My journey with voice training goes back generations.
My grandmother was a beautiful woman and tall, too, at 5’ 8’’. She had dark hair, amber brown eyes and a willowy figure. Born into a fairly affluent family, by the time she was 11 her father’s alcoholism had drunk them into terrible poverty. Despite being academically bright, her family’s plight meant that she began her working life in a sewing factory aged just 12.
By the time she reached her late teens, her seamstress skills had earned her a reasonably well-paid job in Manchester lining high-end coats bound for ladies far more comfortably off than her. Back in the early 1930s, theatrical repertory companies toured the country and my grandmother loved to watch their shows. I remember her telling me that the actors, with their beautiful voices, stylish clothing and eccentric ways, seemed like movie stars to ordinary people, and certainly to her. One day she was on a bus to Wigan when she realised she was being stared at. She immediately recognised the man as one of the lead actors from the latest theatrical troupe to hit town. He smiled at her and said, “my dear, you are lovely”. She blushed and said, “thank you very much”. Apparently, as she uttered those words, the actor’s nose wrinkled in distaste and he said, “oh dear, the voice does not match the face” and turned away. My grandmother was cut to the quick and became highly self-conscious about her voice ever after.
This offhand comment so affected her that when she had children, they were packed off to elocution lessons as soon as they were old enough. As her granddaughter, I was brought up to speak “properly” and was constantly corrected on my grammar and pronunciation. Aged nine, we moved to an area with a strong local accent and, being a natural mimic, I began to copy the people around me. This became more pronounced when I got to secondary school where I was picked on for being posh by the other kids. My parents were not pleased with the change in my speech and, age 11, I was sent to weekly elocution lessons with the indomitable but brilliant Florence Bolton.
At the time I wanted to be an actress and loved to copy accents and voices, so I welcomed the classes. However, I had already made up my mind that I never wanted to entirely erase my own accent. I’m from Lancashire and I’ve always been fiercely proud of my roots. I had no intention of losing my natural voice, to do so would have felt like a betrayal. Of course, I wasn’t going to tell my parents that as they might have stopped sending me to class.
Mrs Bolton was in her mid-70s when I started and you might have expected that the age gap meant we had nothing in common. But we found a connection in our deep love of language and literature. She was a marvellous teacher and I flew through my exams but, after eight years of classes, Mrs Bolton became increasingly frail and forgetful and eventually ended up in hospital where I went to see her. On my last visit she took hold of my hand and asked me to take over her pupils and begin teaching. I was 19 at the time and, although flattered, I knew I was too young to be taken seriously as a teacher. She died a few weeks later. I still miss her.
It took 20 years but eventually I found my way back to voice coaching. I didn’t plan it but somehow it found me. I was just about to move to a new house and the rental agency sent a plumber round to do an appliance check and we got chatting. He told me that he’d decided to become an actor and was looking for a voice coach and asked if I knew of any. A few months later I began to teach him; soon other actors he knew followed. Slowly but surely my business began to grow and I started to teach people from all walks of life, from an author who wanted to address large audiences to talk about her book to a yoga instructor who wanted a more meditative voice.
Not everyone who takes classes wants to lose their accent or learn a new one, many just want to be a more confident public speaker. Others want a voice which is softer and easier on the ear than their original sound. I’m always amazed at the many ways in which voice coaching can help people and get them where they want to go.
Over the years, I have realised there is a common thread which connects all these varying worlds together: the ability to tell a tale. All public speaking is a version of storytelling – if you can convey a story well you can enthral your audience, whether your subject is tax law or a Shakespearean soliloquy. I teach all my pupils correct breathing regardless of whether they are an actor or a doctor as no one can speak properly unless they are using intercostal diaphragmatic breathing. I also try to improve diction and emphasis on key words. You may have noticed while watching TV that the current fashion is to garble dialogue to the point where the sense of an entire plot line can be lost.
Over the years I have taught a range of accents from general American to Brummie, but teaching Received Pronunciation is still my favourite. “Speaking posh” is considered old-fashioned in some quarters, but it allows a performer to be versatile and opens up so many possibilities. One thing that angers me about the current ‘industry’ is how bogged down it is by actors who have been to public school. It is increasingly difficult for performers from lower socio-economic backgrounds to get the same training or opportunities, and the industry is blander because of it.
I feel so strongly about the growing divide that I purposefully keep my fees affordable. I want anyone to be able to attend a class of mine, even if they are on a zero hours contract.
Times have changed and over the years I have evolved, deviating from Mrs Bolton’s teaching style, but I still carry her core values and I hope I am encouraging my pupils to have the same love of language, speech and performance that she gave to me.
For more information about Claire’s business, follow this link: www.clairefleetneedle.co.uk