On election morning, November 8, 2016 my article I had titled “Clinton vs. Trump: A Case Study in Persuasion” was picked up by the leading German newspaper DIE WELT.
Prophetically they choose to change the title to “Trump will win – he has the better voice.”
Trump will win – he has the better voice
By Scott Miller | Published on 08.11.2016
Research shows us vocal variety increases the perception of credibility and charisma to the listener. This is not new news but why does it? This is news.
Melody in a human’s voice conveys point of view. Melody is made up of two elements; pitch variation – tones going high, low and everywhere in between AND Tempo – how long, short, quick or slow a person speaks and varies speed within a phrase. A phrase is an exhaled bunch of words put together in between each inhale to put the next bunch of words together. Watch someone talk you’ll see them inhale say a bunch of words and then inhale again – those words are a phrase.
Donald Trump has more musical variety in his vocal expression. Hillary Clinton has less. More musicality means a greater sense of one’s point of view (i.e. opinion). When I know someone’s point of view, I am much more likely to have one myself. When I do not know someone’s point of view I am much more likely to be suspicious of their intentions; if I am suspicious of one’s intentions I trust them less. When I am released to have a point of view about another’s point of view, I may not agree with them but I am more likely to trust them. If I disagree with someone, inherently, I believe them – after all I must believe them enough to disagree with them. I like trusting others because it helps me know myself, reflect my identity out into the world. I exist since they exist.
Hillary Clinton has little variation in her musicality, at times in her past, substituting volume for musicality. That’s like substituting Aspartame for honey, it feels more effective to the speaker but it doesn’t stick to the bones of the listener. If the speaker has not allowed me to see myself more clearly, by understanding their point of view musically, there is nothing compelling about the experience. If it is not compelling, I am simply left to witness an event instead of experience myself in it. My identity is what is reflected back to me. I see myself clearest when the mirrored reflection is clearest. A common device in torture is isolation. When I am in isolation I lose a sense of myself because there is nothing outside of me to reflect myself off of or back at me. A lack of musicality creates a witnessing experience for the listener, as a witness I end up feeling left out of the main event, I am an outsider. I don’t like feeling like an outsider. Without varied musicality I get ahead of the information, not because I am not interested in it but because the lack of suspense fails to hold the attention of both me the speaker or me the listener.
When I hear a point of view, I am able to relate myself to it – I can either agree or disagree, both move the evolution of the conversation forward. Family members can cultivate the necessary feelings and viewpoints to feud with other family members for generations, in some instances. Points of view have staying power, they create attachment to oneself and to others around. They are the stuff of great plays and myths, the DNA of heroes and villains alike. Neutrality is like a cobweb, flimsy and eerie; we walk gingerly through them, old and dusty, a sign of death – our suspicion at high alert. Which way do I go? Maybe best to stop and turnaround. I am alone.
I have been programmed to hear my leaders sound a certain way. They, like the parent, come on TV and tell me about decisions already made and how I need to act in light of them. I then have clarity to agree or disagree with them. I am not accustomed to hearing my leaders talk about the nuance of policy or the realities of a complex situation. I do not want to hear this from my leaders, it sounds weak and somehow “un-leadery” and definitely non-parental. When I am parented I feel safer and more protected. I feel like death is not around the corner able to snatch me up at any moment. I feel complete, like I can get on with my life. I know I am deluding myself, deep down, that death is everywhere at all times in all things – that death is correct nature, but I don’t like it so I am happy to pretend, with my leader’s assurance, that it is all being handled by the parent. I was abandoned once as a child, I feel redemption when my leader sounds like they’ll stand with me with their committed tones.
The smart side of my brain picks out words for meaning, the sappy side feels and sways with the music – which side controls my gut? There are certain words that have rolled down the hill so far and amassed so many things in their path they can’t any longer resemble the original meaning. I am left simply with the grooves and contours, the flats and sharps of the delivery device. I hear rather than see.
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Competition: (1) The act or process of trying to win something that someone else is trying to get – Merriam-Webster. (2) An event or state of being that serves to separate – Miller Voice Method Studio.
