There may have been sympathy as well as gloating at the toe-curling embarrassment of Theresa May’s Conservative Party conference speech last week, but there was no getting away from the heavy symbolism of a woman choking on her own words. Watching as her authority drained away from her with every splutter and cough, we should all have been reminded of the power of the voice and how we are rendered impotent when we lose control of it.
As it happens, on the day of the speech I was reading Jeannette Nelson’s excellent Voice Exercise Book. Jeannette, a client of mine, is head of voice at the National Theatre. She talks about the importance of posture and breathing deeply, supporting the voice, freeing yourself of tension in the voice, and she gives tons of very useful exercises to help you find your voice and use it effectively.
I’ve sung in choirs now for 20 years and have always been interested in the voice and what I can do to produce a good sound in rehearsal and in the concert. A lot of singers will find their voice as they sing. I remember a concert given by the great Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florez (pictured here) who started with a dominant nasal quality that was quite unpleasant. But a few songs in, he had relaxed, found his voice and won over his audience. I once asked him why he didn’t sing more lyrical opera – he is known for mastering the bel canto repertoire. He said it was impossible to sing both – that lyrical singing used different parts of the voice and making the switch took too long and so he was obliged to stick with bel canto.
Most people think of the voice as if it is to do only with the mouth and throat. In fact it engages pretty well the whole body. As a massage therapist and singer, I’m very sensitive to voice and what it tells me about a client. When people come to me with tight, ungiving voices, I’ll work on their shoulders, scalenes and other neck muscles, their intercostal muscles and try to get them to breathe deep into the diaphragm. Massage breaks down tensions in the muscles, opening up cavities in the body that are so important for resonance. Tense muscles restrict the voice and change its quality.
Before Theresa May gave her ill-fated conference speech, it was widely seen as a chance for her to reassert her authority. She must have been unusually tense even without the added stress of a throat infection – and parts of the set dropping off. Jeannette Nelson makes the most salient point early on in her book: ‘Believe me, you will not engage your listeners fully … unless your voice sounds authentic – honestly yours.’ The authentic voice carries authority. Theresa May’s crisis of voice was also a crisis of heart – she will begin to convince as a leader when she finds her authentic voice.