Acting Teaching Drama

Let’s Get Vocal in the Drama Classroom

Written by Lindsay Price

Episode 129: Let’s Get Vocal!

How do you incorporate vocal technique into the drama classroom? How do you succeed with choral work? We’ve got two teachers talking about the voice today. Elisabeth Oppelt wants you not only to teach your students how to use your voice, but also how to take care of your own voice. Keith White gives some great tips for getting the most out of students and choral work.

Show Notes

Episode Transcript

Welcome to TFP – The Theatrefolk Podcast – the place to be for Drama teachers, Drama students, and theatre educators everywhere.

I’m Lindsay Price, resident playwright for Theatrefolk.

Hello! I hope you’re well. Thanks for listening.

Welcome to Episode 129.

You can find any links for this episode in the show notes at theatrefolk.com/episode129.

Okay. We’re talking voice! You know, I think about these things about half a second before I’m about to do them. And then, sometimes, I get in the middle of them and I’m like, “No, you shouldn’t have made that choice!”

Anyway, we’re talking voice today, specifically a couple of different avenues. We’re going to be talking to two teachers today. We’re talking about incorporating vocal technique into the drama classroom and then succeeding with choral work.

So, Elisabeth Oppelt wants you not only to teach your students how to use their voice – she’s adamant about that and I love that – she also wants you, the drama teacher, she wants you to take care of your voice and to make sure that you’re not stretching and straining in the same way that we don’t want our students to. That’s Elisabeth.

And then, I’m going to talk to teacher Keith White. He is in Florida right now – although, when I talked to him, I learned that he actually grew up almost metaphorically from where I am right now which is always cool – small world. He did one of my plays, Stupid is Just 4 2day, which has a lot of choral vocal choral work in it and he’s got some great tips for getting the most out of your students when you’re doing choral work.

But, first, let’s talk to Elisabeth.

LINDSAY: All right. I am talking to Lis Oppelt. Hello, Lis!

ELISABETH: Hi!

LINDSAY: Hi! How are you doing today?

ELISABETH: I’m doing all right.

LINDSAY: You’re doing all right. Tell everybody where you are in the world.

ELISABETH: I am in Yuma, Arizona, which is about as far south as you can get before you cross into Mexico.

LINDSAY: Oh, okay. Well, that’s very far from us. So, we’re going to talk about voice and voice in getting your students to use their voices properly, using voice in the drama classroom. But, before we do that, let’s just hear a little bit about you. You are a drama teacher.

ELISABETH: I am.

LINDSAY: How long have you been one?

ELISABETH: This is my second year teaching full-time drama.

LINDSAY: What made you decide to take that on?

ELISABETH: I didn’t intend to. I was going to be a lawyer and then I was going to be a history teacher but I got the theatre bug in high school and I thought I could let it go and I couldn’t. I’m not much of an actor but I love to direct and I love to stage manage. And so, teaching gave me the chance to do all of those things and then I started working with teenagers and figured out I liked it. And so, it worked out well for me.

LINDSAY: Which is very funny because, sometimes, working with teenagers is the thing that is not high on their list, is it?

ELISABETH: Yeah, that’s true.

LINDSAY: I think high school drama teachers are a very, very special breed and I love hearing about how it’s, like, “Nope, this is what I want to do.” I love that you just said that you got the bug in high school and it just never left you. Why do you think that it never left? What was it about drama that sticks with you?

ELISABETH: For me, I think the storytelling of it – the fact that there are so many stories that can be told and told in so many unique ways. Theatre is, you know, it’s not bound by traditional scripts or by traditional film ideas. You can pretty much – as long as it works on-stage – you can do it. And so, there’s so much room for creativity, there’s so much room for “what’s the best way to tell this story?” and that’s what I love about it. It’s so much fun to do.

LINDSAY: Oh, I love that, that’s lovely. You also have some voice background.