Competition creates a pervasive atmosphere through the halls of actor training programs and studios. It is acknowledged sparingly by instructors in the early days of training as to not create too much fear because we want artists to feel free to fail, of course. And then inevitably, references to competition increase in frequency and its presence becomes palpable until it might as well be a neon sign hung in all the studios—“You will be up against a thousand actors just like you in NYC and LA, so you must bring your A-Game.” If it is not said this bluntly, it is implied with equal intention.
Competition is used as a motivator, as a threat, as a reality-checker, and as a self-saboteur.
I have seen a deep sense of competition in students brew amazing results. The idea that they must prove themselves against their perceived competition motivates consistent work on their body and craft, inspired preparation, and a sharp awareness of what needs improvement.
But at what cost?
Why do we cultivate a spirit of competition?
The acting/vocal approach and think tank, Miller Voice Method Studio, which includes the studio’s co-founders Scott Miller, Liam Joynt, and myself, our company of teachers- in-training and every student that has crossed our paths in classes and workshops, has had active conversations in those classes, in meetings, and possibly most fruitfully in quite random places about the power of competition in actor training for several years. This evolving conversation has fundamentally changed how I approach the idea of competition and I see inspiring results in the studio. For the last two years, I have helped guide 3rd year MFA candidates from my institution through their NYC showcase. The group could have come apart at the seams under the unique pressure of such an event. Instead, from the pre-performance warm-up through the dissemination of industry results (what agents and casting directors were interested in them), I consistently heard the students acknowledge their fears, desires, and sense of competition to each other. They shared when they began to isolate themselves emotionally from the ensemble for fear of being the only one who didn’t get a strong response from the industry or the one that received inspiring responses and didn’t want to share in the spoils. What this spirit of acknowledgment did for their technique was tangible. They had a sense of humility, transparency, and hope that relaxed their bodies and breathing so that it could serve the needs of the performance under huge pressure. The other program that we showcased with and alumni who were helping support the events both remarked how chill, relaxed, and close the group seemed.
How has competition so prominently found its way into modern actor training? When we, as actor trainers, begin to prepare artists for the industry, we set up an expectation of what is required, what is good enough, and what to strive for. Every time these words or their equivalent are muttered in the studio: “that might be good enough for college, but it won’t cut it in the industry,” we create the competition of “Student Artist vs. The Fantastical Beast,” a dangerously generalized idea of how the industry works and what it demands. But because the industry is so vast, and because it re-writes its needs every decade, it isn’t realistic or even possible to claim we know what the industry needs.
This is especially true if the teacher is a working artist in the field because that teaching professional can only speak from his/her perspective within the industry. It is incredibly difficult to not project one’s personal career experiences within the industry on all students when they will all, of course, have uniquely individualized journeys. And it is perhaps even harder to accept or stay open to complementary information as another way in if one didn’t find that information relevant in their personal career. So the working teaching artist’s insider information, which can be incredibly useful and relevant, can also be incredibly narrowing to a student’s perspective if not strongly framed within the context of its singular derivation.
So what do we actually mean when we refer to “the industry?” How many student actors have dropped out of acting school and gone on to incredibly meaningful acting careers? I can think of quite a few—Michael Fassbender of 12 Years a Slave and Taylor Schilling of Orange is the New Black are two of recent note. These artists that take non-traditional paths to success in the industry are a huge portion of who actually makes up the industry, which seems to say that, as a fellow teacher and actor, your-guess-is-as-good-as-mine when it comes to what the industry is looking for.
Perhaps this unknown ability to prepare and predict the needs of a student’s unique career trajectory creates a need to conjure a fantastical gauntlet where we define the rules, and then go about presiding over this gladiatorial competition as expert judges. We can then refer to it as often as necessary as a way to dissipate our own fears as teachers that we don’t actually have the answers. I can see why we would be motivated to do this because isn’t it our job to share tangible steps in conquering the industry?
