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The Performer's Voice
Meribeth Bunch Dayme
W.W.Norton, ISBN 0 393 06136 1
Review by Gordon Stewart, April 2006
The picture on the front of the dust jacket is by Joan Mirò: La chanteuse mélancolique. If there were a picture on the back, it would surely be La chanteuse heureuse, whether Mirò has painted one or not. The book inside is excellently done – a model of how to deliver clear and engaging information, the lay-out brilliantly designed, so that you can easily find the things you want to refer to.
Meribeth Bunch Dayme's personality comes off the page: direct, understanding, sympathetic, helpful. She has discovered the way to write for an intelligent, but not necessarily specialised, reader. She calls things by their proper names, but she explains them so well that you don't feel you're left in the margins, with your pencil ready to write "What does this mean?"; or, as I seem to write more often, "Oh dear!" It could be held up as a model for the rest of us who try to get our ideas over to others.
It's addressed directly to the voice-user – singer, actor, teacher, whatever. So I found myself reading things which I knew pretty well, or slightly, or not at all; above all, at no point did I ever feel patronised. The secret of finding that tone of voice is worth a great deal: how to speak to everyone, not frightening those who know little, and not offending those who know more.
Meribeth has a great deal of knowledge, not just of the subjects in which she had her formal training (her CV is extraordinarily impressive) but well beyond into the business of communicating in person in a lecture or class situation. If you've seen her at work, you'll know what I mean. Such ability doesn't always translate into the ability to distil it and render it useful in a book. Analysis is one thing – and we're grateful to the people who do that – but vibrant synthesis is something much more precious. Everything we get here has been tried, and it works. Above all, she makes you understand so easily that you can't help wondering why you hadn't worked it out for yourself. That is one of the secrets of the born communicator.
The book is in three parts: getting your voice to work, getting it to express and present something, and then getting it to perform. Nothing is passive – she emphasises the need to observe – but to observe with a quiet mind, not pre-judging – in fact, not judging at all. This is fine advice, and something which is not always possible among those who undertake research, who, I'm told, often have to suggest in advance what the result of their research is going to be in order to get the funding to do it. The "logic and wisdom of the body" is a very well-tailored expression which should lead us into the paths of right-mindedness about how we tend our voices. This first part of the book is very fine indeed – the diagrams are really clear, things explained in a matter of fact way that occasionally glides into memorable colour – "…every structure gift-wrapped with a thin, gleaming, glistening covering…" The special appendix giving a summary of anatomical terminology is invaluable for someone like me. There are things for us to do – exercises, broadly speaking – which sharpen us up both physically and mentally. It's a complete prescription.
The later parts are full of useful advice. This is an area in which I have more knowledge than in the anatomical bits, and there is a lot of admirable stuff here. Things I shall try out for myself to add to what I already do. There will no doubt be things that will challenge me: I don't always agree with the idea of having only one thing that you want the audience to take away with them. But I can see the force of the argument for concentrating your thought. It's something which I've always found hard to do, which is my misfortune. Certainly the blue-print for organising presentations is excellent, and if you want to know how to use power-point effectively and memorably, you will find the best advice and rules here.
A valuable book, ideally written and beautifully presented and likely to have wide application for anyone who, as its subtitle says, wants to realise their vocal potential.
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