A constant and continuous interaction: some personal reflections on the performer training working group session at TaPRA 2016

…the unique speech experience of each individual is shaped and developed in continuous and constant interaction with others’ individual utterances. This experience can be characterized to some degree as the process of assimilation–more or less creative–of others’ words (and not the words of a language). Our speech, that is, all our utterances (including our creative works), is filled with others’ words, varying degrees of otherness or varying degrees of “our-own-ness” ….These words of others carry with them their own expression, their own evaluative tone, which we assimilate, rework, and re-accentuate.

I love this quote.

It comes from an essay by the Russian philosopher, Mikhail Bakhtin whose ideas and concepts formed the foundation for Julia Kristeva’s intertextual theory. At the 2016 annual TaPRA conference, I was addressing Kristeva and Bakhtin’s ideas concerning intertextuality and endeavouring to demonstrate how the theory can be used to deepen our understanding of the ways in which artists intersect with each other, with audiences, with the world, with the past.

I am particularly interested in artistic domains and performance territories. In my research I am exploring how performances act as sites that enable intersections of audience and artists asking: what do these intersections yield? I am looking at the performing artist as a kind of curator who, in creating or participating in a performance, chooses to reveal certain aspects of her individual history, experience, skills, and knowledge to enable dynamic and engaging intersections with audiences.

It is this arsenal of experience, history, skill, and knowledge that I would define as the artistic domain; as the body of resources available to an artist. But in developing this understanding of an artistic domain, my own training came into question. In my performance practice, I found myself only drawing on skills and knowledge connected to my formal conservatoire musical training. I was curating from within the confines of my specialisation in classical singing and 17th century European music.

These concepts of “training” and “specialisations” are ones I wrestle with every day and I often feel as if my doctoral study has been more focused on an un-training or as Maria Kapsali so eloquently wrote in her blog post, “honouring what (one) painstakingly acquires through daily practice for the most part of (their) life”. Within conservatoire musical training programs, it is very easy to forget about all those other painstakingly acquired skills we develop simply through living, experiencing and observing life. It is even easier to become narrowly concerned with honing those new, specialised skills and to boundary the artistic domain with specific practices. In my un-training, I have been endeavouring to gain new perspectives of the specialised skills and practices I have developed throughout my training and innovate the way I implement them in a performance. I am trying to step back far enough to see my specialised training within the context of of all my skills, abilities, interests, knowledges and experiences in hopes that these new perspectives, will allow me to expand the way in which I am able to curate performances for my audiences.

But gaining new perspectives of practices you are deeply entrenched in is a difficult task – our ways of doing things and our modes of being can become so habitual and persistent that we can develop a kind of blindness to them.

I want to reflect on some of the performer training working sessions at the annual TaPRA conference from this place of wondering and questioning: how do we gain new perspectives on deeply rooted practices? How do we move past habits and expand our ways of doing and modes of being?

Reflections

One of the concepts that is still haunting me is Carol Fairlamb’s idea of the “home voice”. It is a something I have always struggled with because there are so many sounds the voice and body can make; so many ways in which they can resonate and I have spent many years focusing on one kind. Although Fairlamb’s research is questioning how vocal pedagogies can be more culturally responsive for her BAME students, this question and this concept of a “home voice” has very broad application for all performers engaging their voices. How do our personal histories and cultural backgrounds affect and define the way we use our voices? How does our physiology affect what we are able to do with our bodies and voices? How do we reconcile these things with what we are expected to do within conservatoire training programs? What happens if we don’t “fit in”?

I call into question my own vocal training and I wonder what I would define as my home voice and how I can really understand the full spectrum of my vocal palette. Where is that home voice? Where did it come from? Where does it live? What does it sound like?

In Christina Kapadocha’s somatic workshop, I revel in the joy of moving freely and releasing text with a clear mind. It warmed up my body and voice in a way I am not accustomed to and forced me to become acutely aware of my own warm-up routine and how disconnected it is from my evolving performance practices. Again, it is something that has become so routine that I have not even thought to consider it. I begin to wonder if I can translate Kapodocha’s somatic approaches to actor-training into a new way of warming up my singing and moving body at the same time.

During Eric Hetzler’s presentation on the Alba Method of Emotion and Text, I am able to reflect on a Shakespeare show I perform regularly and the particular challenge of having to change characters very quickly. His presentation allows me to focus in on how we can use the body to evoke emotional states. Although the Alba method is much more specific and requires more time then I would need on stage to make these changes, it still sheds light on the physical memory I have developed for a lot of my characters: the rigidness of Ophelia’s arms and wrists, her wide-eyes and furrowed brow; Juliet’s open chest and lifted chin, her breath entering her nose and exiting her mouth; Lady Macbeth’s broad shoulders, her head pulled up by the ears, her lower eyelids tensed to create a piercing focus.

In Hannu Tuisku’s “Loose Face” exercise, I realise just how engaged my entire body is when I produce any kind of sound. After years of vocal performances, this is something I have started to take for granted. This kind of bodily engagement in order to connect and sound my instrument is something that has become very habitual and only something I address in depth when I am facing a technical problem. This all becomes apparent as I sink into Tuisku’s guided relaxation and almost can’t make my voice resonate from this point of relaxation. I need to revisit this state more often.

A particularly poignant moment for me was participating in Pauliina Hulkko and Tiina Syrjä’s exercise for actors acting in foreign languages (in this case, Udmurt, a language native to Udmurtia, Russia). In the exercise, we listened to a recording of a voice speaking a line in Udmurt with the intention of memorising it and speaking it back. To complete this exercise, we used the recording to develop an aural sense of the line, which we repeated back aloud; we used pens and paper to write or draw images or symbols to help remember and enunciate the sounds; and we used gesture to further embody the sounds.

I remember becoming immediately frustrated. Irrationally so.

Just show me the text, I remember thinking as we were listening to the recording and trying to repeat back the sounds. And then I stop myself and start to question why I have had such a strong, and specific reaction to what is otherwise a fun and interesting exercise.

I begin to realise that Hulkko & Syrjä’s activity has encroached on an area within my specialisation. Some of the very first courses we take as classical singers are diction in German, French, Italian, Russian, Spanish, English, Czech; and these courses aim to develop tools, skills and methods for singers to quickly learn how to pronounce and perform in foreign languages. We take these classes for years (a singer will most likely take some form of diction classes every year of her study throughout her undergraduate and graduate degrees) because we are almost always performing in languages we do not speak or understand.

I am feeling frustrated with this particular exercise because I seem to have an ingrained method for learning to pronounce and present unfamiliar languages. Until this moment though, I have been completely unaware of this method and I have not thought about it or considered it in any way. This exercise is forcing me to confront a blind-habit and change the way I approach a deeply-rooted practice; which is to say, it is absolutely invaluable to me. It is showing me one way of gaining new perspectives, and moving past persistent habits. It is uncomfortable, revealing.

As I reflect on the entire conference, what transcends all the incredible workshops and research I have been privy to, is the value of allowing oneself to be open to and to be shaped by these “constant and continuous interactions with others’ utterances”. These opportunities to intersect and to place our utterances and specialisations in dialogue hold out the possibilities of revealing new areas of knowledge, of yielding new tools and experiences that expand our respective artistic domains, and finally, they present the unique opportunity of moving beyond the boundaries of ones own practices and habits, and viewing them from a new perspective.

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