ELISABETH: I do. I’ve been taking voice lessons and singing in choirs for about fifteen years.

LINDSAY: What is it about singing that sticks with you?

ELISABETH: Well, it started with I didn’t want to take piano lessons anymore and so my parents put me in voice – which was fun – but I love singing. To me, it’s a way to express emotions in a way that can’t be done through speaking and I love choral singing, I love the ensemble feel of that, the whole “we’re working together to create something new and create something beautiful” and it’s the one art form that I haven’t really taught and so it’s still kind of mine. And so, that’s what I love about singing. I’ve used the skills but I’ve never actually taught singers, if that makes sense.

LINDSAY: Right. Wonderful segue. So, let’s get into that. Let’s get into this whole notion of using the voice at the high school level. It’s not something that students really know how to do instinctually at all, is it?

ELISABETH: No. No, it’s not.

LINDSAY: And why is it? I think the thing that we see so often – I know I do. I adjudicate a lot and, even when I’m adjudicating a monologue and someone is standing, like, you know, right in front of me, I’m like, “I can’t hear you. I can’t hear you.” Why is it? Why do you think that students have so much trouble with projection?

ELISABETH: I think it’s a couple of things. For some, it’s nerves. When we get nervous, a lot of us tend to get quieter and so, you know, students are performing and they’re nervous and so their volume drops. It’s also the issue of just not used to doing it. You know, very rarely are they in situations where they have to be heard in a large space. And so, they haven’t done it before and so it’s not a skill that they’ve had to learn. And so, I think a combination of those two things is what puts students in a place where they can’t make themselves heard because they’ve never had to.

LINDSAY: Well, being on-stage is kind of an odd thing, right? I see a lot of students and they’re having a conversation with their fellow actor and it’s really great and it’s going really well but it’s like they’re not including the audience in their experience.

ELISABETH: Yeah. Yeah, it’s like, “We’re here doing our thing,” and the audience isn’t there which is not the point of theatre at all.

LINDSAY: So, what’s one thing that teachers can do to address the projection issue?

ELISABETH: First of all, give the students the skills they need to project because a lot of kids, they hear, “Be louder!” and they start yelling, and that can cause damage to the vocal cords and so you don’t want to put your students in a place where they’re doing damage to their bodies. And so, teaching them the skills to project – “Okay, this is how you do this,” – and then really just pushing them on it. I know even just in my classroom, if I can’t hear my students make a comment, I make them repeat it until I can hear them, you know? Even if we’re just in a small space, just making sure that I push it a lot. With my advanced kids, it’s always there’s someone in the back of the auditorium during rehearsal being, “I can’t hear you!” and just making sure that they become aware of how loud they need to be because, for most of them, they think they’re being loud but then, when it comes down to it, they’re not.

LINDSAY: And it’s something that just takes practice, isn’t it?

ELISABETH: It really is. They get upset because, “Oh, I can’t do this!” and I’m saying, “You’re not going to be able to do it the first or second time you do it.” It’s going to take some practice.

LINDSAY: Because another thing that seems to be happening more and more and more is that teachers aren’t necessarily addressing the projecting; they’re just mic-ing their actors.

ELISABETH: Yeah. To me, that bothers me for a couple of reasons. First of all, because the number of times a mic decides to go out during a show – you know, batteries die or it starts to scream, especially the mics that we have access to for schools, they’re old, they’re not super great quality and so they go out. And then, your actors, because they’ve been relying on the microphone, no one can hear them. And most high school auditoriums are small enough that you don’t need to mic. And so, for me, I don’t mic in my auditorium ever and my students hate it but I can fill that space easily and they can fill that space easily.

LINDSAY: Well, even further to that, sound mixing is an art.

ELISABETH: Oh, it is.

LINDSAY: It’s not as simple as plugging in some mics and going, “Okay! Here you go!”

