Borletti-Buitoni Trust
07 July 2008

Breathing into Freedom: An Afternoon Session with Patsy Rodenburg

by Joshua Hopkins

As from 2008 BBT is offering all musicians on its roster an introductory consultation and practical session with Patsy Rodenburg, Director of Voice at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and until recently at the Royal National Theatre.  Joshua Hopkins writes about his session with her on 28th June…

In recent years, I have developed a significant fear of singing in a recital setting. This fear grew out of a comment made to me in 2005 that described my physical posture as stiff. Since then, I have been battling with this affliction, stiffness, and have felt it hinder my performance in recitals. My breath ceases to be efficient, my legs tighten, and over the course of a recital program, my voice tires. In a constant effort to improve my ability as an artist, naturally I am driven to seek assistance from specialists who can help me face my challenges. In one afternoon session with Patsy Rodenburg, I not only learned the simple tools necessary to alter my bad habits, but also gained the confidence to overcome my fears.

I have to admit, I had no idea what to expect from our session.I was surprised to learn weeks before that we would not be working with a pianist, nor that I needed to have any music with me.What could we possibly be doing?All I could do was proceed with an open mind, conscious of the fact that I was willing to learn, grow and improve.Our session began with a discussion, where Patsy started to get an idea of who I was and on what we might need to work.Almost immediately, we were up on our feet and getting physical; Patsy wanted to see for herself how I would enter a recital hall and prepare to sing.Ladies and gentlemen, this is CRUCIAL to beginning any recital or performance.For me (and I’m sure other performers share this moment) there is an indescribable rush of adrenaline mixed with terrifying expectation that happens in the silence between entering the performance space with applause, and actually beginning the performance.To the audience it is only mere seconds, but to the performer, that silent pause can feel like the longest minutes of their life.So what is it that we do in those precious few ounces of time before we make music?Ideally, this is a time in which we need to help ourselves be ready for the first note of music that we play or sing.As it turns out, I was hindering my performance by habit, things I had been told to do early in my training.

I have an unfortunate tendency to take suggestions and criticism too far in many situations, and those ideas (some good, some not helpful) can stick to me like glue.That is how bad habits can form instantly; having my instrument within my body, it is often difficult to identify what I might be doing wrong to disrupt its alignment.  The following is how I used to walk onto the stage for a recital.I enter the room with a big smile, cross to the infamous crook of the piano, nod my head slightly to acknowledge the audience, and as the applause dies down, turn my head to the pianist to focus.It is during this time, the time to “prepare” to sing, that moment of expectation during which I would rather be skydiving than having the audience watch me, that my body weight rocks back on the heels, my knees slightly lock and I brace for impact.One may wonder how it is even possible to openly communicate when positioned in such a posture.

What Patsy did was to immediately identify this problem and to offer helpful suggestions to fix it.The most important idea was to shift my weight onto the balls of my feet and feel my energy moving outward towards the audience.Instantly my body felt free, my knees unlocked, my shoulders weren’t as tight and I wasn’t “planting” my energy.If I wanted to turn to the pianist, rather than stiffly crank my head over, why not take a couple of steps to turn my entire body over to them?Patsy had me walk around the room with this approach, keeping my weight forward and with a purpose.

Her next suggestion dealt with my mental focus before walking on the stage. Rather than enter with a big, false smile as a defensive front (again, the smile something I had been told to do) she suggested a single thought to have clearly focused in my mind, “What a great story I’ve got to tell you; this story is worth telling.” My entrance into the room then became genuine, and brought a slight smile to my face, which projected honesty. It is true that an audience can detect the difference between a performer who is honest and open, and a performer who is worried about how the audience feels about them. If I focus on giving the audience energy, rather than worrying about my own limitations, then it will put the audience at ease. As I continue working in this business called show, I slowly come to understand the hard lesson that it is impossible to please everyone in the audience. There will always be a certain percentage of an audience that does not care for what I do, and I have to accept this. I am learning that part of being an artist is to not have reservations about what an audience might think, but to believe in what I have to offer creatively. As long as I have an opinion, thought, motivation or emotion behind my artistic choices, they will be justified. This is not to say that they can never change or be flexible to other interpretation, but I can have pride knowing that I have taken the time to devote my personal thought into the work.

Bit of a digression there, but worthwhile, I think. Our next topic dealt with breath and how best to free it. Every day I discover how important it is to be generous with air when singing. It sounds so simple, almost stupid, but the freest, most honest sound will be the one produced with the freest breath flow. Also, the lower the depth of breath in my body, the more natural, sonorous and rich the sound will be. Patsy had me sing the first phrase of a song after entering the room and keeping my weight over the balls of my feet. The sound was rich, I didn’t feel stiff and the breath flowed like a waterfall over my tongue. Then I tried the entrance again, but reverted back to “planting” my heels to feel the difference. Patsy noticed that there was a slight strain on my throat and the sound wasn’t as rich, and I certainly felt more constriction. This lead to a discussion concerning the tension I hold in my stomach muscles. I will admit that throughout most of an average day, I am either tensing my stomach or holding it in, especially if I am in public. Since I was teased to no end for being a chubby child, I got into the habit of holding in my stomach to appear thinner. Now that I am fit and living a healthy lifestyle, I can certainly give myself permission to let those issues go. Holding in my stomach has been affecting the freedom of my breath and communication. When I enter onto a stage for a recital, I hold my stomach in consistently because I am in front of people. Patsy suggested that before I enter, I take one hand and push against a wall to feel the pressure it puts on my core muscles. Following this, I should focus attention on my belly and consciously release the tension held there. When I released my stomach and took a breath to sing much lower in my body, my voice was even freer.

Although I learned a great many more techniques and ideas from Patsy in our session, most importantly she gave me permission to trust in myself. I have studied singing for 10 years now and I must trust that the work I’ve done is respectable, and have the freedom to release what it is I know how to do. I like to call it “unleashing the fury”. Even though I am constantly searching for improvement in what I do, when it comes time for the performance, I must feel as though I am a master of my abilities. I felt an immediate correction in physical posture and mindset when entering and standing in a recital space, and can honestly say I have a fresh, positive outlook on performing my next recital.

Read Joshua Hopkins’ blog updates charting the journey towards making a CD “Why make a recording?” (29th June 2009) and “Houston, we have a recording!” (18th October 2010)


Joshua Hopkins

Patsy Rodenburg