Thursday, December 16, 2010

"Control" of the Diaphragm

I was looking forward to seeing “The King’s Speech” (my field, after all) until I read that Lionel Logue wrote, after his first consultation, that Prince Albert had poor control of his diaphragm.

No kidding! If we could control our diaphragms, no one would ever hiccup.

Back in college I had a singer friend who was very proud of her diaphragm, which she would display. What she was showing off was what looked like a role of fat below her ribs. Her vocal teacher had told her that that was her diaphragm.

The word “diaphragm” is bandied about by voice and speech teachers who don’t have a clue what the diaphragm is–a horizontal set of muscles between the lungs and the guts. A muscle set that gets pushed down by the lungs when we inhale, and that gets pushed back up the guts when we exhale. A muscle set that gets pushed around, not one that we can “control.”

At least two prominent voice coaches advise bouncing one’s voice off one’s diaphragm. They don’t explain how this can be accomplished anatomically. Nor do they seem to realize that, in advising a student to bounce a sound anywhere, that student is likely to tighten some muscles in the throat to act as the bouncer.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Even the Best

I recently attended a performance by a well-known radio personality that was irritating as hell. My party was seated in the balcony. The performer was positioned so far forward on the stage that we either had to assume a partial-standing position so we could see him, or close our eyes and pretend we were listening to him on the radio. You can imagine what happens when, at my age, I close my eyes.

My host at the event became so angry that he vowed to complain to theatre management. How could they, in all conscience, cut off the sight lines of an entire portion of a paying audience?

But I had seen this performer a decade ago at the 92d St. Y in New York, where I could see him clearly, and where, even though a decade younger, I fell asleep at least twice.

The first time, I assigned blame for my snooze problem on his material, which wasn’t that interesting. But at this performance, he had great material, and his deliverythe ebb and flow of tension and release, the timing–could have served as a “how-to” course for any public speaker. And yet, there I was, off in dreamland again.

Inconceivable as it seems, even to me, this performer has not learned, after decades on stage, the difference between the energy required for a radio audience and a live audience.

Radio requires intimacy. The performer’s energy is concentrated through the mike to a virtual audience of one person or one family, listening in car or a living room. Very different from a three-balcony theatre where, even though one is using a microphone, the energy has to expand to include everyone.