It reminds me of all the wisdom parents try and instill in their children so that they go off to college and find success and not end up in jail. But a more realistic anecdote that equates to what it is to prepare an acting student for the industry would be the preparation of my toddler-aged daughter, Hazel, for daycare: “Here is a bag that contains an extra outfit and extra diapers, good luck,” because who knows what that girl is going to get into and experience by the time I pick her up. There is something deeply unsettling about this reality. That is why my heart sinks every time I drive off from the care center. It is why I pack four times the amount of diapers necessary for the given day. I have to be very intentional to not create seemingly known parameters for her to survive by that in essence are for the calming of my fears. Any parameters I invent based on my imagination of what might happen to her are at best irrelevant to her and at worst misguiding. On the most basic level, this is true of our relationships to our students as well.
This is an excerpt from an article published by Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group in the Voice and Speech Review, 8:3,on Oct. 30, 2014.
The obvious and unusual suspects of competition
There is competition between acting and vocal integration pedagogies. I have myriad memories of teachers cringing when they would hear another acting teacher’s name or the use of language from a different approach. Some would handle these moments with more grace than others, but often it was made clear that what we were learning was the best, most effective method, and the others were perhaps slightly misguided. I have witnessed one phrase like “vocal production” or “vocal release” send my teacher into a 30-minute dissertation on the evils of such nomenclature. Well-meaning guides have told me that Knight-Thompson speech work is “heresy” and that Skinner is the most delectable way to hear expression articulated. Some teachers have told me that if you like to roll around the floor for years on end while imagining your voice is a tree in the wind, go do some more Linklater; “Tremors and Fitzmaurice … don’t get me started.” But the favorite advice I received was when I was told that “If you really want to learn how to bark on top of tables, then go to Yale Drama School!” I’m not even sure what that advice meant. Here are all these derisive references to some of the most commonly used approaches in vocal training, each proven to be effective in their unique ways for particular people, and yet many of the references are filtered through the desire to diminish other’s work and elevate one’s own dogmatic beliefs. What inspires this phenomenon if not competition?
There is competition amongst artistic teachers within departments and studios, between studios vying for students in a city, and between countries and styles of training. In the hierarchical structure of teacher training consortiums, I have witnessed in my colleagues a desire to be certified at a certain level, and to then be sought after by students based on the newly acquired experience and skills that that certification level projects. Opportunities within that consortium for these precious experiences might seem scarce, so positioning oneself for said opportunities is essential for success. Getting the best job possible against other applicants involves acquiring the right CV fodder through winning the very opportunities that will make your dossier pop out of the pile of those fellow competitors. So this “Me vs. Ghost Applicants” mentality sets in, and from my experience, creates actual physical tension: it feels very narrow and tight in the chest.
There is competition between professional actor training programs, of course. I remember being on the MFA audition circuit as a prospective MFA candidate. When I would mention the other programs I was interested in, some programs would launch into a spiel about what made their program far superior to the other programs I was considering. It was exciting to feel like someone might be fighting for me and therefore it had quite an effect on my decision. It appealed to a sense of competition in me that was already well developed and easily exploited. So this approach is actually effective in recruiting students who are innately attracted to competition. They may or may not actually be a good fit for the specific program, but the competitive nature in the wiring of both parties has been revealed at the very least.
I have learned much from watching my current colleagues resist engaging perspec- tive students in this way, and I find it inspiring and equally effective. My colleagues speak to what we know we do well and what makes us unique. We speak about the other programs as “our friends and colleagues” and then let the chips fall where they may. This style of recruiting is devoid of the competitive language that can pressurize the situation. This way we as recruiters and the students can look at the potential fit with as much objectivity as possible in a very subjective circumstance. Therefore, it would seem the very structure of actor training has competition woven deeply into its different administrative structures, training, and vernacular.
This is an excerpt from an article published by Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group in the Voice and Speech Review, 8:3,on Oct. 30, 2014.
Competition has a direct impact on the artist’s technique and state of being
Competition, by its very definition, serves to separate one from others. I find it to be a state of mind that directly and adversely impacts the artist’s body. I see how the competitive atmosphere between students or even within a student turns their focus inward and creates adverse tension. And as soon as they turn their focus inward in these circumstances, they have successfully separated themselves, even if just their focus, from the group experience. I can tangibly feel it in their bodies when I hold the ribs during vocal integration exercises. I will feel the student’s ribs suddenly decrease in mobility and activity in the middle of a student’s expression, and then inquire about the sudden change in dynamic. Invariably, the student will reveal that she began to employ an attempt to “get it right” or “really nail the moment.” This very attempt to “get it right” points directly to a self-competition, a noble attempt to get better. This attempt serves an idea of what should be rather than what is actually happening in that moment.
