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Interview with Voice and Performance Coach SJ Harrison

There are several practices, routines and techniques that can be implemented in order to learn how to use the voice in a correct, beautiful and effective way.   For instance, exercises, drills and musical studies with piano accompaniment.  Voice training is useful for the two purposes of both speaking and singing. On this subject, there is an award-winning, skilled and enlightened voice and performance coach: SJ Harrison. 

– How many square meters does freedom have?

Volume x surface area of each human body!   I’m a Buddhist, and this question puts me in mind of a quote from the teachings of Nichiren Daishonin: “First of all, as to the question of where exactly hell and the Buddha exist, one sutra states that hell exists underground, and another sutra says that the Buddha is in the west. Closer examination, however, reveals that both exist in our five-foot body…. Neither the pure land nor hell exists outside oneself; both lie only within one’s own heart.”  Internally, within our hearts and minds, we are the only ones who can set ourselves free.  External oppression is absolutely real, but we ultimately only have power over our own minds and attitude.

– Which movie character are you?

Very difficult to answer this.  I can tell you that when I was a teenager I wanted to be Indiana Jones!  I hated some of the female roles in the Raiders of the Lost Ark films. And I had a huge crush on the actor, Harrison Ford.    I’m an adventurer and I wanted to be the doer, the instigator and the rescuer, rather than the rescued.  That is not a bad description of who I’ve been in my life.  Connection and mutuality are very important to me though, and these are the relationships I now have in my life.

– Do you coach your inner voice?

Yes!  In my coaching work, I call this the critical voice.  And of course, it is not our only inner voice.  We also have the intuitive, supportive inner voice.  Working with the (negatively) critical voice is an important part of transformation.  Managing the critical voice kindly and effectively allows us to start listening to our own inner guidance.  We have to approach ourselves with observation and curiosity, questioning and hearing our own assumptions about ourselves.  When I am suffering, I try to listen to the stories I am telling myself.  They usually start with “This always happens…”. Or “I will never…”, or “Why do you always…”. Then I look at the bigger picture in a more logical way:  “Why do I think this?  Is this really what’s happening?” 

And of course, I talk to my best friend about it.  We all need friends who really love us to give us perspective.  This process of inquiry is also something I do with my clients.  The most powerful force holding them back, tends to be the negative things they may be telling themselves about their abilities or potential outcomes.  We internalize external messages as children, and as life goes on, from difficult adult experiences as well.   To advance, we must start questioning our self-limiting beliefs.

– What would you recommend for the soul’s immune system?

Continue to strive to be authentic and give voice to that which is important to you.  If you are unable to do this in your current situation, you need to evaluate your circumstances and see how to get support if changes are needed.

– When was the last time you went on a date with yourself?

I do something that my partner calls “weekending” and he encourages me to do it.  When I really need a rest, I watch Netflix for hours – mainly on the weekend.  I’m a very busy person, and am in an intense stage of life where my mother needs care and my children are still at home.  It’s true that a proper going out on my own hasn’t happened for awhile.  About a year ago, I went away for the weekend by myself.  The pandemic has limited so many things.  We’re only just opening up.  California has been consistently limited in social contact for two years.

– How would you rate yourself from 1 to 10?

I am not a fan of number ratings.  So, I wouldn’t.

– If you were your boss would you hire yourself?

I have!  You can’t ask clients to do work you aren’t doing for yourself.  I am my own boss and I work with myself in the same way I work with my clients.

– Do you work with anyone who wants to work with you or do you have a specific criteria for the people you take on as clients?

No, I don’t work with just anyone.  It has to be a good fit.  And if it’s not a good fit for me, it won’t be a good fit for them.  Specific criteria include an ability on their side to understand that this is a deep process, and that they need to be committed to their own development. 

In other words, I am not a teacher imparting knowledge from high up above.  Coaching is a co-creative process.  I advise, reflect back, ask questions, suggest and take them through specific steps.  The transformation is theirs and it comes about through their bravery and commitment to their own process, with my support and guidance.  Some people want a quick fix. 

To be a good performer or a good speaker you are using your whole self, body, mind, emotion.  Therefore, is not a straight-forward process.  It takes a little time and the learning is ongoing.  At the same time, the benefits are unimaginable.  People are always surprised to discover how working on the voice changes every aspect of their lives for the better.  Clients who are “my” clients, are able to express excitement about transformation and also a certain amount of self-belief in our very first meeting.  The attitude needs to be something like this: “Even though I have my insecurities and have had bad experiences, I think I can do this and I am determined to make changes.  I can envision myself doing it, even though I have no idea how to get there.”  This is the attitude that works best. 

