“A singer or public speaker who is not distinctly understood wearies his auditors, and destroys almost all the effect of the music, or of the sentiments he has to express, by obliging the hearers to make continual efforts to catch the sense of the words.”
—Gustave García, The Actor’s Art
It seems that many singers don’t know what to do with words. Some are singing in, to quote the late musicologist Randolph Mickelson, “no known human language.” A shapeless, mud-like language of murky vowels and anemic consonants.
Other singers may be more diligent in applying the lessons of their diction teachers. Unfortunately, they decide that all-purpose vocalization takes precedence over storytelling. They use their voices like a house painter uses a roller, painting with monochromatic efficiency and treating words as interruptions to their Bel Canto and high notes.
Perhaps this is why judges at competitions regularly remark, “Nice voice but boring” or “They don’t have it.” (The famous, undefinable “it.”) The singer may be technically capable, musically prepared, and emoting . . . but something is missing. And the listener was not drawn in.
This article is based on the classes of Patsy Rodenburg (renowned authority on Shakespeare and longtime head of voice at Guildhall School of Music & Drama) and the books of her mentor, the late Cicely Berry—who for 45 years was the voice director for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Just like opera singers, Shakespearean actors grapple with creating characters who speak in rhyme and extravagant language, sport with rhythms, communicate with an extended vocal range, and play roles in mythological or historical stories about royals, commoners, and witches who plot, murder, love, and commit suicide. What advice can these teachers give the singer?
In Rodenburg’s New York workshops with actors, after leading exercises to center the body, release unnecessary tensions, free and deepen the breath, engage the support muscles, activate the resonators, exercise the articulators and extend the voice, with surgeon-like precision she will gently eliminate layers of unhelpful habits the actor may have accumulated. Then comes her exacting work with the text.
One habit which must be rejected is what Berry calls signaling. It is tricky to detect in oneself but easy to see in others—if you know what to look for. In opera, a man playing a “manly” role may put on his gruff voice and, as Berry says, “blast the audience with noise and energy.”
Singing a sad aria, a singer’s voice may take on a suffering quality which, according to Berry, “does not illuminate anything for the audience and is usually monotonous.” The brow may be furled, the eyes droopy, and the posture a bit weary. The audience sees and hears undifferentiated gloominess.
At the other end of the signaling spectrum are roles that are comedic. A singer may make puerile faces and sing with their very funny voice as if to say, “Watch how hilarious I am!” A woman playing a sexy role may use her sultry voice and sashay with her hands glued to her hips. A man who wants to convey sexiness may imagine that tight pants, a generic come-hither strut, and the sight of his gym-built bare chest will do the trick.
These singers might have wonderful voices, but signaling makes their performances hackneyed and ultimately unremarkable. Why do they do this? Berry says, “I think one of the greatest fears of the actor is that of not being interesting.” Out of fear of being ordinary, performers superimpose stock gestures, mannerisms, and vocal inflections. This flattens the performance.
The remedy is to explore the complexities of a role through the text; find the unexpected twists and turns of the character’s inner world; and bask in the soaring poetry, the wit, the directness, or the recklessness in the choice of the words. Berry adds that how a person uses language “is part of the essence of that person.” Rodenburg says that the emotion of the word is in the vowel and the clarity of thought in the consonants. “The audience wants to know how the character thinks and what makes him tick.”
To do that you must use the consonants. She also says, “Allow the words to transform you imaginatively . . . pay attention to detail and you will also reveal the more likeable or vulnerable side of those characters often directed as one-dimensional villains.” They are always going back to the words. Release them.
Singers’ words must carry over the orchestra. Rodenburg reminds us, “Writers do not write lines unless they want them heard.” Unfortunately, when the orchestra begins to soar, many singers become more unintelligible. Does anyone think that’s what the composer wanted?
Berry says when the volume is increased, “it must always be matched by an increase in the weight of the consonant: the more volume you use, the more consonant value you need to break the sound up into words.” An actor taught by Berry or Rodenburg would have gone through rigorous exercises to increase the muscularity of the lips and the virtuosity of the tongue until all the consonants and vowels were produced with vigor and clarity.1 Feel through the consonants, be aware of the time it takes for them to carry, and give the language room.
The scrupulous delivery of the text was a priority for almost every great vocal artist until about the mid 1970s. The recorded evidence is overwhelming and indisputable. Little by little, words were deprioritized.
Supertitles give singers a false sense of a relationship with the audience, and practicing in small spaces is misleading. Simply mastering book-learned rules of pronunciation, however, is pedantic. There is much more.
Rodenburg discusses different levels of knowing a word: in the head, the heart, and the whole body. “When you watch great actors work in rehearsal,” Rodenburg says, “their knowing a word is very evident. As the rehearsal period progresses, you can see actors drop words deeper and deeper into their bodies.” To do this, savor the different physical qualities of the sound combinations: the fierceness, delicacy, silliness, crunchiness, or silkiness.
Rodenburg says that when something is challenging to pronounce, this may be an acting note. Perhaps it needs just a bit more time, care, or space. Many singers only access a word intellectually. Berry says, “An actor can be working subtly with a lot going on in his mind and his imagination—but unless the voice is rooted down, it will make no complete statement and, to some degree, will negate what is interesting.”
To discover more richness in your texts, use the following Berry/Rodenburg exercises.
Standing in a neutral pose, take two steps, make a full stop, speak the words of your piece up to the first punctuation mark. Take two steps in another direction, make full stop, speak up to the next punctuation mark. Repeat until the end of the piece.
Changing directions at each punctuation mark will help place the sense of the word into your body, synchronize the energy of the thought as you speak the word—not before or after it, and keep you from running ideas together. It will draw your attention to how many different things you are saying and how long or short the phrases are.
Enjoy your character’s choice of words. Be careful with lists. For instance: Birds. Flowers. Trees. Not Birdsflowerstrees. Be specific. A lark is not a swallow. You may not know what a lark looks like, but your character certainly does or they wouldn’t have used the word! Rodenburg says, “Approximate understanding of the word can result only in approximate interpretation of the part,” and that’s boring.
Variation 1: Stop at each conjunction: and, but, yet, however, or, etc. Experience the intensification after the word “and,” physicalize the change that occurs after “but.”
Variation 2: Do this in a group. Stand in a circle, change speakers after each punctuation or conjunction. This can be exciting and revelatory.
Afterwards, reflect. What did you observe? What did you discover? Was it hard to make every full stop? Why? Is the habit of running words and ideas together ingrained or unconscious?
Rodenburg says, “A speech is never a speech. It is a series of steps or stages on a journey.” Take the journey but take your time. Berry says that “each word should have its own room, its own stilling.” This will make the language active and interesting. And you want to be interesting, don’t you?
In Berry’s book, Voice and the Actor, there are extensive exercises to explore the production of vowels and develop the strength and virtuosity of articulators. See Rodenburg’s exercises in her book The Actor Speaks: Voice and the Performer.