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Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Lady Aston's BarnStone Salon Continues with Theresa McElwee

(The previous and next few posts share the projects each of seven attending artists brought to Lady Aston's BarnStone Salon, held Feb. 4,5,6 at my home in Charles City, VA. The first blog of the series was posted Feb. 7)

 Day Two of  Lady Aston's BarnStone Salon began with Yoga on Saturday morning at 9:00, courtesy of the lithe and lovely guest instructor,  Mary Jo Lowery. Mary Jo arrived with mats and scented eye pillows, and for an hour, lead us in a series of Down-facing Dogs, Half Lords of the Fishes, and Cow Face Poses.  Mary Jo left at 10:00 to teach another class, and we undid all the good of the previous hour with Lord Aston's hearty breakfast of sugar, cholesterol and caffeine.


After morning ablutions, the salon continued with Theresa McElwee, artist in attendance, leading us in vocal exercises. 
 
Theresa is a Yale educated actor and voice/speech coach who has trod the boards on Broadway. She told us we don't often we don’t use our voices in the way nature intended . There is a difference between “natural” and “habitual” and sometimes we confuse the two. When we use our voices naturally, it feels odd, because we’re used to our (often bad) habits. Theresa taught us the same techniques she teaches to young students and corporate professionals in NYC. Essentially, the exercises were designed to call attention to unproductive physical habits, and to produce immediate, palpable improvements in breathing, posture and vocal quality.

The field of voice and diction owes much to an Australian Shakespearean actor named Frederick Matthias Alexander (1869-1955). He suffered from chronic hoarseness, and often lost his voice entirely while performing. When doctors could find nothing physically wrong with him he looked for what he might be doing to cause his own problems. Using a three-way mirror to observe himself, he noticed that when reciting Shakespeare he tightened the muscles of his neck, lifted his chin and tilted his head back and down. This nine-year process of self-observation and subsequent experimentation resulted in his vocal restoration. Students who used his “Alexander technique” also saw improvement in physical issues such as back problems, chronic pain, breathing disorders and stage fright.

Some current master teachers of voice and speech include Cecily Berry, Catherine Fitzmaurice, Kristin Linklater, Patsy Rodenburg, and Arthur Lessac. While there are some differences in methodology, the goal is the same: to produce a naturally resonant voice capable of responding in the moment to the needs of any text.

For the salon, Theresa introduced exercises that 1) focused the mind, 2) released common areas of muscular tension, 3) placed the vibrations of the voice as far forward in the mouth as possible, 4) and experimented with different resonators. Here are the specific exercises and the teachers who taught them to Theresa:

For alignment: “Strings and a Beam “ -  Joan Melton
Releasing the tongue: “Hanging out with the Tongue” -  Heather Lyle
Releasing the jaw: “Feldenkrais Jaw Release” -  Robin Christian-McNair
Laryngeal Massage
Placing the voice: “Forward Facial Posture and Y Buzz” – Arthur Lessac
Expanding range: “Resonator Work” – Kristin Linklater
Presence: “Second Circle” – Patsy Rodenburg
Vocal Release: “The Earth, the Sun, the Water, the Sky, You, and I” – Kristin Linklater
 
Thank you, Theresa. We all got a lot out of your presentation, with the possible exception of Tim, the Likeable Curmudgeon, who doesn’t believe in warm-ups, but tolerated the exercises with patience and good humor.

Next: Maureen tells us what scares her most.

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