MY WORKING LIFE
Prof Lyn Darnley was head of voice and artist development at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Now she trains people of all walks of life – including in the UAE – in how to get their voices heard
Find your voice with Professor Lyn Darnley.
What got you interested in voice coaching? From the moment I became an actor, I developed an interest in training my voice. I went to drama school and trained for three years and once I was performing, I started teaching. When I had children, I gave up acting and went into full-time teaching.
What does a voice coach do? I work with professional actors and actorsin-training who may be working on a production. I work on developing their voice, to release their natural voice, so they can use their vocal quality as a tool for characterisation.
Do you work only with actors? Oh no. I work with a lot of university groups who visit Stratford Upon Avon where I live. I also work with people interested in improving their presentation skills, business people who are preparing to make presentations, with Toastmasters, in fact, anyone who is interested in developing their voice and communication skills.
Is there a danger that the people you train might end up with the same kind of voice? No, not at all. What’s important is that actors start from their own point. What makes people interesting is when they are able to convey something of themselves in their own individual vocal qualities. That’s what makes a good communicator. Not someone who sounds like they’ve been trained like a robot.
How do you hone a person’s vocal qualities? We do that through a lot of physical exercises. The voice, you see, is embodied and part of the whole body and not just related to the mouth or the vocal cords. It’s so important that actors don’t speak just from their head. They need to find a connection with the ground, a connection with their feet on the ground so their breathing comes from low in their body not as a result of stress in the upper chest, which can produce a thin, piping voice.
Does that involve relaxation techniques? Absolutely. In today’s world we are constantly crunched over our computers or phones, so [we] lose the natural openness that we need for the production of a free and resonant sound. If you are speaking standing up, one of the first things you should be doing is have the whole body grounded – weight balanced on both feet. We often tend to make ourselves narrower and smaller rather than owning and enjoying our ability to hold the whole space. It’s important that we are confident in expressing our own thoughts, that we don’t feel intimidated and that we have the courage to speak and to express ourselves.
What do you look for when you start training an actor? Well, the first thing I’d do is watch them perform and then work from them and from their needs. I’d look at the piece or role they are performing and ask them what their needs are. But I’ll be looking for a relaxed jaw, breathing that is slow and if they are trusting and enjoying the quality of their voice. They need to be comfortable with their bodies and relaxed enough to produce their natural voice.
What if someone has a squeaky voice? Would you work on changing it? No, but I’d work on it. I’d encourage them to discover the resonance in their own body. If a person has a very squeaky voice, chances are they are very tense. So you look at their posture, find out where their tensions lie and you go about releasing those tensions. For instance, the mouth space is so important. The jaw needs to be relaxed. Some people have never explored their chest resonance. It’s important to create a good solid breath stream that allows that to happen.
Can you tell us about some of the people who you voice trained? I don’t like to talk about the people I’ve trained. It’s like a doctor and his patients; there is a certain confidentiality. Let me say that I’ve worked on productions with people such as [award-winning actors] Sir Ian McKellen, Dame Judi Dench and Jude Law.
I’ve heard you instruct actors to kick a tin can around the room while reciting lines. Those techniques used to be unorthodox earlier, but now they are mainstream. Apart from that, we also get actors to look out of a window and draw what they are seeing as they are speaking lines; or ask them to push against things or lift heavy things when speaking. Creating resistance in the body can often free the voice. We do a lot of stretching, walking, sitting. We make siren noises, funny noises, gurgle and babble like babies. It’s very exploratory.
Doesn’t the mind have a huge role to play? It’s incredibly important. You need to have the courage of your convictions. You need to believe in what you are saying. You’ve got to want to express what you know and what you are passionate about to the audience.
Tell us your most unforgettable moment? There are so many, but they are not related to stars and celebrities. I’m not really a starry person. The most rewarding work I did was at the RSC under the artistic directorship of Michael Boyd. He established the artistic development programme and for me that was the most fulfilling thing. To head up the programme was my most memorable moment.
‘We make siren noises, funny noises, gurgle and babble like babies,’ says Lyn of her vocal workshops