– What kind of change in your life would make you happier?

Getting more support with my responsibilities, both business and familial.  More of a sense of community.  This is all starting to happen and I feel very hopeful about it.  It’s a work in progress!

– Some people are successful without having had any training. What do you think about this?

I would say that life is a training.  I’ve worked with actors who are wonderful who didn’t have formal training.  However, they are usually very experienced.  It’s harder as a young artist if you don’t know what your tools are.  It’s harder to be confident and consistent.  Your work may tend to be a bit hit or miss until you’ve been trained by experience.  This kind of training takes the form of conversations with other artists, learning from watching, and learning from doing.  At the same time, there isn’t enough theatre training in the USA.  I have seen a gap between trained English actors starting out and their American counterparts.  This is one reason English actors get hired to play American roles.  It’s the quality and consistency of the training.  I am a great believer in training, but I acknowledge that it isn’t everything and there are many exceptions.

– Why do we get emotional when listening to a moving song? And why is it that a lively song increases our energy?

My understanding is that this is neurological.  Our nervous system responds to key and cadence in specific and universal ways.  It’s very natural and inbuilt.  And we naturally connect to rhythm.  What’s the first sound we ever hear in the womb?  The rhythm of Shakespeare’s verse follows this same pattern.  When delivered skillfully, the most powerful moments in Shakespeare occur when the rhythm that has been set us is broken metrically.  There are shifts in music that do the same thing.

– Which music band reflects your state of mind?

That’s a hard one!  Easier to say genre.  The huge range of light and dark in classic jazz really speaks to me.  But if I had to say one artist, definitely Kate Bush.  I relate to her energy, her aesthetic, the layered detail, the specifically personal through her unique lens, the febrile qualities in her music.  The way in which she disappears for years in between albums.  Like a game of hide and seek with herself, with the public that I believe it totally authentic.  She’s a very shy performer.  Her album Aerial is a work of art – probably my favorite album ever, and it’s 2 disks!

– What are the psychological and physical stimulating effects of your voice, both positive and negative?

When I am speaking authentically, I have a wide vocal range.  This allows me to be effective and impactful in my communication.  When I am at my best, I am able to speak truths that people need to hear, in a loving way.  I can help people by using my voice supportively, or to illuminate a perspective they may not have seen yet.  And people I am close to do this for me as well. 

Those who love me, know me well.  The downside of this is that when I’m not being authentic, they can tell.  They can tell that there is something I am not saying.  If this isn’t addressed, the unspoken can create a barrier.  I understand how frightening it can be to speak one’s truth because I have struggled with this as well. 

And there’s also the tone I have when I am asking my kids (16 & 22) to do something, particularly if I have had to ask them several times.  I call their names and they say “Ye-es?” and I can tell from their tone that their heart is sinking because I am about to interrupt their favorite activities!  It’s a hard part of being a parent and a child, I think.

– People that you admire and think that they have the best voice frequency

Many, many wonderful voices out there!  I love my partner’s voice.  He has a deep, expressive and carrying voice.  He did the voiceover for Rafael for the game Soulcaliber II.  Unfortunately, imdb has the wrong person with the same name listed for this role and ironically, they are also both fight directors.  The truth is, I love trained voices as long as they are honest and not self-conscious. 

Another wonderful speaker is the actor/narrator Nathaniel Parker.  It’s so much about the expressivity in the voice.  Judi Dench for example is wonderful to listen to, not because she has an amazing voice but because of how she uses it.  At home, my sons and I watch anime together – there are some fabulous Japanese voice actors out there as well.  Antonio Banderas has a very engaging voice.  Oprah Winfrey is an incredibly powerful speaker; she is virtuosic in how she uses her voice and words to land ideas.  I think you have a wonderful voice, Engin, and this is how we came to collaborate! I have always enjoyed listening to Obama.  I use his speeches with my clients as examples of powerful structure.  He’s probably a better writer than he is a speaker, but he is also a very good speaker.

– Can you enlighten us on the importance of voice and sound in our lives from a spiritual, scientific etc. point of view?

Mainly I want to say that sound not only penetrates the ears but our voices emerge from vibration within the body.  Vibration is a physical manifestation of energy.  We vibrate the vocal cords to make sound.  Scientifically, friction creates energy.  Concretely and metaphorically, the voice is the self in the world.  Whatever has been shut down or oppressed in the person, shows in the voice, as well as physical health and habits.  Kirsten Linklater said, “Free the voice and you free the person.”

