Welcome back again for our third instalment of the Multi-Hyphenate series! This time, we get to dig into the fascinating world of voice & speech with Becca Barrett (they/them). Becca is currently finishing their MFA in Voice Studies at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama and is part of a collective of voice practitioners called On Voice. With tons of experience in voice, speech, and dialect coaching, they’ve got lots of excellent info to share with us!
Before attending drama school, I had no idea that becoming a voice practitioner was a job option. While studying, it quickly became one of my favorite classes. If you’ve never heard of a voice practitioner before (or maybe you have, but you’re not quiiiiiite sure what they actually do), keep reading as Becca brings us into the exciting world of speech.
Q: Let the people know who you are & what your multi-hyphenate title is!
Hi! My name is Becca Barrett (they/them) and I am a Performer-Voice Practitioner-Educator based in London, UK. I grew up in Hawaii, which really informed the framework of my philosophy of life. I have a pretty good ear for voice work, which I think comes from growing up surrounded by a culture and language different from my own.
I started my career as a musical theater performer. I completed my BA in Theater & Speech at Wagner College and picked up a minor in Gender Studies along the way. While studying there, I took an Accent and Dialect class with Mara Gannon. I loved those classes. I assisted her on a show and was then the lead dialect coach on another show in the department. I love performing, but I also love coaching voice and dialects. More importantly, I’ve always been a talker (laughs). As a fat, queer, gender expansive person, I knew I was going to have to find a way to make this career work for me. The industry is not looking to make people like me into stars. I knew if this was the career path I wanted, I was going to have to go about this differently.
Q: When did you first become involved in the arts?
Have you ever heard of a Broadway cast recording??? That was my gateway drug (laughs). I started off my career as a performer in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown with a local theater group. It was the first time I met people my age who are into performing and it was so fulfilling. I abandoned my dreams of an Ivy League school and got my BA in Theatre & Speech instead. After graduating, I still felt like I needed that intensive musical theater training, something much more interdisciplinary. I went to the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama for my MA in Musical Theatre, and knew I really wanted to build my career in the UK. It was the subsidized, applied, and devised theater that drew me to here, not just the tea & crumpets (laughs).
It was studying the Estill singing method with Tim Richards during my time at Royal Welsh that really got me into the voice. From the age of 15, I had a long period of training in classical voice, but those voice lessons would lead to periods of conflict and biiiiig rage. My voice teacher wanted me to be an operatic soprano, but my love was for big, belty musical theater. And funny enough, my low voice ended up being my strength in college. Studying with Tim and using the Estill method allowed me to understand my voice and give me autonomy in my vocal choices.
Q: What made you decide to go into voice work?
For many artists, the pandemic meant our work no longer existed. I always imagined going into a discipline like voice work later on after having a performance career, but decided to pivot earlier to reintegrate all my passions. It allowed me to continue my creativity – voice work allows me to find expression, action, and intention through the voice. It also helped me to feel like, “WOW! I want to use this to help other people. Let me see about working within my industry in a way that keeps me connected to my creative self”.
Voice work also allowed me to find a work/life balance while pursuing my artistic passions. When I was living in New York, I worked a bajillion jobs, it was super unsustainable. I live with chronic pain and mental illness; I knew that if I wanted to keep my body and mind healthy, the service industry was not sustainable for me. I worked with Sheri Sanders (Rock the Audition) while she developed her non-profit, Rock the Audition CARE Coalition, which increases access to the arts for marginalized communities. As an actor, you essentially are running your own small business, so you develop lots of transferable skills.
For me, being an artist and a teacher is about being a life-long learner. It’s such a gift. After a lot of reflection, I found that what brings me a sense of joy is working with the voice. It allows me to talk, which I love (laughs). But more importantly, you work with the whole person; it’s an intersection of all the areas of interest for me. In 2019, I worked with Speak About It, an organization that uses theater to educate college and high school students on consent, healthy boundaries, and sexual assault prevention. I trained as a facilitator and really honed my pedagogy skills while working there. I realized while working there that I had been running myself into the ground, suffering under the hyper capitalist model of this ecosystem of spending money, hoping it will lead to my “big break”. I had a revelation – instead of waiting for my life to begin, I began to invest in my own creative passions, network, and see what I could drum up.