ELISABETH: Yeah, and that’s assuming that you have decent equipment. I know that most schools, we’re fighting with our equipment, and so it’s easier, that’s one less thing you have to try to fight with during a show which, to me, is great because there’s always million other things to worry about. If you don’t have to worry about that, then that’s one less thing on your plate.

LINDSAY: That’s right. There you go. There’s your tip for today. How about teach them the skill instead of buying a microphone?

ELISABETH: I am all for that.

LINDSAY: Okay. So, let’s give a timeframe. How long does it take? How long does it take to practice for your students to get to the art of production? Like, if you’re using a Drama 1 class, how long do you work on it?

ELISABETH: The whole unit – and I include other skills like memorization and articulation – but that whole unit – I’m trying to think, I just taught it – probably takes around a month and a half.

LINDSAY: It must be pretty amazing at the end of that month when I’m sure, at the beginning, they’re like, “Well, there’s no way I can do that.”

ELISABETH: Yeah. And then, at the end, I’m going, “Okay, I could hear all of you,” and they get really excited, especially my little quiet ones who were terrified, suddenly, they’re, “Oh, I can be heard, that is exciting!” And so, it’s a fun thing to see – to go from these quiet kids to suddenly they’re standing in an auditorium and they can be heard.

LINDSAY: Let’s talk about articulation for a moment because that’s the other thing in terms of vocal qualities. That’s my huge pet peeve; I cannot understand what you are saying. How do we deal with articulation with high school students?

ELISABETH: Well, I teach articulation as far as tongue-twisters and just getting them used to speaking clearly. And then, when they’re on-stage, a lot of times it’s, “Well, now I know my lines so I’m just powering through them.” And so, focusing on slowing down and taking your time and actually saying what you’re saying because, a lot of times, it’s “now I have my lines” and they quit acting. They’re just reciting. And so, I found, if I can get them back into “what is your character saying and why?” then the articulation gets a little better because they slow down and they’re thinking about it.

LINDSAY: Hey, I know one thing I wanted to just go back to about projection is that projection is not just for students. I think that, in terms of taking care of your voice, I think teachers can do a lot of damage to their vocal cords too if they spend a lot of time yelling.

ELISABETH: Oh, yeah. I worked with a teacher who yelled a lot and she had to have surgery on her vocal cords and that freaked me out. I’m going, “Wow! Just from teaching, you can do that much damage.” And so, I do my best to make sure I’m not yelling because I don’t want to damage my voice like that.

LINDSAY: Yeah, how do you take care of your voice to make sure that doesn’t happen?

ELISABETH: Well, for me, again, it’s projecting when I’m talking. I try not to be yelling, especially when I’m teaching in the auditorium. I make sure that I’m standing up straight and I take a big breath in and I make sure that I’m projecting when I’m in that space. I also sometimes will use other ways to get my students’ attention. If they’re being really loud, I’ll use a bell or something so that way I’m not having to scream over them constantly.

LINDSAY: Sweet. Okay. So, if you had, like, three top pieces of advice for drama directors, high school directors in terms of getting students to use their voice, what would they be?

ELISABETH: First, give them the skills that they need to make sure you’ve taught them how to speak correctly. Don’t assume they know how. Second would be, really, just encouraging them to practice and making sure they understand that no, you’re not magically going to understand this overnight. And then, third, make sure that they know it’s okay to mess up. Make sure they know it’s okay that, no, you don’t have to do this perfectly but I just want to see you trying and learning those skills. And so, taking away the pressure of “you have to do this perfectly right” so that they have room to experiment and explore and understand the material.

LINDSAY: Awesome. All right! Thank you very much, Lis!

ELISABETH: All right, thank you!

+ + + + +

Thank you, Elisabeth!

Okay. So, now, we’re going to talk to Keith and the play, Stupid is Just 4 2day. I talked to him at the Florida Junior State Thespian Festival and he’s going to talk about the challenges and the rewards of choral work. There are both and it was really great to hear him talk about how he approaches choral work.

