Theatre Voice Pedagogy

How Vocal Coach Elissa Weinzimmer Lost Her Voice and Found Herself

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Personal 14 Comments
Elissa Weinzimmer, vocal coach

Elissa Weinzimmer

Okay. I’m going to do the decent thing, and not start with how a simple sex toy could benefit your (voice) acting career.

That would be a cheesy way to pique your interest, and I’m not going there.

Besides, it’s just a small part of a much bigger story, and it has been covered before

Don’t worry. I’ll get to it eventually, but you have to be patient.

Instead, I’d like your mind to go somewhere else…

Imagine for a moment that you’re young, and your voice is your life. 

You love it so much that you want to make a living using that voice.

You take every opportunity to speak, sing and perform in public.

You dream of a career on stage, and you work very hard to make it a reality. 

And then, all of a sudden, you lose the one thing you trust and rely on most.

How would you feel?

This is not some sort of hypothetical scenario. This actually happened to vocal coach Elissa Weinzimmer. She told me her story, and today I’m going to share it with you. Here’s Elissa, recounting the events that took place some eight years ago.

“Simply put, I lost my voice in 2007. It was due to a combination of factors… I was really pushing to belt a solo in my a cappella group (USC Reverse Osmosis), and I was also drinking almost every day because I was trying to enjoy my remaining months in college (!). The drinking part was quite out of character, so it only lasted about a month before my body reacted. One morning I woke up, and felt like I had shards of glass in my throat. It hurt to swallow and speak. Later on that day, I spat up blood.

I rushed myself to the Ear, Nose and Throat specialist that week to have my vocal cords scoped, and I was told I had severe onset of acid reflux, and had experienced vocal “trauma” from overuse. I was put on vocal rest for a month… I had to walk around with a little notepad to communicate my thoughts. After that, I was sent to speech therapy. The whole experience was a major turning point for me. I stopped performing. I even stopped singing much in the car or the shower, places where I usually rocked out. Recently, I’ve started to call the seven years after losing my voice my silent years.”

When your voice is such a part of your identity, what did it do to you psychologically, when you could no longer rely on it?

“It was really emotional, of course. My confidence took a hit because I felt like I couldn’t rely on my voice. When I talk about it in yogi terms, I say that I spent years shutting down my fifth chakra, the center of energy in my throat. The fifth chakra is all about creativity and expression, so I felt stifled. Opening back up to my expressiveness has been a challenging but joyful process.”

How did losing your voice change a possible career path you had set out for yourself at that time? 

“Well, I’d spent most of my life believing that I was going to pursue a career in acting – that I was going to sing on Broadway. Interestingly enough though, a few months before I lost my voice I directed my first full length show, the musical Cabaret. So I was already intrigued and exhilarated by the idea of pursuing a career in directing. When I couldn’t rely on my voice anymore, it was a no-brainer that I would focus my efforts on directing instead. The idea to teach voice didn’t arise until a year or so later.”

Some people look at unfortunate events as blessings in disguise. Was losing your voice such a blessing, and in what way?

“Eight years later, I absolutely believe that it was a blessing. My story fits the archetype of the person who enters a healing or helping profession because of their own challenges. Losing my voice redirected my course in life, and I deeply love what I do now. So, in some ways I’m very grateful to have gone through the experience.”

What surprising things did you discover in the process of getting your voice back, and how has that changed you as a person, and as a professional?

“By the time I was ready to start reclaiming my voice I was already teaching voice to others quite a lot. It became clear to me that it was time to start walking the walk rather than just talking the talk. After all, it’s one thing to tell people to express themselves fully, and it’s entirely something else to be a model of that. I have to admit, a lot of my motivation for performing again was selfish – I needed to do it for me. Yet in pursuing my passion and my truth, I hope I offer a model that encourages other people to do the same in their own way. I believe the world will get really exciting when a critical mass of people start pursuing their true passions and desires, and I feel very strongly about being part of that movement.”