Q: Can you describe the job of a voice & speech coach for us?
Absolutely! Voice and speech coaching looks at how a person expresses themselves through breath, alignment (internal & external), articulation, resonance, and phonation. People may seek out a voice & speech coach if they want to improve the efficiency of their spoken voice; they may feel out of breath, want to project more, access a deeper spoken voice, or clarity of their speech. Voice & speech coaches work in creative, professional, and corporate environments with the goal of forming the voice into what feels good to the person in the moment. It’s about maximizing comfort with their voice and giving them a wide range of tools to access different areas of speech.
Dialect and accent coaches are a separate branch of voice coaching. It uses all the same awareness and skills as voice & speech, but with a goal of shifting the effort to replicate the habits of a different accent or accents. They will still work with all the core vocal aspects, but the biggest difference is the goal of what you want to sound like, and how to integrate it in a way that feels authentic to you. Both areas of work are underpinned by sustainability and harm prevention.
Q: What is your favorite aspect of working in voice & speech, what do you find the most challenging, and what has surprised you the most about the job?
I think what I love about it is that it’s different every day (which is also one of the challenges). I love other people, forming meaningful connections, and the feeling that I can be of service to others. I think those three things are all present in working through voice & speech. I love playing with sounds in the voice – when you’re coaching, you get to explore all the options. I love feeling that I’m in a sandbox with other people; that’s something I love most about the rehearsal processes as an actor. I love watching people discovering things about themselves as well. Their capabilities, finding vocal pleasure, discovering euphoria in the way the sound is produced. . . helping people to find a practice of their own pleasure is very satisfying.
Challenges. . . probably that nobody knows what you really do (laughs). Voice practitioners joke all the time that explaining to people what we do is half the job. It covers a lot of stuff! A big challenge is to get people to “get it” and doing a lot of justifying as to why your role is needed in a rehearsal process. You may be brought into a production and then relegated to the side; you need to advocate for the value of your practice. That’s more of an institutional challenge. When working with clients or a group, the challenge is helping them dismantle their own expectations of what the practice will look like. It’s not binary, it’s a lifelong practice that grows and changes with you.
Voice work is the coordination of multiple systems in your body – nervous, respiratory, muscular-skeletal system, and fascia – always working with rehabilitating three major muscle groups to behave in a certain way unconsciously. These are muscles you might not be aware of! People get discouraged quickly because they don’t feel a change. The reality is, working on something for 6 sessions is the scaffolding for the ongoing work. Helping people to be kinder to themselves is 80% of the battle of the psychological blocks. The hesitance to try new sounds is more layered than ever. Those growing up under the watch of the internet are rightfully concerned about appropriation. Shame and embarrassment are layered, and people don’t want to say something hurtful. The challenge is added as coaches for us to build trust and put processes in place so that there is a restorative practice. Getting people to be willing to play is so important.
It continues to surprise me how exhausting it is. Being that present with another person is draining in the best way. There’s a lot of self-care you need to practice as a voice practitioner. It’s helpful to allow yourself to warm up with your students to aid in that.
Q: You’ve recently started a collective with other voice practitioners called On Voice, can you tell us more about it?
At the end of the first year of my masters at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, I had a revelation that a lot of us [practitioners] have similar interests and approaches. A lot of us came to the course because we recognize that significant change needs to happen in this field. Together with my colleagues, James Aitken and Frankie Aaronovitch-Bruce, we developed a collective with the goal of creating accessible voice and speech tuition. Working as a collective allows us to give consistent delivery of materials and support one another intellectually and creatively.
I’m starting to establish a collaborative, sustainable approach to theater. I could not do any of this without the support of my community. It’s important to me that we can provide resources that give the speaker confidence and sustainable practices. Whether we’re working with people who speak English as an additional language, or providing gender affirming voice training, we approach everything we do holistically and provide a wide range of tools. We love working with play as a technique. Giving people the freedom to explore their voice and have fun with it. Especially with gender affirming voice training – I would argue that we’ve medicalized the trans voice and have severely limited the access to gender affirming voice training because of that. The psychological impact of medicalizing the voice can be so damaging, because it makes people feel like there is something “wrong” with their voice. It’s important that everyone feels like their voice is at home in their body.