LINDSAY: Okay. I am standing here with Keith White. How are you?

KEITH: I’m really well. How are you?

LINDSAY: I’m good! So, you must be sort of a little bit on Cloud Nine.

KEITH: Yeah!

LINDSAY: Your students have just performed Stupid is Just 4 2day at the Florida Junior State Thespian Festival.

KEITH: That’s correct, yeah.

LINDSAY: How did you feel it went?

KEITH: I felt like we did really well. There was a lot of energy. I told the kids after they performed it that I felt it was the best they had ever done it which was a big deal because they have had several rehearsals and their district competition where they knocked it out of the park but this was really, really good so they have a lot to be proud of.

LINDSAY: That is so exciting to hear. It’s so nice when they culminate at the right exact moment.

KEITH: Yeah.

LINDSAY: So, what I wanted to talk to you about is that Stupid has a lot of – just come this way as they start singing – Stupid has a lot of choral work. There’s a lot of group speaking. It’s somewhat rhythmic in nature. So, how did you approach that in your rehearsals?

KEITH: The first thing that I decided was that I was going to have our Junior Thespian president who tends to be our most reliable student. I decided that we were going to break down all of the choral things that keep coming up throughout the show with her starting them. That way, we got into a rhythm and everything was very clear and in synch. And then, one of the things that I felt was really important was getting the overture really, really strong.

LINDSAY: Right.

KEITH: Before we worked on any of the individual scenes or any of the other movements because I felt it was extremely important to set a great tone for the show and be perfect on the overture.

LINDSAY: So, how long did you rehearse the overture?

KEITH: We spent, I would say, probably six block rehearsals and block rehearsals are about 80 minutes so we spent a whole lot of time working on that. And then, after that, everything just seemed to start to roll along really well. I decided to put together a kind of a study sheet for them for all their ensemble things.

LINDSAY: Really?

KEITH: I went into the script and broke down every single cue for any of the “Stupid, ugh! Stupid, agh! Stupid, ogh!” and then made sure that they had their cue line whether they were doing a movement with it or not. And then, they were able to take that home with their script and the study sheet and do everything that they needed to prepare.

LINDSAY: I love that! I think that’s a really great idea. Like, if you’re doing that, because all of the ensemble of the choral stuff, most of it had an action or there was something very specific going on in it.

KEITH: Yeah.

LINDSAY: So, to give them guidance so they sort of have “okay, this is what you have to do,” what a really great idea. I also really like having someone who is sort of the leader so that no one has to decide who’s going to go first. Everybody knows who’s going to go first.

KEITH: Yes, and it also worked because, when certain things are ending and there’s a specific thing that needs to be said by the Tutti, I wanted to make sure that everyone was starting at the right time. Having a leader for that made sure everybody was starting at the exact right time.

LINDSAY: Were there any struggles with the choral work?

KEITH: The biggest struggle was trying to get things that happened in the individual movements down in the students’ heads because, once we got into the movements, there were some times where they would say the title of the movement together. There were some times where they would go, “Stupid, ugh! Stupid, agh! Stupid, ogh!” and just getting them to be really concrete and focused. One of the things that I told them is make sure you’re not packing your lunch for tomorrow in your head while there’s this scene going on. Make sure you’re not thinking about what’s happening with your boyfriend or sports or anything like that. You have to be focused on “what is my very next objective?” and “when do I have to say it?” and we went through growing pains and ebbs and flows throughout this entire rehearsal process – even after we did well with the district festival in the two months getting ready for state. But we peaked at the right point.

LINDSAY: Peaked at the right point.

KEITH: Yep! I felt like we did.

LINDSAY: Well, you can’t ask for anything more than that. And I really liked, too, you know, I think it’s really important with choral work that there is some kind of objective behind it – that it’s not just, okay, everyone’s saying words at the same time and it’s pretty.

KEITH: Yeah.

LINDSAY: There has to be more to it than that.