When students compete with themselves through some expectation of how to conquer the exercise—which could perhaps be seen as a microcosm of figuring out the needs of the industry—the ribs hold and begin to squeeze in on the creation of sound, robbing precious bandwidth from the expression. The result of this squeezed expression is that the ensuing incoming breath reacts by sucking in through tension. Then to compensate for this sucking/drowning experience, we over-breathe in an attempt to relieve the pressure. This cycle begins to perpetuate itself and becomes very hard to shift into a new pattern that is more sustainable. It makes a two-minute monologue feel like 15 minutes because as audience, the performer can very easily dictate our breathing pattern. So my own tension in response to the actor’s tension makes the viewing of the work difficult if not awkward. Perhaps it is this reason why we lose focus so easily in the audience of a play—I feel and begin to take-on the actor’s tension because they are trying to get the performance “right” and my only option to shed this tension is to begin to check my watch to see how long it will be before the intermission.
Voice trainers might spend weeks teaching to the habitual physical issues that create this perpetuating cycle of tension but a more efficient mode of teaching might be to acknowledge and dissipate the spirit of competition or self-competition. I have found the results to be instant and sustainable.
There is a breath, presence, and vocal expression that synchronizes with what is actually happening in the moment for an actor. This is the Golden Snipe that I hunt as performer and teacher. I sense it in the great performers I revere but don’t often see in professional productions, especially consistently. We recognize this synchronicity as practitioners and as audience members as informatively human: The kind of human behavior that I respond to on a visceral level and therefore learn or feel something I didn’t glean before. The self-aware performer that is attempting to “get it right” engages in behaviors and a way of breathing that we don’t recognize as un-affected human behavior—a squeezed breath, absent presence, and vocal manipulation that are inspired from an actor’s “idea” of the moment.
Actors within themselves and the teachers that work on them can feel a distinct difference between the two states, albeit sometimes a subtle one, in the performer’s body. Whether it is the muscles of the throat, the ribs, or the transverse muscles in the abdominal wall, the physical signs of a present expression versus a manipulation of the moment are quite apparent. For each section of the speaking apparatus that I mention here, there is an over-engagement of the muscles when the student is in the fantasy of how a moment should be opposed to allowing it be whatever it is in that moment. For example, we are lying on the floor, my hands on a student’s lower abdominals, and I direct the student to speak out random numbers until they feel the need for a new breath. We do this over and over again to experience and learn the effort level this entails. I feel a very low amount of effort and tension in the student’s engagement of the musculature. Then I direct the student at the same volume to go seamlessly into a monologue. Consistently, I will feel the musculature shift to something much more engaged and tense. All we have done is introduce text, and yet this huge change in the coordination of the expression appears without my coaching the student to change their level of effort. Upon investigating, I invariably discover that the student has begun to put attention on how to replicate the circumstances of the text based on a preconceived idea.
So competition in the studio (competing with oneself in most cases) instantly shifts an actor’s attention to create what “could” or “should” be in this moment opposed to what actually is. The muscles tense and the entire physical apparatus fall out of sync; therefore, creating an inefficient expression that lacks the power of genuine impulse and response. In this way, the atmosphere of competition has robbed the artist of genuine expression. A voice teacher might mistake this for poor habitual physical techniques, and an acting teacher might mistake it for a lack of commitment to circumstance or playable actions. My conclusion is that a delusion of competition has sabotaged the work.
This kind of technique (one that unintentionally forms) is opposite to what is usually beneficial for a communal experience in the studio or performance space, yet I will be the first to acknowledge that competition does generate a kind of commitment to progress in the individual. That said, this particular type of commitment in a student has very little relationship to the ensemble, and is often at the expense of the ensemble. I have experienced this spirit of competition first hand as a student and a teacher, and unknowingly instigated it as a teaching tool, so I am fully aware of the opportunities for shifts in my own approaches.
