Does curiosity kill the cat? How asking questions can bring wonder to voice teaching

Providing a new perspective of voice teaching with the strange and absurd experiences of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Encouraging learners to move safely out of their comfort zone to explore the weird and wonderful capabilities of their vocal range.

I confess – always a bold opener – that, metaphorically, I find myself behaving, from time-to-time, like Lewis Carroll’s famous fictional character, Alice, particularly as she falls into the dark abyss of the rabbit-hole. For those that are unfamiliar, please explore the charming children’s book ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’. The absurdity of Alice’s circumstances develops her sense of becoming more and more ‘curiouser’.

Curiously, I have always gravitated positively towards Alice. She experiences almost every predicament with a question and, although often frustrated, continuously attempts to find solutions to her problems – even when facing extreme circumstances, such as communicating with a hysterically grinning feline or high-as-a-kite caterpillar. The ‘Wonderland’ reference suggests a feeling of extraordinary amazement, despite the paradox of its nonsensical characters and obscure locations.

Pictured above is an illustration by Gary Patterson. My maternal grandmother gave me a poster size of it as a small child. For a long time during my childhood it used to hang over my bed. Entitled ‘Curiosity’, I recall that Grandma said it reminded her of me when she saw it. Back in the late 1970s, I did not understand quite what she meant; perhaps, and most likely, she recognised me as someone always getting into problematic predicaments with a propensity to often ask “why?” However, with hindsight, maybe she anticipated that what I set my sights on might not always be obtainable immediately, but that, through many attempts and asking lots of questions, I might finally achieve what I first set out to do.

According to Forbes, the global US magazine, research proves that curiosity develops emotional intelligence, which is key for interpersonal relationship building. Albert Einstein famously stated, ‘Question everything’, whilst Constantin Stanislavski, the famous theatre practitioner, devised the 7-question theory for actors to manifest realism in their characterisations.

So why and how does Voice Confidence encourage its learners to be curious? I was prompted to write about this month’s blog theme given my recent experiences of working with young people’s speaking voices. Spending regular time in schools post Covid-19, I am becoming more sensitive to the fact that young people have had little experience of expressing themselves aloud when preparing for performance or public speaking. Having the ability to understand the diversity of their vocal range can improve both their ability to communicate more effectively – listeners are more likely to listen to varied tones and inflections rather than ones which remain monotone – and also for health and wellbeing reasons – not exercising the larynx’s intrinsic and extrinsic muscles can be detrimental to a person’s health.

During the last couple of months, I have been working with several young learners who have developed a voice habit that, when speaking aloud, has either the same or limitation in pitch (i.e. monotone). With the tongue-twister exercises that I have used regularly over the years, I ask learners to be curious about their voice. One popular exercise I use is for learners to consider their pitch (high and low) when applying a specific mood to the words and for them to listen out carefully for inflections. Usually on the first few times of trying they find the experience either enjoyable or, alternatively, uncomfortably embarrassing.

When exploring the voice’s capability, young learners repeatedly say to me that the sensation they feel is either ‘strange’ or ‘weird’, to which I always reply, ‘is it strange-good or strange-bad?’ In almost every case they say ‘strange-good’. When feeling vulnerable and sometimes somewhat exposed due to the unfamiliarity of changing pitch, I explain how a simple nonsensical tongue-twister can take them out of the safety of their comfort zone – metaphorically, entering a kind of creative wonderland of sounding words. During their often playful experience, I am there to reassure and explain to them that how they are sensing their change in sound is encouraging and, providing they are enjoying the work, to continue being curious. With practise, the difference in the voice becomes more familiar and self-discovery of the learner’s sound variations help them to build their overall voice confidence, thereby allowing them to thrive.

Invariably, these experiences are most beneficial when working either individually or in small groups (up to a maximum of 3) in a safe environment, where young people will not feel they are being judged by their peers, especially when being encouraged to sound ‘out of the ordinary’. A vital process of learning voice is to keep practising to discover its full capabilities and to try out different environments. School is a great place to start!

My grandmother, Rosalie May Stygall (1916-1995), pictured below, sadly passed away during my 20s. Little did she know that on the day she gave me the poster of the cat, all those years ago, it would have a profoundly positive effect on me and the lives of those I am honoured to teach. As a child, I considered curiosity as being naughtily negative; after all, as the proverb goes, “Curiosity killed the cat”. However since then, I have memorised the more positive adaptation, “Curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought it back!” Indeed, by having the tenacity and resilience to explore my desire to teach speech and drama to young people, despite the occasional pit-fall, wherever possible I encourage all my learners to take a leap of faith and be more ‘curiouser’, just like Alice.

What happened during May 2022?

As I posted on Instagram, the Voice Confidence learners who took exams last month were all awarded Distinctions – I was thrilled for them all, especially given how hard they worked. I had the privilege to meet with two Primary Headteachers to discuss their pupils’ communication skill learning. Subsequently, both schools have agreed for me to organise taster days during June to start, subject to demand, from September. I had a positive meeting with a sub-committee of the British Voice Association Education Working Party regarding plans for its Spoken Word event in 2023. I enjoyed a reunion with 2019-20 Birmingham University’s Master’s Degree Professional Voice Practice friends at the Birmingham Conservatoire’s production of Macbeth. Perhaps the quietest of months for events so far in 2022, but I have been busy laying foundations for inspiring projects next term.

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