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December 2007 / Volume 25

Voice Training in a Multilingual Society

By Donald Woodburn

Thanks to the exceptional Bill Pepper and the NIDA voice staff, in 1996 I discovered a wonderful life-changing passion for words which has set me off on the most fulfilling life journey.

I am a South African living in a country with 11 official languages, and a number of other languages which are quite widely spoken. My country has a history of division, subjugation, class, cast, racial, gender and sexual discrimination, now coupled with opportunity, democracy and social and political change. It is an extraordinary space to inhabit and one in which I have had the pleasure of working extensively for both the national broadcaster (The South African Broadcasting Corporation) and The South African School of Film and Drama (AFDA) where I was Head of Voice.

I say the pleasure of working, as because of our history, our world of expression here is fraught with difficulties which have provided me with the most challenging work imaginable. Most of the people I have trained work either in their second language, or in their first language but with little or no valuable language, voice or presentation training.

Let me digress a little quickly to pre-1960’s South Africa. Historically most of the training done in South Africa then, was done either directly by the BBC or filtered out of their manuals by white English speaking South Africans. And most of the training provided was for those engaging with English broadcasting using Received Pronunciation. For African language broadcasting, the principles were loosely extrapolated, if applied at all.

And when it comes to voice training in our modern educational institutions the situation remains as dire, with many secondary and tertiary institutions either clinging to the old or simply throwing out the whole ‘voice baby’ with the ‘Received Pronunciation bath water’. So it is no surprise that the very mention of the words ‘voice’ and ‘training’ usually sends our actors, presenters and public speakers into a rapid decline.

Understanding this and the political opposition to many things pre-democracy, I entered the training arena with a great sense of trepidation, care and a total willingness to explore. Each day I drew up classes, prepared workshops and went into the training room ready to dump it all at a moment’s notice. And out of necessity I often had to.

But slowly a pattern began to emerge. I discovered a world of fear and resentment. I discovered a world in which communicators were terribly afraid to open their mouths for fear of not sounding good enough, clever enough or clear enough. I discovered a world that swung between superiority and inferiority and that was mixed with terrible emotion.

So I began to backtrack. I started looking for the areas of commonality among all the racial, cultural and social groups. I started looking for some foundations to work from. And what I found was Bill’s love of words and sound. The two things that worked over and over again were taking the communicators back to loving every word they spoke in every language, and in getting them to love the varied sounds that came from their mouths. And when I did this I swept away the language barriers and won over about 95 percent of the trainees. Their confidence soared and their desire to speak was astonishing. And after that we could explore almost any of the other training I had received, as long as it built on their confidence. And the results were amazing.

I watched journalists, actors and presenters move from using dull stilted speech into embracing lively dynamic open sound. I watched bodies go from bent and stiff to open and free. I watched journalists and actors seeking extra exposure and I watched them improve in both their mother tongues and in their second languages. I watched them sweeping away their negative historical relationships with language and performance, and I saw a dynamic new approach to speech emerge.

It was amazing. And so I guess I am writing this for three reasons. Firstly to say thank you to Bill, for his expertise, his passion and for the way in which he executes his training. Secondly, to remind you all that what NIDA offers is extraordinary and matters very much, even beyond Australia’s boarders. And finally to encourage those NIDA graduates who work abroad to take their amazing knowledge with them when they leave and to find ways to let it work where ever they are.

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