Michelle Lopez-Rios is a voice coach, actor, director, and co-founder of the Royal Mexican Players. She has worked as a voice and dialect coach for Goodman Theatre, Houston Shakespeare Festival, Milwaukee Chamber Theatre, Renaissance Theaterworks, and many other theaters. She has taught voice classes and workshops for the University of Houston, Texas A&M, Texas Educational Theatre Association, United Community Center, The Healing Center, and UW–Milwaukee, where she is currently the Head of Acting. Visit www.michellelopezrios.com for more information about her background and research.
Your Voice: An Instrument Worth Caring For
by Michelle Lopez-Rios
Our voice is an incredible reflection of who we are. The sounds we make reflect our culture, education, emotional state, and various other factors. The smallest rise or fall in inflection conveys sarcasm, empathy, or an inside joke. I have been honored to explore voice work with actors, professionals, abused women, immigrants, and others in search of finding their best voice. While individual goals differ, the ability to clearly communicate is central in our journey. Interpreters and translators have the demanding task of being someone else’s voice. The following are some thoughts and techniques that may be useful in helping you discover your best voice.
Vocal production involves the entire body. A collapsed spine cuts off power from the diaphragm and establishes harsh pressure on the larynx. Tension in the body impedes vibration and may result in a thin or small sound. In order to have a clear and strong voice, you must exercise and take care of your instrument. Just like a ballerina goes to the barre or a classic guitarist plays her scales daily, those who depend on their voice must work to develop and nurture it.
Relaxation and Breath. Ever notice your shoulders rise when you are talking to someone who is stressed out? The more stressed the person becomes, the tighter the voice becomes. Releasing tension in the body is essential in order to allow the sound to resonate in the body.
Exercises (for those of us who do not get a weekly massage to relieve the stress): (1) Lie down on your back, legs extended. Take a deep breath in and relax your body. Begin by tensing all of the muscles in your right leg; then relax them. Next tense all of the muscles in your left leg, then relax them. Continue working up your body, tensing and then relaxing each group, one at a time: buttocks, stomach, chest, right arm, left arm, neck, and head. When you have completed all sections, scan through the body to release any residual tension (eyebrows, jaw, buttocks, and shoulders are often stubborn to relax!). Now allow a deep breath to fall into your stomach. Continue to breathe for a few minutes, just noticing what it feels like to release the tension in your body. (2) A shorter option: Begin standing with weight equally distributed on both feet. Roll the shoulders back six times, then forward six times. Raise the shoulders to the ears. Gently allow the shoulders to fall. Then allow the head to fall forward to the chest. This will gently stretch out the back of the neck. Roll the right ear to the right shoulder; then roll the head forward and all the way to the left shoulder. Go back and forth a couple of times. Finally, bring the head up slowly and imagine that the top of your head is floating up to the ceiling. The spine is long and the tension is released.
Remember to BREATHE as you do either exercise. Again, it is important to rid the body of as much tension as possible. This will allow you to be present to receive the story you are translating/interpreting. It will also allow your voice to work more effectively and efficiently.
Resonance. Have you ever heard an amazing voice and thought, “Wow, I can feel the vibrations of that voice!” The sound that comes from the vocal folds vibrating is similar to a bee in a napkin. It is only through resonance that the sound is amplified.
Exercises: (1) Yawn and lift your soft palate. This will allow for more space in the throat. (2) Start a hum on your lips. Try various pitches. Notice the tingling around your lips. (3) Put your hand on your chest and say “Hah” on an extended note until you feel the vibration in your chest. (If you are feeling wild, go for a Tarzan call to the jungle.)
Remember to breathe and maintain your relaxed body and open throat. You can also do this lying down, after the breathing and relaxation exercise.
Power. “Can you speak up?” “I’m sorry, what did you say?” Power is the engagement of the muscles in the body to help amplify the sound. Power does not necessarily mean loudness, however. I can speak in a quiet tone with lots of power. Similarly, it is possible to scream loudly and strain the voice because of lack of power.
Exercises: (1) Put your index finger about three inches in front of your mouth and imagine that your finger is a candle. Blow out the candle. Try this again twelve inches away. Try it again with your arm extended all the way out. Can you feel the stomach engage as you blow? These are the muscles we are interested in engaging to speak. (2) Stand in front of a wall, placing your hands on the wall. Push against the wall as you count out loud, “1 by 2 by 3 by 4 by 5 by 6 by 7 by 8.” Now take your hands off the wall and repeat the counting. Do you notice any difference? Pushing against the wall engages the abdominal muscles. This helps the body to support the voice. It is what you do to sustain a note when singing.
Articulation. The last part of vocal production is the forming of the words.
Exercises: (1) Yawn and raise the soft palate (again). This will stretch out your face and again allow more room in the back of the mouth. (2) Stick out your tongue. Tension or bunching of the back of the tongue interferes with a clear voice. (3) Blow through your lips, allowing them to vibrate gently. You can also add sound (like when a child makes a car sound by blowing through the lips). (4) Tongue twisters are a great way to wake up the articulator muscles and the brain. (Try any of your old favorites like, “She sells seashells by the sea shore.”)
Final Thoughts. Healthy habits are also important to maintain a strong instrument. Smoking, drinking alcohol, shouting, and overuse can all have bad effects on the voice. It is important to hydrate with water and use proper technique to support your voice. The Internet is an excellent resource for warm-ups, tongue twisters, and more information on the voice. Working on your voice for five minutes daily is better than working on your voice for two hours once a week. The more you exercise the muscles and prepare your instrument for performance, the more ease you will find in speaking.