Vocal Technique And Improv

Maxine Davis guides Stefan Schick through a vocal exercise.

Maxine Davis guides Stefan Schick through a vocal exercise.

A show that requires as much singing as ours presents its own challenges.  Since we can’t decide ahead of time where to place our voice during a song, our technique has to be right on. "We want this show to be as high in quality as anything that you'd see on Broadway" says artistic director, producer, and performer Rob Schiffmann, "and we have to work on technique in all realms including vocally. Also, when we are on the road, it is easy for the cast to get vocally exhausted from doing shows back to back along with the rigors of travel."

To tune up our technique before our 2015 - 2016 touring season kicks in, co-artistic directors Rob Schiffmann and Deb Rabbai reached out to Deb's longtime vocal coach and Feldenkrais practitioner Maxine Davis. Deb will often say, “I owe my voice to Maxine.” 
Feldenkrais brings awareness to certain areas of our bodies while helping us let go of tension in others. In our workshop we did exercises to feel the soft palette and access the resonators in the face. Shockingly subtle adjustments could have big results. Robert Z. Grant observed, "What amazed me was the incredibly subtle changes with placement of the soft palette and the muscles of the face and neck that dramatically altered the quality of the sound."

Although the work that we did was quite specific, there were some general thoughts that Maxine brought up that any improviser - singing or otherwise - could use. 

Thoughts on Vocal Technique for Improvisers

  • Be curious about where your sound is coming from. Is it healthy? Do you ever find your voice tired or hoarse after a show, scene or song? Explore alternate ways to create the sound with less effort. As Maxine says, "shift to curiosity from judgement."
  • Get past the part that wants to "nail it." Cast member Rachel Bouton - who spent the summer recovering from vocal surgery - has studied with Maxine for two years and says, "In improv, and in singing, 'working harder' won't get you anywhere. I had to learn to allow her to move my head around on top of my spine the same way that an improviser has to learn to let the scene and the song go where it wants to go."
  • Get to know the tools of the trade in order to be reliable. By bringing awareness to our eyebrows, cheekbones, ears, and even eyes we can open up areas of the face to let the sound resonate.  Rob noticed that "People seemed to be able to access a deeper tone through very small adjustments."

  • Make healthy character choices. Are you often playing gravelly characters? Characters that are very tense? Or hunched over characters? Try changing the physicality of your characters and their vocal qualities. Your vocal and physical health is important to keep in mind during long runs of a show, when you're overtired, or when traveling. 

Posted on September 2, 2015 and filed under Workshop Insights, How To Do Music Improv.