– If your life were a movie who would you like to be the starring actor?

I’d like to see a drag version in which I am played by Jude Law.

– What animal do you think you symbolically resemble?

I asked a loved one because I had no idea how to answer this! Apparently, the humming bird.  The humming bird often appears to be still but its wings are flapping invisibly – there’s always a lot going on.  Stillness and motion at the same time.

– What is the first thing that when it comes to your mind, it makes you feel as if you had been punched in the stomach?

Abuse of children and their suffering.  Dehumanization in other forms as well.

– What path should we follow for the larynx, vocal cords, vocal muscles, and sound waves?

I will answer this question in terms of health.  No part of the human system can be reasonably separated from the whole.  We are holistic beings, and I tend to see these processes as circular, rather than happening in linear progression.  Our emotions effect our muscles – the throat and pelvis muscles as much as any other – the entire vocal apparatus exists between these two points in the body. 

How we use our bodies effects our mindset, and mindset effects the functions of the body.  Breath is the engine of the voice, and breath is a central actor in the nervous systems.  You can initiate a negative or positive cycle from any point: starting with mind, body, or emotion.

In emotional, intellectual and spiritual terms, we can enter the ears of our hearers from across the house or across the world with our soundwaves.  It’s the only part of us that physically travels.  There is something profound and interesting about this – physical voice and the metaphor of voice. 

– Is it necessary to have a good ear in order to have a good voice?

Not necessarily.  Accent work is difficult to do without a good ear, but other aspects of the speaking voice can be improved.  There are many ways to learn, such as from a kinesthetic, rather than aural perspective.  If you learn what to do with your body, and are able to remember how positive vocal experiences feel, you can learn to repeat them.  It’s about knowing how you personally learn best, and applying that to the process.

– What is the added value of being able to manage and use our own voices properly?

Confidence, effectiveness, empowerment.  Improved health and well-being, because learning to use our voices touches all aspects of the self.

– Among the people you have worked with so far, who did you find more exciting and who more disappointing?

This is in terms of my work as an actor and a playwright.  It took me awhile to realise this, but a passion for excellence, a sense of play, and a sense of responsibility towards fellow professionals exemplifies the people I really like working with. 

Here are some names that English-speaking readers may recognize:  as a young, up and coming actor, Michael Sheen (now Sir Michael Sheen) was in my first play at the BBC on Radio 4 and was such a sweet and generous presence.   I have also enjoyed working with Indira Varma, who I know from our time at RADA, in developing a few of my plays.  She’s a very intelligent actor with a lot of integrity.  The qualities I’ve mentioned for both of these actors come across in their finished work.

I like working with people who have what I call a seeking spirit.  These people are curious and detail oriented.  They are generally on time, they are collaborative, they care about the good of the whole project and they love diving into the work with full commitment.  They tend to have healthy, generous egos and aren’t afraid to make mistakes.  They are unlikely to talk about their negative feelings about other performers unless for a good reason and in a private setting.  They tend to be kind people. Believe it or not, there are a lot of generous, collaborative actors because it’s a very collaborative artform. 

Without naming any names, there are some actors who I’ve found disappointing:  artists who are vague in their work, and don’t dig deeper to find the nuances of character or to understand the whole story of which they are a part.  People who engage in inconsiderate behavior such as chronic lateness or not being on top of their work.  People who don’t have a good work ethic can drag down the whole process.  Chronically unprepared, they may avoid making clear, informed choices in interpretation.  Their work can be as mediocre as their behavior is inconsiderate. 

– Send a message to the person you were ten years ago

Wow, this has quite a lot of significance as it happens.  “You will make the right choice.  It will work out well, and your life will transform.”

– What would the child of your childhood say if she could see you now?

“This isn’t at all what I expected!”

– What sounds affect you the most in the people you interact with or in life: resonance, echo, timbre, infrasonic or ultrasonic?

Resonance.  It’s a question I ask a lot at the moment: is this resonant?

– If you could only listen to one single song for the rest of your life, which one would it be?

A composition by Ludovico Einaudi

-What else would you like to add?

It is my great hope that the darkness we are experiencing as a planet will be countered with a significant raising of consciousness.  I believe that this happens when we respond in new and creative ways to our adversities.  I ask anyone reading this to devote some time every day to envisioning positive outcomes for themselves, their loved ones and the world.  Actions begin in thought.  This is how we make the world.  Envision a thing, and action follows.

Engin Dal

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