Pilates and Voice Training for the Actor

By implementing core stability exercises in voice training, the actor not only obtains more awareness of their own bodies, they develop the important muscles needed for breath control and stability. Pilates has been embraced by dancers for many years, and, like the Alexander technique, Suzuki Actor Training Method and Feldenkrais, has been incorporated in many performing arts programs. Pilates has also been incorporated with other methods in movement training for the actor in order to ‘improve posture [and alignment, to] gain strength and avoid injury’. (Smith, Kelly & Monks 2004, p. 51) However, core stability training has been ignored in voice training. The method was created by Joseph Pilates (1880 – 1967), and since his death, many teachers have modified the 34 exercises and made them more accessible. It is now commonplace in most gymnasiums and health and fitness centres, and is now as popular as ever as an exercise method to tone and lengthen muscle, increase flexibility and improve general well being. The other crucial factor of Pilates work is breathing. ‘The most active part of the body as we vocalise is the breath system’ (Rodenburg 1997, p. 6) and without breath, we do not have the power to carry the sound through.

Pilates and other core stability exercises are usually taught in movement classes in a performing arts curriculum and are generally ignored in voice classes. Joan Melton, renowned practitioner of voice and movement integration and the Director of the One Voice Centre, believes that ‘communication among voice and movement specialists can be a critical factor is the success of [a] program’ (Melton 2001, p.2). The lack of communication creates confusion amongst the students’ as the specific technical methods of each discipline are in fact, contradictory. In relation to movement, order for the actor to maintain their alignment actors need to activate their ‘postural muscles, such as the deep abdominal muscle…the transverse abdominis’ (Smith, Kelly & Monks 2004, p.53) to support their lumbar and sacral spine in order to maintain stability. This core stability is crucial for basic movements such as running, throwing, bending down and walking. In voice work, this notion is dismissed. For example, in self breath observation when the actor is in a standing position, they may be encouraged to release the abdominal area and solely rely on the spine for alignment. If this is the notion, what is supporting the spine?

When the actor moves around in voice class, the notion of engaging the abdominal region is dismissed and focus lies on the spine. The Alexander Technique, where alignment is the key focus in realigning the habitually unaligned body, plays an important role in this example. Although the Alexander Technique is profound and relevant in both movement and voice work, it dismisses the notion of engaging the centre band of muscles that are crucial for movement and breath control. As Alexander addressed during one of his teaching sessions, ‘control should be in process, not superimposed’ (Alexander 1969, p.3), and in Pilates, ‘movements should be performed slowly…with absolute control’ (Smith, Kelly & Monks 2004, p.57) incorporating controlled, focused, natural breathing patterns.

Although Pilates enhances the performers awareness of anatomy, alignment and physiology, Melton states that the breathing method ‘seems alien to good voice use’ (Melton 2001, p.3). Pilates teaches advocate audible breathing through the nose. This is mainly for the participant of the exercise to have an audible sense of breath flow, and nasal breathing promotes relaxation as opposed to oral breathing commonly practiced in voice and speech classes. The breathing in Pilates is focused in the chest area, and the expansion of the abdominal area is discouraged. Actors have an understanding that breath needs to be diaphragmatic and the rise and fall of the abdominal area is important. One of modern theatres prominent voice teachers, Cicely Berry states in Voice and the Actor that:

‘it is obvious that there is considerable room for movement in the lower part of the chest…if you breathe from the upper part of the chest…the whole ribcage has to move and you use a great deal of effort to get a relatively small amount of breath’ (Berry 1993, p.21).

Pilates does not encourage any movement in the abdominal area (i.e, belly rising when inhaling and flattens when exhaling). This notion applies to dancers as well, as they ‘need firm, strong abdominal muscles to support the spine and maintain proper alignment’ (Dance Directory 2003).

