As any interpreting trainer will tell you, monitoring yourself when interpreting is vital to ensuring a delivery of good quality. In my continuous endeavour to improve my performance as an interpreter, I regularly record my rendition and listen to myself. When I noticed a couple of bad habits creeping into my performance, I sought the advice of a talented voice coach. In this article, I will be talking to Mr Jamie Chapman.
How did you become a voice coach?
Twenty-one years ago I did the licentiate, which is the LLAM with the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. This is an external qualification where you study for two years after which you qualify as a teacher of voice and speech. I always knew I wanted to act but I also knew that when you’re an actor, you need another job which dovetails with it extremely well. I was fascinated by voice and speech and it’s a related field but it’s not exactly replicating acting. So I studied for it and not only did I find that it supplements acting; it became a passion in its own right. I always say I have a dual career: I am both an actor and a communications coach. I love both roles and I would never want to give one of them up.
You’re lucky when you can practise something you are passionate about as your profession. There are similarities between what you do as an actor and what an interpreter does. Both have to know how to use their voice. When you go on stage, you need to project your voice like an interpreter does when working in consecutive mode. Do you train your voice? And how?
As an actor you have very specific demands because frequently you would be working in theatres which have no amplification so you will not be using microphones. So we look at two major things: voice projection and articulation. Voice projection is ensuring that there is sufficient volume to be heard. This is related to two things: the breathing and using your resonators. We have something called that vocal column. People often think of the throat only but it is much more than your throat. The speech starts right down in your diaphragm underneath your lungs and then the air goes into the lungs. The voice really is air so the more breath, the more sound. So if you want volume, you do not tighten your throat but you supply more air. The air travels up, it vibrates on your vocal folds and makes a sound. Then it hits your resonators, which are like the stereo system on your CD player. They make your sound echo and they amplify it. You know when you sing in the bath and it sounds amazing? It’s because your voice is echoing off the tiled walls of the bathroom. We have these resonators in our head which is the nasal cavity and also the huge oral cavity which is the mouth. So one of the first things that you need to do to project your voice is to get your jaw down so the sound has a space to resonate. The final parts of your vocal column are your articulatory organs: your teeth, your lips, your tongue, your hard and soft palate. These organs form the sound into distinct speech. Voice projection is often overrated. It is important but articulation is even more important. Articulation in acting is of paramount importance. It is also important in the field of interpreting where often enough voice projection is taken care of as you speak into a microphone.
That is true if an interpreter is working in a booth but in many consecutive settings, one needs to project their voice so it carries to the end of the room. Before coming to this interview, I asked my colleagues on Twitter to send me questions they would like to pose to you. One of these questions was: are there any types of food or drink that are good or bad for your voice?
This is a good question. The most important thing is to stay hydrated. Drink plenty of water and I mean water at room temperature not iced water. If you have a slight cold, liquid glycerine is good which keeps things lubricated. If you have a sore throat, avoid menthol as it dries the throat and makes your voice crackly. Steam is also wonderful for your throat. Nothing beats covering your head with a towel and hanging your head over an old bowl of hot water and breathing its steam for 10 minutes because that really does lubricate and relax your voice. Manuka honey is expensive but superb as it lubricates your throat but it also has anti-inflammatory qualities. Things that are not great for the voice would be strong coffees, alcohol and of course smoking. In terms of food, avoid anything that is too acidic. The biggest enemy of voice is acid reflux at night so try not to eat too late at night.
Another question from a colleague: how can you keep your voice calm during a challenging speech?
I think when people talk about keeping their voice calm, they mean they want to stop it quavering. When we become very nervous, we take very shallow breaths. If you stood up and took a deep breath, you would not want it to only get to the top of your chest. Imagine you are pouring a glass of water. It will fill from the bottom up. This is what you need to do with your breath. You need to fill your stomach with air first. If your upper chest and shoulders shoot upwards when breathing, you are taking very shallow breaths and you will run out of breath very quickly. There are very good exercises for sustaining your outward breath so that even if you feel nervous, your voice does not sound quavering. The other thing that happens when people are nervous is voice constriction. The muscles around the tongue and the larynx become quite tight. There is something called laryngeal massage. One of the professionals who offer it is the superb Ed Blake who works on Harley Street in London. It feels like what I call strangulation therapy but your voice calms down and feels much richer afterwards. Voice is air really. If you imagine that it’s a hosepipe and there is water coming out of it and if you want more water to come out, you have to turn the tap up which is more air. What you don’t do is squeeze the nozzle of the hosepipe which is what people do when they squeeze their voice. They will never get enough sound out and they will damage the voice.
I like those examples you are using. They are very vivid. Could you talk to me about the rhythms of speech?
We now come to my favourite subject: intonation but before I talk about that, I would like to touch upon accents. People think of it as the individual accuracy of the various sounds. This is of course exceptionally important. However, in addition to that, it is about the rhythm, the tune, the melody of your speech and people would say that every accent has its own distinct melody. This is true to a degree. Intonation is about good communication, i.e. trying to get what’s in my head in your head in the best way possible. In terms of the rhythm, there is something called the three-step technique. Firstly though you have to understand how words work to get that rhythm right. Words are made up of vowel sounds and consonant sounds. The first thing to understand about the rhythm of speech is that vowels and consonants do very specific jobs. Somebody very wise once said, “vowels are a space to put your feelings in.” This is where you get all that colour and feeling of the meaning of a word. I love that quote. Often when it is not your first language, people feel inhibited in their use of vowels. But when you listen to someone and you think that they have a very expressive voice, this is simply about how is they are using the vowels. Consonants are very different. If vowels are about colour and feeling, consonants are about precision and clarity. They are about efficiency and respect of the language. You will often find that people who have to speak quickly, gradually their jaws will tighten. This is particularly disastrous in English because this muffles the sound. It makes the voice sound harder.
As to the three-step technique of rhythm, it consists of:
- Emphasis: not every word we say has the same value. The words to emphasise are the words that contain information. The best image I know for this is like if you have a highlighter pen in your voice and you are highlighting all the key words for your listener. You are doing all the work for the listeners. Your job as an interpreter is to make the listener’s job as easy as possible.
- Pause: when we speak, we don’t speak in very long sentences without breaks. We divide up our speech into units of thought. This is vital. It is like spoon-feeding a baby. You wouldn’t give a baby a pot of baby food and say there is your lunch! This is exactly what you do when you speak.
- Justifying the pause: if I were to sing you a song, the tune of voice has to vary for each unit. It is almost as if you have to earn the pause. You justify having taking the pause by doing something with the tune of your voice.
With such clear explanations and good tips from Jamie, I hope to be able to take better care of such an important instrument: my voice.