1 -2 -3 Mother caught a flea, put it in a teapot, all had tea.
This skillful woman caught a flea and made tea for everybody.
That’s impressive. And so simply done.
Yet when you detach from the hypnotic magic of the rhyme and think about it, questions arise.
Like hang on, how easy is it to catch a flea? And then get it into a teapot, not to mention make tea from it for all your cousins and in-laws.
What has this got to do with voiceover?
Well, any action, whether it’s making tea or speaking into a microphone, can become more or less complicated depending on our approach to it.
Let’s take any action, such as the action of getting out of a chair. Do you ever stop to think about how you’re doing it?
When I was learning and teaching the Alexander Technique, standing up and sitting down were among the actions we worked with in order to become aware of our habitual way of doing things.
The way you do the things you do
When asked to perform the action of standing up, most people quite reasonably become self-conscious and suddenly it’ll seem like an odd thing to do, even though they’ve done it all their lives.
They’ll either stand up quickly to get it over with, as if to say ‘what? I’m just standing up that’s all’ or they’ll wait until they’re sure they’re going to do it right and stiffen up in the process, turning into a zombie automaton.
Sound familiar, anyone learning voiceover skills and the art of sounding natural?
OK, so sounding natural equates to accessing spontaneity.
But sometimes no matter how much we want to be spontaneous, what comes out is stiff, heavy and unnatural. That’s because our unconscious habitual patterns have kicked in.
The stimulus to stand-up, to follow a direction, to speak – they’re all stimuli that trigger a habitual neuromuscular response pattern, learned since infancy.
Let’s look at what happens when most people get out of a chair, whether they’re being observed or not.
- Although it would be sensible to rise upwards in space there is a common tendency to tighten the joints, pull the knees inwards and the head back and down in order to go up. This is like putting on the brakes before moving.
- The neck thrusts forward as if leading the action and the head, which is the equivalent weight of a sack of potatoes, pulls back and downwards on the spine, causing a shortening and narrowing in the back and compression in the whole body. Which includes the voice of course.
- Upon standing the legs tighten, the knees lock and the thighs press forwards as if locked in position. This causes contraction in the lower back and the cutting off the fluid and flexible relationship to the environment.
And that’s just for starters. Wow. The unnecessary things we do.
Fight or Flight
I had no idea any of this was going on until I started taking Alexander lessons.
I sought out a teacher when I was at drama school as I heard it was great for learning how to manage nerves and tension. I screamed hysterically in a workshop when someone threw a ball at me and Angela de Castro, the fantastic Brazilian Clown leading the workshop, looked at me with compassion. ‘You’re hysterical’ she said. And not in a good way. She was right, my fight or flight reflex was triggered very easily.
Some equivalent habits in speaking might be clearing the throat at the mere idea of speaking into a microphone, gasping in air, worrying about breathing, stiffening and tensing in order to make more effort to be heard, stumbling and hurrying, or going treacle-slow out of an unduly excited fear reflex. FM Alexander evolved his technique out of his personal experience of grappling with career wrecking vocal problems as an actor.
No right way
It was a revelation to me that I could fail so spectacularly at the simplest of actions.
And it was a relief to get down to the brass tacks of failure, which I had always perceived as existing on a grand scale.
The truly great thing about what I learned was that though I was failing to stand up in any kind of sensible way and getting it all wrong (pulling my head back, tightening all my joints, clenching my jaw, stopping breathing), there was in fact no ‘right’ way to do it.
Though a great discovery, this is one of the hardest things to accept.
The desire to be right
The desire to be right is so strong that it masks everything – vulnerability, curiosity and playfulness
Damn – The important stuff!
Plain old common sense goes by the wayside too. After all, the most important thing is standing up correctly, y’know, for the Standing Up Police. Absurd when you think about it, isn’t it, I mean who cares!
So, how the heck do you stand up then? It’s the wrong question. There is no right way.
With the help of a teacher’s instructions and hands, trained to guide me into a new coordinated state I learned to stop doing all the things I didn’t know I was doing that prevented me from standing – no – floating up out of the chair.
Yes, floating. Because when you stop getting in your own way and take the brakes off, there’s nothing to stop you rising like a balloon out of that chair.
Anyone who has had this experience will tell you that it is one of the wonders of the universe. You stop ‘doing’ the action. You learn how to allow rather than force. This is the essence of effortlessness, and it goes against most of what we learn at school, which is ‘If at first you don’t succeed, (clench your jaw, crush your spine) try, try, try again’.
In Alexander training I learned:
If at first you don’t succeed, stop trying
Note that this is not to be confused with intending to do something successfully.
It refers to how you carry out an action. How you define success and the flexibility you enjoy within it to change your mind and make choices is what is at stake.
When you stop trying the old thing, the right thing will do itself.