Hearing Voices

Doug Paulson goes looking in the spaces between our voices and our identities in his review of Let Me Clear My Throat by Elena Passarello (Sarabande Books).

I take my work as a voice teacher for acting students ridiculously seriously.  I consider it my inestimable responsibility to instill a foundation of solid technique from which to develop healthy habits for expressive vocal production and sustainability, and to awaken in them a profound respect for their own practice and development.  Perhaps one of the most egregious behaviors sitting in direct opposition to my accomplishing these tasks is the students’ unconscious habit of clearing their throats. This simple action causes the vocal folds to smack together abruptly, over and over, in a small space of time (think of clapping so hard and long the palms of your hands turn red).  If unattended to it can wear down the vocal folds, perhaps leading to small calluses or nodules, which have the potential to develop into more serious polyps that may require surgery. If they are at all treatable.  Ahem.

Often, people clear their throats without even realizing they have done so.  In contemporary social circles this subtle action is unconsciously understood as a signifier of preparation.  When about to speak, perhaps you’ve noticed in yourself, a tendency to “gear up” for the task at hand.  Ahem (…here I go…).  Ahem (…is everyone listening…).  Ahem (…I’d better sound smart…).  Physiologically, this particular maneuver functions as a means for the larynx to expel any foreign and unwelcome matter from the vocal tract and esophagus (wind pipe).  What can happen instead, is that the resulting irritations on the vocal folds signal to the brain that something might be stuck in there, and so the brain sends a signal to the musculature in the larynx and respiratory system to try to expel it, causing more irritation, and more reflexive, then chronic, throat clearing.  We inevitably, if unwittingly, become mired in a vicious cycle of vocal self-sabotage.

Through this particular lens the very title of Elena Passarello’s book seemed entirely off the mark and left me dubious.  And so, it was with chip firmly in place on my shoulder that I sat down to read her collection of essays on, ahem… The Voice.

Let me clear my throat, indeed.

Passarello has divided her work into three sections, each centered on a vocal theme.  "Screaming Memes," "Tips on Popular Singing," and "The Thrown."  The first, as you may imagine, directly addresses how the scream has played a part in the history of the public voice, from Marlon Brando’s infamous “STELLA!” to “the Wilhelm scream” (a piece of recorded sound that shows up in numerous films and soundscapes), to the mythic cry of the Confederate soldier, otherwise known as “The Rebel Yell.”  I realized fairly quickly into the first essay that I would need to do some frame readjusting.  Passarello’s fond endorsements of yelling and screaming and throat clearing were raising every red flag my reactionary inner voice-teacher could hold aloft.  The book’s purpose was clearly something other than I had expected.  But what exactly is a book on voice if not an anatomy text or instruction manual?

Gently easing my way out of my practitioner’s seat of judgment was the only course of action to enable my fully receiving Passarello’s fascinating regard for the voice.  It was only after doing so that I began to open myself up to discovering what she and the book hoped to achieve.  As early as page twelve I was chuckling at Passarello’s casual tone in delivering such lines as, “Hello, my sinuses are stuffed with mucus,” and “Man Gets Eaten By Alligator is remarkable.”  Out from under my imposed guise of formal teaching she quickly won my favor.  She found her way directly to the heart of my interest (and our shared passion) through her pointed humor and facilitation of language.  I was drawn to her very unique and individual, well, . . . voice.

The idea of a literary or narrative voice is certainly not a new one.  In his 1940 essay "New Words," George Orwell writes: A writer attempting anything that is not coldly intellectual can do very little with words in their primary meanings.  He gets his effect, if at all, by using words in a tricky roundabout way, relying on their cadences, and so forth, as in speech he would rely on tone and gesture.In this brief musing Orwell reflects on the aural nature of words, and what an author might accomplish by maintaining an awareness of tone and cadence with regard to the written word. Passarello understands these qualities well and uses them effectively throughout these essays. She employs a strong and confidant use of metaphor to communicate the sounds of voice to the reader, which paint pictures on the pages of her book as pretty as any drawn from artists’ palates on a canvas.  In "How to Spell Rebel Yell," for example, she provocatively describes the scream as “essentially, the self trying to move when its body cannot run away.”  With this image, she captures the feelings of helplessness and fear, along with a sense of the adrenaline rush that comes with the act of screaming.  Elsewhere in the book the action of inhaling is described as “stuffing six-thousand cc’s of air down into herself in an uncorked suck.”  A muscular and humorous description of what Passarello no doubt intends to convey as a very muscular and humorous breath.

From the collection’s title, I had mistakenly assumed I was going to be reading a theory of practice or perhaps another neophyte pedagog’s literary contribution to the vast, boundless, esoteric world of voice-work.  Just one more self-proclaimed-master’s manifesto full of guided meditations and warm-up exercises.  What I opened instead was a collection of writings tethered to the author’s very personal relationship to her own voice.  These essays reflect her explorations and experiences as an actress, which have refined her view of the expressive voice both on stage and beyond.

