This is the third and final part in a series of articles I posted on the Magic Cafe in 2005, during my days performing escapology as Helen Held. Though this was written for magicians, the principles described are the same for anyone looking to develop their voice for the stage or any other setting. Just ignore the stuff about card tricks and straightjackets.
This is the final post in the short series of articles I’ve been writing on the basics of vocal technique and stagecraft, basic stuff I either wish I’d been told back when I started performing or am particularly glad that I was. I hope it’s been useful to some of you.
In the last two articles I looked at getting basic power and preventing nerves from getting in the way, now I’d just like to close with a few miscellaneous notes.
One two, one two..
Since it was a discussion on PA and microphone options and techniques that originally provoked this series, I guess it’s time to get around to the subject of basic microphone technique.
First of all I want to re-iterate the point I made right at the beginning of the first article; amplification is a tool, not an excuse. If your voice lacks basic power and personality, the best PA system in the world will not supply it. So keep working on vocal technique; these articles are intended to inspire further study. Take acting classes, learn to sing, read up on theory, put yourself in situations where you are forced to use your voice. If you intend to speak onstage and rely entirely on amplification to express yourself, you are setting yourself up way behind the 8-ball.
There are many different mike options around, whether you take your own or work with whatever you’re given depends on what you do and the setting in which you do it. I have a headset wireless mike that I use onstage which frees me up brilliantly; I can even do rolls and cartwheels without ever being off-mike, but there are associated problems that mean it’s not perfect for every situation (for example, I find the signal isn’t reliable when it has to go through the canvas of a straightjacket, not to mention the costuming conundrum of where to put that wretched transmitter unit), so for some things I revert to a regular mike on a stand.
Whatever you use, try to keep at least an inch and a half of space between your lips and the mike, preferably as much as you can get away with.
A lot of people use the microphone with their lips right against the grille; this is because they get to hear themselves better through the onstage monitors. Unfortunately, the audience don’t get a good sound; it muffles the clarity of the voice, as there is no room for the natural frequencies to reverberate. It overloads the mike, particularly during explosive consonants such as “p”s and “b”s. It over-amplifies every breath, so you get great gasps, hisses and gurgles interspersing your dialogue. Also you remove the ability to use microphone dynamic (moving into and off-mike to artificially exaggerate and soften vocal dynamics) to your advantage.
Think of the worst wedding DJ you ever heard, speaking in an incomprehensible distorted, muffled din over the music, and you know what to avoid.
Intensity and dynamics
Most of what I’ve written so far is about generating power and volume. But unless you are performing in a Victorian melodrama or hailing a ship, your dialogue won’t be on a constant dynamic. What we really want to do is engage people’s attention without deafening them; just being shouted at is an unpleasant, repulsive experience. The reason why I train power and volume first of all is because it is a vital component of the real quality we want to harness in vocal performance; intensity.
Imagine you are telling someone a secret. What you don’t do is simply drop your voice to a quieter volume and continue speaking in the same manner, only softer; this results in mumbling and the listener won’t understand a word. Instead you start to accentuate every syllable you speak to compensate for the drop in volume. You also move closer to the listener, making greater than normal personal contact to see that you have their full undivided attention.
In short, you increase the intensity.
Properly speaking or singing quietly is hard work, more so than being loud. You need to generate the same amount of initial power from deep breathing (see part 1) but harness it so as to get that level of intensity at the volume level you are looking for. The standard way of visualising this is to imagine a scale from one to ten, one being the very softest and ten the very loudest. I was trained to think of this in levels of “effort”, but I avoid using that term when teaching as I consider it misleading – as I’ve pointed out, the initial effort should really be constant, what you are regulating is the output.
Try plotting your dialogue with these levels in mind, annotating your scripts with dynamic level markings to bring out the text the most; dynamics are among the most powerful weapons we have in communicating with and drawing in an audience, so you owe it to yourself to give the topic proper attention.
Shoes and props don’t applaud
Are you giving an open or a closed performance?
A closed performance is one in which the audience feel like an unwelcome interruption. The performer goes about his business with nary a glance at the people he’s supposed to be entertaining, speaking either to his shoes or his props and coming across at best as someone with no stage skills and at worst as a self-indulgent tit.
Incidentally, before I get flamed by silent magicians and the “let the magic do the talking” brigade, there are still open and closed performances even in technical displays. Only in that case you are using your body language and the way you present your props to engage.
Our job is to make everyone in the room feel a part of the show, albeit in a passive role (exactly how passive is up to you, and them – but mostly you). I’ve often heard it said by television performers that a key part of speaking to camera is to imagine you are speaking to one person, not thousands. Well, that’s the case on stage too – ideally everyone in the audience should feel like you are speaking to them personally.
However, it’s bad stagecraft to actually address your act to any single audience member; even when speaking to prospective volunteers or hecklers it’s important not to leave everyone else in the room feeling closed out. Actually, hecklers are a perfect example; I’ve sat in audiences and seen comedians get so carried away with attacking a specific heckler that they spend ten minutes speaking to that one person, forgetting all about all the other people who’d also paid to be entertained, so when they finally get back into routine they find everyone’s lost interest. Generally I feel that if it takes more than two lines to dispense with a heckler, you’ve lost the battle by default. But this is a separate issue.
The best trick I know of for addressing a roomful of people is one I first learnt in my schooldays, and it has served me well ever since, both as a singing teacher and as a performer.
Pick a spot on the back wall, just above the heads of the back row, and speak to that as if it were a person. Because you are speaking as if to a specific person, you will come across with a personal warmth and intensity that never comes from addressing a crowd >as< a crowd, and everyone in between will feel you are speaking to them. Have you ever felt you were being spoken to by somebody in front of you, only to find they were actually addressing someone behind you? Uncanny, isn’t it?
Sometimes stage lighting will mean you can barely see the audience (or room) in front of you, if at all. In that case, pick a point in the darkness in front of you and speak to it like a long lost friend. The principle is exactly the same.
Finally, an important part of having a good voice to use on stage is to look after your instrument. You wouldn’t expect to do perfect card tricks with a deck all torn and sticky from coffee spills, nor can you expect to get maximum power and clarity from your voice if you smoke like a chimney, drink like a drain and get winded answering the telephone. Keeping yourself basically fit will immediately make a difference.
You want to keep hydrated, because if your throat dries out it increases constriction in the larynx, creates soreness and makes everything harder, so have a glass of room temperature water to hand to sip as you perform.
There is a zealously long list of things you shouldn’t eat and drink before going onstage. Alcohol is an obvious one (quite apart from the legend of the Stage Drunk, alcohol increases urine production and dries you out), fruit juice is in there (too acidic), fizzy drinks too (too many bubbles and burps).
Warm or room temperature water is always good, some people swear by herbal teas or similar brews; personally I like to have a cup of green tea before doing a vocal take.