★★★  Inter Act  ★★★
with
Phyllida Furse
Phyllida Furse
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1
Emma:
You are, I know, passionate about fostering confident voice use in others. Have you always been a confident presenter?
Phyllida:
No! I once had a very difficult experience during a concert, when I was part of a big semi-professional chorus. It may have been the heat with the pressure of it being a live broadcast from the Royal Albert Hall with Sir Simon Rattle conducting on Radio 3, or being trapped in the middle of the front row or…that there were big changes going on in other areas of my life…but I experienced what I subsequently discovered was a full-blown panic attack. I had never experienced the like, having always enjoyed being on stage, so it was a terrible shock, and impacted on my confidence hugely. I was absolutely determined to get over it, however; and in time and with a lot of patience and sometimes plain courage, I did! Ultimately, I was very grateful for what happened, as it gave me some precious insights into helping people brave their fears of performing, and informed my practice in so many other untold ways.
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2
Emma:
What was the ‘click’ moment when you felt exploring voice would be a main feature of your life/work?
Phyllida:
My click moment was back in 1996, attending a conference run jointly by the English Speaking Board and an organisation called the Voice Care Network UK (sadly no longer in existence). Someone just happened to have mentioned it to me in the children’s playground. I was intrigued. So off I set in my husband’s car with a brick of a mobile phone, heading for Stratford-upon-Avon, hoping I would find the right place. I did.

There was a wonderful lady there (Lesley Hendy) who spoke about the importance of what sort of sound children were on the receiving end of in the classroom. Was it warm and welcoming with a balanced resonance or harshly produced, dysphonic, shouty or nasal? What sort of learning atmosphere could teachers and lecturers potentially create with their voices? And what, if any, help were they receiving in terms of how to use their voices safely and effectively for hours on end each day without incurring voice strain?

It all went off like a rocket in my head for me and I knew there and then that was where I wished to dedicate my energy. And so began a long journey.
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3
Emma:
What are your earliest memories of singing or indeed speaking in public?
Phyllida:
With regard to singing, my earliest memory is of singing carols round the piano with my grandfather playing (I was about 4). I adored the pictures in the carol book. I first sang in public with school choirs. In Cambridge we had something called The Combined Schools Choirs where young ones from all the local schools both private and state came together to perform in the Guildhall. The first big concert I remember us doing was ‘Carmina Burana’. It was both exhilarating and huge fun. There began a schoolgirl romance with a boy in the tenors, which only added to my personal thrill in the experience! I was hooked. Years later, he studied at the Royal Northern College of Music and went on to become a professional singer. We’re still great friends. I do believe music is a wonderful way of bringing children from lots of different backgrounds together and giving them a common purpose and pleasure.

Speaking or reading in front of other people was very much encouraged at my primary school. There was even a prize for it, which somehow or other I won!! I also acted in the school plays and then had a solo part in a Gilbert and Sullivan production in the Sixth Form. I sang in Christ’s College Chapel Choir Cambridge for four years, which gave me a good grounding in sight reading and church music.
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4
Emma:
Are there diction issues which commonly occur and people often find challenging?
Phyllida:
Many issues revolve around tongue and jaw tension (affecting articulation and clarity), or reduced volume for various reasons (also affecting audibility and therefore clarity!). The articulatory ones include:

1. the substitution of ‘f’ and ‘v’ for ‘th’. This can be just through habit and copying or because the tongue doesn’t want to travel forward to make contact with the teeth for whatever reason. For a non-native speaker, this can cause confusion.

2. The de-voicing of terminal consonants can also create problems for the listener, who may hear ‘ant’ rather than ‘and’.

3. Tight jaw and teeth clenching can cause sludgy ‘s’ sounds where the sound is produced laterally, a bit like water out of a hose pipe! Winston Churchill’s s sounds were a little along those lines!

