The Woman’s Voice is leading voice coach Patsy Rodenburg’s new book — a call to arms for women everywhere to reclaim their voices. With warmth and humour, Rodenburg interrogates Shakespeare’s texts and his presentation of female characters; develops the notion of rhetoric in relation to the female voice; and applies concepts explored in her previous books, including the ‘three circles of energy’.
Using elements of experience and practice from her prolific career, Rodenburg examines questions such as why are so many women still not properly listened to? Why do they sometimes feel that they’re less interesting than they are? Why do they often rush when they speak? And why do some women feel the pressure to sound like little girls to decipher what lies at the heart of female empowerment.
Perhaps, most crucially, through arguing that power and voice are directly linked to breath, Rodenburg makes the case that Western society’s oppression of women has diminished their natural ability to breathe.
Below is an excerpt from one of the book’s chapters that offers a flavor of Patsy Rodenburg’s insight into voice.
WHERE IS YOUR VOICE?
Your natural, free voice
As we breathe in, we gather energy. As we breathe out, we send our energy into the world. This includes our voice and our words. The power of the voice should be fully given out, not blocked or hidden by holding sound in. The natural voice flows out without impediments. The natural voice moves up and out of us in an arc, and when the throat is open and the voice is released you don’t feel tension in your throat. The voice should not be pushed down into the chest, which muffles and inhibits it. Not forced out with tension in the throat: this is not power. Not on half-power that sounds fuzzy and is the start of a whisper. Not being pulled back into the mouth or jammed behind the jaw. This doesn’t only stop audibility, but masks what we say with tensions. This tension filters the voice so that the words cannot be fully heard but are interpreted through the vocal sieve. An unfree voice is hard to listen to and because it cannot move freely, generalizes meaning and flattens out ideas and feelings.
A free voice is not felt in you but lives in the space outside you. A great soprano once told me, ‘I imagine that I don’t have a throat. I feel the energy of my breath move up through my body so that my voice lives outside me.’ In this way, the voice and words leave you and exist in space. The Ancient Greeks believed that when you speak in this way, words create something concrete and you have to stand by what you say, which has historically been a problem for women, because when we do this, we commit, and the words can’t be called back. Most of us have been punished for committing to what we say.
Even when women have the spirit and strength to speak out, to commit, the historic habits can appear: a quiet, hard-to-hear voice without proper physical freedom and breath power, a harsh, pushed, angry sound. A whine. Vocal tones that don’t match the content, so even if the voice is loud and words clearly spoken, the meaning is unclear.
Women who are leaders still have problems saying exactly what they feel if they have trained themselves to be super-rational in defiance of the male idea that women are too emotional. They have less exposure to addressing elders, and when they do, it can overwhelm them so that they lose their authentic voice, falling back on non-threatening behaviour.
Women bite their tongue! They don’t say something important, or do say it when it’s not appropriate.
We still rely too much on sympathetic listeners. Our voices still swing between the two worlds of First and Third Circle, and this is heard in our voice, even if we have worked on our body and breath.
From de-voicing to pushing.
From little girl voice, to rushing.
Being too precise or too casual.
Overstressed or under-stressed.
From boring to over vocal exaggeration.
All these issues can be addressed and balanced when we refind our natural and freely produced and released voice.
We can start the work now.
Warming up your voice
Throughout these exercises keep the body centred and the breath low and connected to the sound.
Massage your face and gently smile and open your jaw with your smile in place. This opens the throat.
Bunch up your facial muscles and allow them to release. Let the muscles find the position they want to be in. The natural position is the lips touching but without the teeth being clenched.
The smile opens the throat and this effect can be felt even when you think of a smile.
A free voice should not be felt in the throat. The space in the throat should be open without the slightest friction. If you can hear any noise as you breathe in through the mouth, then the throat is not fully open.
Tension in the throat traps the voice and gives it a stuck tone or quality. Even the smallest grip holds your voice. A very tight throat will tire, or at worst, damage the voice. If you feel the neck and the voice tightening at any point, think of a yawn. The throat will open.
The voice leaves us on an arc. Up and out.
Stand and breathe.
Find a point above your eye line and breathe to it.
Take the full breath and hum gently onto the lips. Aim to feel a buzz there. This is an indication that the voice is moving forward. There should be no tension in the throat.
Repeat the hum and take it into an OOO placing the lips forward and aiming for a point above your eye line.
Repeat until you feel the voice freely moving forward.
Now add an AHH.
Breathe and release OOO into AHH.
Several releases on this will begin to strengthen and open your voice.
Embodying this could include your arm and hand indicating the arc of your voice coming up through your head and out to the point above your eye line.
Your voice will be warmed up with these exercises.
Warm up your resonators
The vibration of the vocal folds creates the sounds, but without the body and the resonators within it, the human voice would sound like a bumblebee wrapped in a handkerchief.
Its richness, tone and amplification happens in physical cavities throughout the body – resonators; like the box of a guitar.
The main resonators of the human voice are chest, throat, face, nose and head.
The size of each resonator and the state of muscles around them affects the quality and richness of the voice.
With breath, hum into your head, aiming to feel a buzz there. Hum into the nose – feel the buzz there.
Hum into the mouth and onto the lips.
All the time, feel the arc and don’t run out of breath – feel the sound has breath underneath it.
Warm up the chest resonator by humming into the upper chest, but avoid sitting on the voice by pushing down on the larynx and constricting the throat. The image of up and out releases this tension.
This sitting on the voice by pushing down on the larynx is the most common habit in women seeking vocal authority. This creates a vocal strain and a tone that is trapped. It can hurt the voice and even damage it.
You can open and deepen your voice without pushing down on it by doing the exercise above and sending the voice out on an arc.
This takes more breath but is a strengthening exercise that enriches your tone.
Now try an OO into an AH, feeling the sound move through all of your resonators.
If you are pushing the voice down into the throat, or pulling it back into the mouth, or dropping off the energy, go to a wall, and push to connect the breath and then vocalize, still pushing OO into AH. Come away from the wall and play by sending these sounds to different points in the room.
Warming up your range
Change of pitch requires a free and flexible voice and throat. The voice should move easily through various notes, expressing passion, thought and feeling. A limited range will bore your audience. Pitch changes happen through the lengthening and thickening of the vocal folds, but we can warm up and stretch these folds with some simple exercises.
I remind you to remember the work we have just done in the body, presence, breath and resonators. Stretch the range by humming or hah-ing down, and then up, through your vocal range. Thinking up and out, particularly on the lower notes.
Come down in this way, staying on breath and centred without the head moving up and down. And then move up through your range.
Now, without moving the head, aiming at some point across the space, count down through all your range and then count up through all your range. Do this at least four times, making sure that breath is always under there. Take the sound Ma-Ma-Ma and move all through your range, in a playful way.
Now you should feel a stronger and more flexible voice.
If you don’t articulate, then you cannot be understood.