Declaring Your Vocal Rights

The right to breathe, the right to be physically unashamed, to fully vocalize, to need, choose and make contact with a word, to release a word into space – the right to speak. And in taking your rights you can then feel secure and generous enough to offer others their rights and listen attentively and generously to others.

Every day I meet people in desperate need of voice and speech work who cannot adopt all, a few or even just one of these essential rights. Some outer or inner tension blocks their ability to communicate successfully. It is almost as if they have been forcibly gagged even though the muffle is often barely a visible one. The gag is usually one of an assortment of habits that undermine the potential of anyone’s voice, speech and uncluttered listening. All these habits contribute to an acute fear that so many of us have in common: the fear of speaking out in public or even in private. And if we do manage to speak can we then stand by what we say?

A recent opinion poll taken in America, asking people what single thing frightens them most, put speaking in public at the top of the list of fears above loneliness, financial worry . . . even death!

My job, as a voice teacher, is to remove that dreaded fear and to hand back to any speaker the fun, joy and ultimately the liberating power a release that speaking well and forcefully can engender; power sadly taken away from most of us for a variety of reasons that will become abundantly clear as we go on.

So before we can adopt a right to speak – or even begin any practical work on the voice itself – we first have to begin to learn how we lost the right in the first place.

Snap judgements

As soon as we open our mouths and speak we are judged. Instant assumptions are made about us by others; about our intelligence, our background, class, race, our education, abilities and ultimately our power. As listeners we do this to each other all the time.

What does our voice reveal about us? Quite a bit. Do we sound enfranchised or disenfranchised? Educated or uneducated? Hesitant or confident? Do we sound as if we should be in charge or just subordinate? Do we sound as though we should be heard and answered?

To the ears of others we are what we speak. For any new listener immediately tries to ‘place us’, instantly decides whether or not we are worth listening to, makes snap judgements about whether or not even to answer us. The evidence suggests that all this information is garnered within 90 seconds of listening.

I realize this blunt assertion is made most obviously about British society where we are still saddled by a fairly rigid and sharply attuned class system in which the voice immediately places us as upper, middle, lower, or probably worst of all, blandly suburban. But in all other countries in which I have worked, including the United States, Canada, India, Japan and throughout Europe, I have experienced the same brutally judgemental attitude based solely on the reaction to someone’s voice and speech habits. Just like a fingerprint a voice-print is an almost infallible form of identification. Our voice marks us in certain ways. And it can mark us for life.

Whenever I work in the American South, for instance, I get telephone calls from businessmen and women who ‘want to sound more northern’ and not so rural. They believe they will earn more respect with a quick change of vocal identity. One of my students in Texas, with a particularly heavy and noticeable regional accent, was repeatedly mocked and mimicked by his classmates whenever he spoke. He believed he was stupid and took the role of class clown. When I challenged him about this he said: ‘But I come from Birmingham, Alabama, and anyone who talks the way I do has got to be stupid!’

A voice teacher in India I once worked with confided how she had to stop her southern Tamil dialect from seeping into her daily speech when speaking the more acceptable Hindi dialect. ‘I won’t be respected,’ she said, ‘if they hear that sound.’ A famous Japanese film actor lamented to me once that his father’s voice betrayed a lowly status. I shall never forget the uproar at a Canadian voice conference I attended in French-speaking Montreal when a Parisian voice coach bluntly asserted that ‘no Canadian actor could speak the plays of Racine and Molière because they sounded too coarse’. So we are instantly known to others by our voice and dialect, and we are actually censored from having the right to speak certain things. You may not believe it is true but there is such a thing as ‘vocal imperialism’.

It seems to me particularly demeaning and criminal, for instance, to tell anyone that their mother sound or accent is not good enough to speak the great texts. I think it is commonly agreed nowadays that Shakespeare’s actors spoke in a variety of regional accents, many of them rough and broad and not the least bit elegant. So why is it that so many American actors, for example, in this day and age still mimic a so-called British voice and accent when they speak Shakespearean verse and prose? It only results in alienating both actor and audience further from the marvels of Shakespeare’s text. Solid American accents, good British regional ones, are every bit as expressive as the refined ones we try to impose on any classical text. And the former two work extremely well when the text is given the right to return to its accentual roots.

Some older theatre audiences, however, still gasp in horror during intervals when they react to the way ‘modern’ actors speak the great dramatic texts in certain of these accents. When I worked with the English Shakespeare Company on their production of The War of the Roses many people who saw and heard those plays on a tour around Great Britain objected to the fact that the Northumberland lords spoke in heavy Northumberland accents!

If we are lucky enough to come from a socially advantaged and culturally dominant background, then snap judgements of this sort can serve the speaker well. All of the above is still true – to an extent. But the pendulum is swinging away from the appreciation and power connected to a privileged voice.

When I first wrote Right to Speak I had to control the more privileged speakers mocking or smirking at regional accents. Now I have to defend the privileged voices from the insults of their fellow students. My point is simple – if your accent is a mother sound, one that you heard in the womb, then it hurts to have it abused.

The other clear change is how some of the better-educated students have adopted an extreme level of inarticulate and sloppy speech. Perhaps texting is being used instead of speech muscles but the outcome is of well-educated students being deliberately incoherent and casual.

Patsy Rodenburg is Head of Voice at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and was formerly at the Royal National Theatre. She is the author of The Right to Speak (recently reissued in a new edition), The Actor Speaks, Speaking Shakespeare and The Need for Words, all published by Bloomsbury Methuen Drama.