Tight tongue can create more difficulty with making light ‘l’. Light ‘l’ occurs at the beginning and at the mid-syllable of words, flowing into a vowel, (as in ‘long’ or ‘lovely’) and dark ‘l’ is found at the end of words, such as ‘full’ or ‘mill’ when the tongue curls back slightly. Substitution of dark ‘l’ for light ‘l‘ is also a feature of certain accents which adds to the fun!

4. Production of ‘r’ can also vary tremendously, tapped, trilled or even produced at the back of the throat, in some areas of England.

Volume issues are often down to lack of breath support and limiting beliefs!!

With regard to speech I’m going to stick my neck out (as an aside) and say that, in fear of sounding posh, people are slowly losing clarity. That’s fine, but if you mumble when trying to communicate to others, you are not really serving the audience, and they will spend more time processing the sound than the information.
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5
Emma:
Do you think that physical awareness can assist speaking confidence?
Phyllida:
Undoubtedly. You can affect your whole mindset, as well other people’s, simply by adjusting your posture. (If you don’t believe me, watch Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk ‘Our Bodies Change our Minds!’) Body and mind are inextricably linked, the larynx being the unwitting crossroads!
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6
Emma:
Do you have favourite singing or speaking voices to listen to?
Phyllida:
Now you’re asking! Yes! Some favourite female singers (past and present) include Jessye Norman, Dame Janet Baker, Joyce DiDonato, Renée Fleming and Ermonela Jaho. And for the men: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Luciano Pavarotti, Roberto Alagna and Jonas Kaufman.

But I also love listening to lots of other singers, such as Nina Simone, Etta James, Laura Mvula, Melody Gardot, Frank Sinatra, Jack Jones, João Gilberto, and Sting!
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7
Emma:
With your connexion to the French language, do you also put French music high on your listening/performing list?
Phyllida:
Yes I do. There must something a bit wild and romantic in the DNA somewhere that responds very warmly to French music. It’s so beautiful to sing as well as hear (for me anyway). I remember hearing Poulenc’s Organ Concerto by chance on the radio and I couldn’t believe how lively and bouncy it was. I had to wait to the end to find out what it was. Then there’s Duparc, Fauré, Ravel, Debussy and Gabriel Pierné.
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8
Emma:
I know you put your expertise to good use in 2020 - can you share a little of your work at that time?
Phyllida:
As the pandemic raged, I had the privilege of helping to devise an online ‘gig’ to help nurses and consultants working in the NHS to communicate more clearly, from under the many layers of PPE. I worked in collaboration with a Clinical Teaching Fellow at the Homerton Hospital in London. It was tricky to deliver it in the way that I wished, at first, and to make it feel personal within the confines of a screen, dodgy signals and online conferencing software, but we got there in the end. I had nothing but admiration for the people involved.
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9
Emma:
You have mentioned to me that you feel that breathing and singing together can heal - I completely agree. How do you think people can regain confidence in being together in this way?
Phyllida:
Yes. Singing is a sociable activity. You have to talk to somebody! It also gives the mind a focus away from the self and addictive technology. You’re in a team, jointly aiming for a goal (a performance) which you can share and remember. Airing the lungs, allowing the vibrations around you to sweep you up in the joint creation of sound can be uplifting and transformative.
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10
Emma:
Your teaching environments have been diverse - the Royal Northern College of Music, the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, for the Voice Care Network, French in schools and private coaching - do you have a preferred work environment?
Phyllida:
I have loved them all. But I think I most enjoyed working at the RNCM, and the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. The workshops have been super, and I’ve met hundreds of people, but it’s nice to part of an institution too and see colleagues.
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11
Emma:
Amongst your other passions are cycling, sailing and travelling (including places as far flung as Patagonia, India and Antarctica) - which gives you the greater sense of freedom - cycling, sailing, being in new places or singing? Or all of them?
Phyllida:
Another impossible question - so with singing at the top, I shall simply say all of them!
I am hugely grateful to Phyllida for punctuating her travels with the time to give this interview.

You can find Phyllida on Facebook:

Phyllida Furse Professional Voice Practice


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5th. August, 2022