike wonder into adulthood, but even simple childlike activity like warming up the voice is essential to any professional voice user as is the adventure with words. All of us, especially those of us who use our voices professionally, simply cannot afford to abandon the right to explore the vocal potential of linking words to the experience or object they express. Sound and sense are firmly linked in most languages.
We need to speak, and come by our birth right to speaking, by sounding words aloud, breathing them into the air, so that we understand their significance and the very actions and emotions the words describe. A child seizes ownership of a word by sounding it repeatedly until its tones and proportions, the thing itself, is clear. Spoken language sometimes I think more than written or read language – makes experience, ideas and emotions concrete and tangible. When Hamlet speaks his great soliloquy that starts ‘To be or not to be’, he gives voice to his dilemma just like a child in a series of sounds that first coordinate and then negate each other. Look at any other great Shakespearean speech or scene and you find characters using language literally to voice out loud experiences escaping and taking shape in sounds. Recent research has confirmed what the voice world has always known that children that are read to and learn by heart – language, music or physical exercise – can express themselves better. We now know that the brain transforms and opens connections through those processes.
Those of us who don’t talk about experience often find ourselves cut off from it. Many people go into various forms of psychotherapy just to learn how to speak again, to find an arrested or repressed voice and make sense of themselves once more through language. I stand by all this but in the last 15 years there has been a swing from the silencing of children to parents allowing their offspring to vocally dominate in a way that will equally harm them in the future. Balance is the key. Rights on both sides. I now have students so vocally overbearing that they would shout anyone down in order to make their point, so entitled that they become unbearable whenever they speak.
This attitude comes from parents who have rightly encouraged their children to speak but not listen or be sensitive to others. Parents that are frightened of being disliked by their children or unpopular by asking them to be less strident in public. I met a parent at my son’s school who disapproved of her child saying ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ as it would interfere with their self-esteem. Of course this attitude unleashes a force on the world that harms society but one that will harm the child as the world will find this overentitlement repellent. Again, my plea is for balance and fairness. It is unfair to silence anyone. We all have to honour each other’s space and vocal rights.