KEITH: Yeah.

LINDSAY: Do you think that helped them out?

KEITH: Yeah, I think it really did and we have a very good relationship with the center of the arts high school and we’re a center of the arts middle school. And so, their teacher came over to adjudicate them a couple of weeks ago to prepare for this, and one of the things that we were both agreeing on was that objectives. He kept saying it and then, when they heard him say it – and a lot of them have the goal of going to that high school next year – they kind of looked at me and they said, “Oh, Mr. White knows what he’s talking about and he’s right if Mr. Loudey is saying it so we’ve got to make sure everything is pinpoint.”

LINDSAY: Isn’t that always the way? It’s always when a stranger, a visiting guest artist comes in and says it. It’s like, “That’s so amazing!” It’s like, “I’ve been saying that all this time!”

KEITH: All day long!

LINDSAY: Is this the first time these students have done choral work? Or have they done it before?

KEITH: I would say yes. Some of them have, in terms of singing, backgrounds. But, in terms of a play like this, this would be the first time that they’ve done something to this calibre.

LINDSAY: Calibre.

KEITH: Magnitude.

LINDSAY: Magnitude!

KEITH: Awesomeness! How’s that?

LINDSAY: I’m a writer and I’m like, “I have no other words.” That’s what thesauruses are for. Thank you so much for talking to me!

KEITH: Absolutely.

LINDSAY: I think some of these points are just really awesome to pass on in terms of choral work, in terms of leaders and study sheets and objectives.

KEITH: And I think our students were a little intimidated by it. Even though they chose to do it and they were really excited about it, they were a little intimidated once we got into the beginning of the rehearsal process and we started the overture and they realized how much work it was going to take. But I think that, if a strong tone is set and there are really strong leaders in the group, then this can be a show that young actors, if they’re really dedicated and really want to do it, they can do well with it. And it’s a challenge. It’s a very difficult show but I think that it’s so fun. It’s such a fun show. They walk out of rehearsal going, “Stupid, ugh! Stupid, agh!” down the hall and their other classmates, students from other classes are like, “What are you doing?” but they loved it. They had a blast.

LINDSAY: That’s awesome and I really liked too that why not give middle school students a challenge. I think that’s important and a good note to end on is that choral work is work, isn’t it?

KEITH: Oh, yeah! Indeed, indeed!

LINDSAY: Awesome. Thank you so much!

KEITH: Thank you!

LINDSAY: All right. Thank you, Keith!

Before we go, let’s do some THEATREFOLK NEWS.

So, Elisabeth is one of our Drama Teacher Academy instructors and we have just recently uploaded her course, Breath Control and Projection. That’s right; a whole course on how you can get your students to not only take care of their voices but how to use and understand the breath. Everything in the voice comes from the breath, you know.

If you’re out of breath, if you’re holding your breath, you’re not going to get the best sound out of your actors and it’s so important. Breath is directly connected to projection, you know. How do we get students to project so they don’t need to use those microphones?

Also, she talks a bit about – she’s a drama teacher – she talks about how to assess these exercises. I know that’s something that everybody wants to know.

So, go to dramateacheracademy.com, check out Elisabeth’s course – Breath Control and Projection. Everybody can go to the site and check out her first video. You can see what it’s all about. Kick the tires and see if the Drama Teacher Academy is something that you might be interested in.

You can also click the link in the show notes at theatrefolk.com/episode129.

Finally, where, oh, where can you find this podcast? We post new episodes every second Tuesday at theatrefolk.com and on our Facebook page and Twitter. You can find us on YouTube.com/Theatrefolk and you can find us on the Stitcher app. You can also subscribe to TFP on iTunes. All you’ve got to do is search for the word “Theatrefolk.”

And that’s where we’re going to end. Take care, my friends. Take care.


Music credit: ”Ave” by Alex (feat. Morusque) is licensed under a Creative Commons license.

About the author

Lindsay Price