By John Patrick
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.