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Phuh! Shahhh…Ping! It’s Vocal Yoga

Dr. Freeland and students stand in a circle engaging in "vocal yoga."
Dr. Tom Freeland leads Vocal Yoga students through expansive breathing and exhaling-on-sound exercises.

“My voice is monotone.” “My voice gets shaky when I present.” “How do I project my voice without hurting it?” These are just a few of the concerns students may share with us as they develop their speaking skills. For Dr. Thomas (Tom) Freeland, an Advanced Lecturer in the Oral Communication Program, the answer to most vocal issues starts with one thing: breath. “Most people do not breathe often or deeply enough in public speaking,” Freeland says. For more than 20 years, he’s been helping students develop their vocal technique through his weekly drop-in Vocal Yoga workshop.

What is Vocal Yoga (or VoYo, for short)? You can think of it as a guided voice workout. Unlike regular yoga, there are no intense stretching poses or meditation involved. Rather, Tom leads students in exercises moving through three stages of a voice warmup: relaxation and diaphragmatic breathing; phonation (releasing sound on the breath) and resonance; and articulation and text.

The exercises are adapted from the work of the late Kristin Linklater, a leading vocal coach who believed that every voice has the ability— when liberated from physical tension and inhibition—to express with subtlety and sensitivity, the range of emotions and complexities of thought that the speaker experiences. “To free the voice is to free the person,” she wrote in her book, Freeing the Natural Voice. Linklater was part of a movement among voice teachers away from the prescriptive, rule-based approach of elocution education toward pedagogies that value a speaker’s authentic personal expression and interpretation of a text. Her approach uses physical exercises to release tension in the body and develop kinesthetic awareness of the connections between the breath, voice, mind, and body.

Tom first became acquainted with the Linklater technique as an undergrad at the University of Colorado and actor in the Colorado Shakespeare Festival. When he was a PhD student in Drama at Stanford, a special opportunity opened to him. He recalls, “The great Patricia Ryan [author of Improv Wisdom] found me a grant to go to the summer training program at Shakespeare and Company in Massachusetts (co-founded by Linklater), where I learned a great deal more and thought much more about how I would teach these practices.” 

After experiencing the four-week, 16 hours-a-day voice-for-actors training intensive, Tom adapted the approach for students by relating the techniques to presentation skills. “I slow it all down…and focus a lot more on the value of the breathing exercises for general relaxation and confidence.” When students learn proper breathing technique, their vocal stamina and projection also improve.

Multilingual students appreciate the articulation work to improve speech clarity. Through tongue twisters like, A proper cup of coffee in a proper copper coffee pot, Tom teaches VoYo participants to notice how consonant sounds are formed with the lips, tongue, teeth and palate. Tom also tells us, “Combined with better breath support, improved articulation will go a long way toward fixing most people’s projection problems.” 

Offered as a drop-in workshop, VoYo is open to the entire campus community. The group size in any given week may range from a fortunate few to fifty, including first-time visitors and die-hard regulars. The latter share their public speaking adventures with Tom. “I had a student some years ago who enjoyed VoYo so much that she ended up going off to Massachusetts, to the Shakespeare and Company training. She brought me back a tee-shirt!”

After experiencing the benefits of Tom’s vocal exercises themself at a professional development meeting during PWR’s “September Sessions,” PWR instructor Shannon Hervey-Lentz decided to bring their PWR 2 students to Tom’s VoYo earlier this Fall quarter. Shannon observed: “Students didn’t just stretch vocally. It appeared that they also came face to face with the discomfort inherent in the vulnerability of taking up space with their bodies and voice.” At the beginning of the session, students engaged with apprehension, but toward the middle of the session, Tom had the students forcefully, loudly, proudly, and even playfully turning sounds over in their mouths and using their bodies to experiment with different types of vocalizations. One of Shannon’s students reflects, “I didn’t really ever consider that the way my voice sounds as I speak is directly related to my body. I mean, of course it is, but it never occurred to me that I could be mindful about what I’m doing with my body and breath and that it would then impact how I sound.” Another student put it like this: “Doing just one VoYo session during my PWR 2 experience changed how I approached my presentations throughout the entire quarter down to how I wrote my scripts. Now, I needed to be thinking about how my sentences would give me time enough to breathe properly.”

With all these benefits, it’s no surprise Vocal Yoga endures as a long-standing workshop at Stanford. For those of you who may not have experienced VoYo yet, here’s what Tom would like you to know: “It's fun, it's easy, it requires no background in (or for that matter interest in) theatre or acting. It feels good, and like any program of exercise, the more you do it, the more you get out of it.” And you can count on VoYo’s signature closing with Shakespeare. Their voices all warmed-up, students recite the sonnet of the week with crisp consonant sounds and resonant vowels: "O learn to read what silent love hath writ! To hear with eyes belongs to love’s fine wit."

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Vocal Yoga is open to the campus and meets on Wednesdays, from 12-1 p.m., at the GSB during Weeks 2-10 during the Fall, Winter and Spring Quarters. No registration necessary. Updated room information is posted on the Hume Center’s Speaking Workshops webpage: https://hume.stanford.edu/speaking/speaking-workshops. If you are interested in arranging a Vocal Yoga workshop for your class, please contact the Oral Communication Program at speakinghelp@stanford.edu, or email Tom at thomas@stanford.edu.

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