Part two of the collection, "Tips on Popular Singing," brings together a sample of pieces that reflect on how the singing voice is regarded in our society.  From the likes of Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland and Chuck Berry to Kurt Cobain, Tom Waits and the eighteenth-century soprano Carlo Broschi, Passarello’s reach is wide, and as such suffers slightly at times from generality.  In the essay “Teach Me Tonight” she dissects a small pamphlet published by The Embassy Music Corporation in the 1950s and aptly, from where Passarello takes the name for this particular section of her book.  The how-to manual, written by Frank Sinatra and his teacher John Quinlan, presents dry exercises in an instructional tone and left me slightly bored and missing Passerello’s voice.  Ironically, having expected this type of writing from the outset, then being seduced by Passarello’s angle, I found it the toughest essay to get through.  It was at some point during this particular essay, less interesting than those written in her own voice, that I put the book down without returning to it for weeks.

That being said, and having found my way back to the essays, Passarello truly hits her stride in "And Your Bird Can Sing," which has her discussing a relationship she develops to some foul-mouthed crows outside her window that hold her focused attention through a long, rough winter, while at the same time examining how singer/songwriters have been writing and singing about crows for ages.  It’s here that her specificity and guileful tack of imparting information, blends effortlessly with the touching delivery of her personal story.  An example of such seemingly competing, but complementary passages:

On a recent morning, both the cat and I stared out the window for what felt like hours watching the loud scene of a crow convalescing, and eventually giving in, before a jury of his peers on the lawn. … When he pitched forward into the water trough, I couldn’t stand to watch him any further.  I left the window and rinsed the breakfast dishes, trying to croon to myself.  When I came back, the cat was asleep and the crow was face down in the brittle snow. Americans have sung about crows nearly as often as we’ve sung about songbirds, flying them through two centuries’ worth of lyrics about courtly devotion, the seasons, and flappy dancing. Since its founding in 1894, Billboard magazine has listed scores of popular tunes with “crow” in the title, like “Sly Little Crow” (trad), “I Dunno Said The Crow” (1917), and “The Blackest Crow” (1899) … But the melodies themselves don’t sound anything like the crows outside my window.

I’ve taken liberties in puling these selections, perhaps less than delicately, in order that I might illustrate the point of Passarello’s deft gear shifting, though certainly not as ably as she does herself in the piece.  When this precarious balance between information and experience is struck, Passarello creates an essay that accomplishes the task of teaching you something, while touching you at the same time.  It is when she is most clearly and enjoyably engaging.

The arcs of these essays as individual pieces are at times a bit incomplete.  More so in the first half of this collection, Passarello takes you up one side of a story slowly, carefully and gingerly guides your experience.  Then, suddenly she pushes you over the hump of the event and drops you somewhat carelessly and directly into an abrupt conclusion.  I was happy to find that by the time I was comfortably settled into part three, "The Thrown," the pieces felt full, fleshed out, and satisfying as single, packaged journeys.  Though some of the more exciting writing happens in earlier essays, the final interview of a ventriloquist’s dummy, "A Monstrous Little Voice (with T. Foley)," is as laugh out loud funny as they come.  In it, HECTOR the dummy is provided a questionnaire to complete so that he may be diagnosed for the appropriate voice of his own.  You can see below HECTOR’s answers in bold to two particular questions:

Which “dummy trope” best describes your persona? The Cheeky Boy The Hayseed Soldier The Grumpy Old Man The Lecherous Spinster OTHER (please elaborate) : None. I don’t care for dummy tropes. Which Voice do you feel is your closest ancestor? A Greek Sybil, drunk on fumes and spilling the secrets of the Fates. A pika, the North American rat known to ward off prey by throwing its voice Mister Potter’s Humble Voice-in-a-Trunk Punch Judy

Through this sly convention, and in the concluding response letter containing HECTOR’s results (which you’ll have to read the book to discover), Passarello explores the point where the technical aspects of voice meet the particulars of human experience.  She nimbly sneaks in a commentary on how our individual experiences shape our unique sounds.

To further this idea of voice as a function of identity, the entire book is interspersed with excerpts from interviews with people each talking about specific memories and experiences of their own voice.  These vignettes were like small intermezzos, for if Passarello’s essays are the acts of an opera, these slices of the human vocal experience are the other entertainments, though none are light of character.  Personality is abundant. These revelatory and extremely effective moments, deftly curated by Passarello, anchor the essays by providing them context and specific touchstones for their broader themes. Titled by type of vocalist, i.e.: The Starlet, The Zealot, The Novice, The Frontman, The Interpreter, etc, and without reference to name, age or gender, we are given each anecdote in the crystal clear voice of the singular human being telling their story.

It seems that for the common man (by which I mean to say creatively-deficient or training-deprived), the very awareness of one’s own voice is something seemingly and too often lacking.  Let Me Clear My Throat (though the title will most likely forever make my reactionary-voice-teacher-self cringe a little) does a fine job of broadening the accessibility of voice theory on stage and off by generously sharing these stories, and by making us more attune to the sounds we humans make.  Passarello succeeds precisely because she does not actually intend to instruct.  She and her collection, as its title suggests, are quite simply asking to be heard.


Doug Paulson has taught Voice and Speech to actors at NYU and Brooklyn College for the past eight years. He has worked as a dialect coach on numerous productions in New York City for The New Group, LaMama, and Atlantic Theater Company, among others. He is an actor and singer himself, currently living in London, pursuing a masters degree in Voice Studies at the Central School of Speech as Drama.