Q: For anyone looking to get into voice & speech coaching, what advice would you give them?
The majority of voice teacher training courses are extortionate, especially if you want to get certified in a specific way. If you feel curious about exploring voice practice as a career, I recommend taking voice classes aimed at actors and see if the practitioners leading those classes are willing to work with you on a one-to-one level. One-offs and weekend courses are a good place to start. There’s lots of value in becoming certified, but it’s a good idea to explore the discipline before deciding to fork over all that money for certification. It’s important to know what you’re deciding to focus on before making that financial commitment.
There’s also so much literature surrounding this subject that you can begin to educate yourself with. Barbara Housman’s Finding Your Voice and Kristen Linklater’s Freeing the Natural Voice are great places to start. There’s lots of literature surrounding the subject from folks like Christina Shewell, David Carey, Rebecca Clark Carey, and Cicely Berry as well. In terms of programs, The Fitzmaurice Voice Institute is a global leader in voice training, and KTS (Knight-Thompson Speechwork) has voice work programs specifically around accent & dialect that can be a more affordable option.
Once you’ve explored some different methods, reach out to practitioners that you work with, or those whose work you enjoy. We love to have a chat! They also may be able to recommend a more specific course in your area that will be more tangible to work on your practice.
Q: What is your favorite part about being a multi-hyphenate?
Never a dull moment? (laughs) It allows me to work a lot more with a sense of autonomy because I’m not bound to one career or boss. I think intersecting disciplines inform one another. Voice work is fundamentally about communication. It’s not just about how you speak, but how we talk to and about each other. My training as an actor, my study of various voice practitioners and methods; all the tools I’m able to pull from different disciplines of my training means that I’m able to provide my students with a wide variety of tools to help with their learning and comprehension.
Queer theory is at the center of everything that I do. The cis-white-heteropatriarchy is at the center of everything we all do. Being easily categorizable is what society wants but I, and most creative people, cannot be solely defined as one thing. Being exposed to different creative pursuits and disciplines opens you up to a wide variety of possibilities. I can be so many things and they can all interact with one another, giving me a broader creative language to work from.
Q: Any parting thoughts?
It’s important to separate the industry from the craft. Theatre as an artform has existed since the beginning of human existence. We have used story and song to pass knowledge intergenerationally and to build culture since the time of the Neanderthals. What we have done in the last, say, 100 years in the post-capitalist theater industry is a blip in the human timeline of how we use art & voice to express ourselves.
Find spaces and places that are not for-profit where you can explore and express yourself vocally, for the pure pleasure of being in community through sound. Whether that’s meeting up for tea with a friend, having a deep chat, going to a concert and screaming your face off, or singing along to the radio in the car. Reading poetry aloud to yourself! There’s something so intrinsically human in the notion of making sound. In the greater conversation of intersectionality, there’s a lot of silencing.
Whatever the next phase of this musical theater industry is, it’s going to be very destabilizing for a lot of people for a long time. We must remember that we are not against one another, we are helping to build the next version of this. Lots of people benefit from the commercial musical theater industry, and that’s not to say that they don’t deserve it and don’t work hard. People benefitting from the system can sometimes get defensive sometimes about the dismantling of something that’s working for them. There’s lots of different roles to play in the revolution. Until there’s space for all of us, it’s not enough. And it is only through community that we can create something better!
Using your voice should not just be a thing you do for money. Being able to talk about our thoughts, feelings, and dreams are denied to people on many levels. Find places you can ask thoughtful questions in and create the spaces for you to play. Build something magical.
A huge thank you to Becca for their amazing insights into the world of voice! To keep up with Becca, check out their personal website here or on Instagram @beccaebarrett. Feel free to email email@example.com if you have any questions about voice & speech. Be sure to check out On Voice at their website or Instagram @on.voice.london for some great content on voice practice & for excellent coaching resources!