This is an excerpt from an article published by Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group in the Voice and Speech Review, 8:3,on Oct. 30, 2014.
Does competition exist in the arts?
Well of course, it seems. There are 100 plays vying for the same grant, 100 red-headed actors vying for the same Wendy’s commercial, 100 skilled teachers vying for the same tenure-track position in a great department. But these might be all superficial and practical examples. Perhaps it is misguided to debate whether or not a spirit of competition is good or bad for training actors because I believe the very concept of competition existing in the arts is delusional.
Delusion is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a persistent belief that is maintained despite indisputable evidence to the contrary.” So can the consistently subjective choices that we make in the arts industry actually create a field of competition? I say no, and the indisputable evidence exists in what a competition actually is.
For the clearest definition of competition, we can look at sports—a footrace in particular. There are runners; they begin from the same starting line, start at the exact same time, and whoever reaches the finish line first, wins. This is beautifully objective, and why some find sports so thrilling. If the race is subjectively fixed or manipulated in any way, it loses its integrity and violates the audience’s faith in the purity of the event in some way. It would become entertainment for entertainment’s sake rather than a true competition.
Viewed through this lens, an actor’s experiences with casting and the industry are clearly not a competition because the decisions casting and other industry people make regarding which actor to hire are completely subjective. The “role” the actor is vying for is anything but an objective finish line. How a production team chooses an actor to play a role, or any position on their creative staff for that matter, is filled with subjective opinions like “I really liked how she walked in the room” or “I can’t cast her … her voice really grates on me.” These bits of opinion help distill what they ultimately decide. They are choosing tribe members to embark on an artistic journey with, not holding stopwatches to verify who is the fastest. So how could an actor possibly “win” a role with that level of subjectivity stacked up against them? And as they compete with the idea of what the industry is looking for, they push their authentic self further away from the present moment.
The real goal then becomes to bring as much of one’s “self” to the event so that some- one might be able to see my unique sensibilities and therefore more fully and accurately assess whether I am a good fit for the tribe. This has nothing to do with beating someone out for a role, but rather about finding partners for inspired, complementary collaboration. This changes the game: it becomes about the abundance of opportunities to find each other as artists, not the scarcity of roles available to fight for.
The question for us as educators, then, is what atmosphere is most effective to coax a more transparent expression out of the student artist? What will replace competition as a tool for motivation once the student leaves the atmosphere of the training studio?
I offer these ideas as a starting point:
I find these aforementioned ideas antithetical to the spirit of competition that serves to separate artists from each other and from their individual authentic sense of self. A perspective of generosity towards students and abundance of opportunity in the industry not only helps the psyche of an actor through the darker days of an artistic career but also deepens the level of transparency and power in the audition. In my personal career, I no longer contract with tension in response to perceived competition when I am able to acknowledge that delusional belief is creeping in. It is not just about feeling better and everyone getting along—it is about booking jobs as well. With these tools implemented and practiced, the actor’s success next to me is my success and greater collective joy. A powerful motivator indeed!
These ideas implemented as tools might appear less efficient or effective at first for some because they are far less known than the competition-based model celebrated in our culture and society. But with consistent practice as teacher and student over the span of two or three years, I find they robustly replace the space left by competition.
It of course is much easier to write and intellectualize about this new frame of mind that Miller Voice Method currently experiments with. It is quite a different experience, sometimes humbling if not harrowing, in practice.
Where the rubber meets the road is when I sit next to 10 red-heads in the callback, who look just like me, and an instinct kicks in that I must beat them out through Herculean effort. Instead of giving in to that competitive impulse, I then must choose to shift my breath to something more expansive and free in movement because chances are my breath is becoming held and static as the desire to “win” rises within me. In doing this, in that moment, I practice the new perspective that I actually don’t have to win the role from them. I simply need to breathe a generous breath of hope for our shared success as I walk in and dare myself to share a deeper piece of me that day.
I do hope I get the role though … I need the money; my kids are currently competing for every last morsel in my pantry!