The voice and the body operate as one and the centre instigates them both; ‘each must plug into the impulse centre deep in the body’ (Linklater 1976, p. 207). The impulse in the motor cortex of the brain ‘stimulates the breath to enter and leave the body’ (Linklater 1976, p. 6). As inhalation takes place, the entire abdominal region releases, allowing the diaphragm to collapse. The muscles contract when exhalation occurs and the vocal folds are engaged, creating oscillations. When the speaker completes the thought, the impulse to say the next thought activates the abdominal muscles to release and allows the breath to enter the body.

In order to become aware of the function of these muscles in voice work, the actor needs to engage in a variety of physical exercises along side conventional voice exercises commonly executed. In rehearsals, I have actively engaged actors in a variety of Pilates exercises. For example, the Role-Up, a beneficial exercise to engage the centre by targeting the abdominals and hip flexors, was used not only for breath control and flow (which is the other purpose of the exercise), but also for the delivery of text. The Roll-Up is performed with the participant on the floor with arms overhead and legs straight. The participant then brings their arms to a 90° angle while breathing in, and curls their body, paying attention to the vertebrae, into a sitting position. Without maintaining that position for a long period of time, the participant reaches out past their toes to stretch the hamstrings while breathing out. The participant breathes in as they return to the sitting position and then breathes out as they return to lying. I have incorporated voice work to this exercise by including voice in place of the breath by initiating vibration (either a hum or ‘vv’), then to an open ‘ah’ sound, then text. The result is a rich, centred sound, and the performer will have the ability to understand the notion of ‘speaking from the centre’. Not only will they connect the body and voice to the breath, they will have a clear understanding of the benefits of releasing and constricting the abdominal muscles.

There can be a healthy relationship between core stability training and conventional voice work. The two have conflicting methods of practice and techniques, but the fundamental purposes of them are the same: to connect the body with the breath and to increase an awareness of ones own body and the potential it has. Incorporating Pilates in voice work allows the performer to not only gain body, movement and breath awareness, but to understand economy of movement. The term ‘core strength’ must be replaced with ‘core control’ because the philosophy behind Pilates’s work is about using the right amount of action for the required task.

References

Alexander, F M 1969, The Alexander Technique, Unwin Brothers Limited, Surrey.

Berry, C 1993, Voice and the Actor, Virgin Books, London.

Dance Directory, Dance and Isoflex, viewed 29 November 2005, <dancedirectory.co.za/content/articles/articles.asp?Section+DanceandExercise>.

Linklater, K 1976, Freeing the Natural Voice, Drama Publishers, Hollywood.

Kroschlova, J 2000, Movement Theory and Practice, Currency Press, Sydney.

Melton, J 2001 ‘Pilates Training and the Actor/Singer’, The Australian Voice, viewed 28 November 2005, < http://www.onevoicebook.com/mainframeset2.html>.

Rodenburg, P 1997, The Actor Speaks, Methuen, London.

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About Robert Lewis

Dr Robert Lewis is a graduate of NIDA (Grad. Dip. Voice), University of Tasmania (BPA, PhD), Monash University (BA, Honours) and RMIT (Grad. Dip. Ed). Robert is a Lecturer in Voice and Movement at the Tasmanian College of the Arts, University of Tasmania and has published theatre performances and training films through Contemporary Arts Media (Artfilms) and has also published various articles on the subject of voice and movement. Robert is the director of the Voice Theatre Lab (VTL) and its associated company, Persona Collective, a performance group focusing on integrative practices. For VTL, Robert has directed Dr Faustus (2007, 2008), 5 (2008), The Oedipus Project (2009), Iam Nocte (2010), Alchemy (2010), Profuge (2011, 2014) and the site-specific performance Two Houses (2011) as part of Iteration:Again. For Persona, Robert performed I Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo (2014) and directed Savages (2014) as part of Junction Arts Festival. Other directing credits include St Nicholas (2004), Glib Western (2005), The Pillowman (2010), When The Rain Stops Falling (2012) and The Photo (2013), including many other productions through the Theatre Program at the Tasmanian College of the Arts.

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