You have used a few methods to restore your voice, to strengthen your vocal folds, and to deal with vocal fatigue. One is called Fitzmaurice Voicework®. In a nutshell, what did you learn from using this technique that was new to you?

“It wasn’t what I expected. I encountered Fitzmaurice Voicework® in my theatre voice class when I was a senior at the University of Southern California. After I lost my voice I began to study the technique more deeply. Fitzmaurice is a beautiful and unique full body approach to making sound, but the exercises weren’t the thing that provided the biggest change for me. The huge change came from encountering a mindset shift inherent in that work: that instead of needing to have the best voice or a perfect voice, I could focus on having my voice.

I showed up at Fitzmaurice lessons wanting to get better and fix my voice. Of course that makes sense, I had spent my whole life up to that point trying to be a good singer and trying to make a good sound. But I learned that improving the voice is a paradox, because in order to get “better,” we have to uncover what’s already there. It’s not about adding stuff, it’s about peeling the extra junk away. In this new way of thinking I could let go of judging myself as good or bad/right or wrong, and I could instead ask myself: “What might this way of making sound be good for?” or “What might this way of breathing be right for?”

This paradigm shift changed everything for me. Once it sunk in, I was immediately committed to the idea of becoming a voice teacher, and sharing this way of thinking with others.”

You say the whole body is involved in creating sound. Many voice-overs lead very sedentary lives. They lock themselves up in a small, soundproof box, and sit all day, reading long scripts. What advice do you have for them?

“An ongoing struggle that I’ve had in my own vocal practice is to actually do my warm ups and take good care of myself. I will be the first to admit that that’s challenging! I have often felt like I’m not doing enough, and when I start working without warming up I feel guilty. However I’m lucky to be curious – fascinated in fact – with how the voice works and the connection between the voice and the body. At this point I’ve spent years experiencing and teaching warm ups and exercises. In the process I have come to believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that having a vocal practice works. Doing vocal warm ups and keeping ourselves in shape makes a difference.

So, for those of us who are really committed to using our voices as an instrument, I suggest this:

Get curious about how your voice works. We would never hop on a motorcycle without first learning how it works, so why would we ever presume to use our voice every day if we don’t understand it? Pick up a book and read. Joanna Cazden’s “Everyday Voice Care” is a great place to start. Create accountability and support. Sign up for a class. Go to yoga or the gym regularly. Create a practice.

Professor David Ley

Professor David Ley (left)

In 2012 you moved to Edmonton, Canada, to earn an MFA in Theatre Voice Pedagogy at the University of Alberta. That’s where you met one of your mentors, professor David Ley. One of the things he has developed is called the “Vibrant Voice Technique.” Tell me about it, and in particular how this technique could be beneficial to voice actors.

“Vibrant Voice Technique is based on this outside-the-box idea that David had to use a vibrator for your voice. He had a client suffering from extreme vocal fatigue. She’d been to the Ear Nose and Throat doctor, and she’d been scoped, but there was no damage. That being said, she was having ongoing difficulty making sound due to muscle tension. She had trouble giving herself a manual throat massage to release the tension, so David thought to himself… “Hmm, what’s small and vibrates?” The subsequent lightbulb moment led to a trip to the “love shop” to purchase a pocket-sized vibrator, and sure enough it worked!

Essentially, with Vibrant Voice Technique we use external vibration to reduce muscular tension, and enhance resonance. The technique can be incredibly beneficial to voice actors because it makes vocal exercises quick, easy, and highly effective. You don’t have to have a long regimen of exercises that you feel guilty about not doing. Quite honestly, Vibrant Voice is a shortcut to staying in vocal shape. So for voice actors who deal with issues of duration and overuse it can be extremely helpful.”

You’ve taught this technique to stage actors, on-camera actors, and professional singers. What’s the response when they found out they’re about to use a sex toy?

“There’s this very funny moment that happens when I say to someone: “I teach people to use a vibrator for their voice.” Almost always it goes like this: a blank stare, followed by a slow smile, then a vigorous nod. Sure the idea is surprising, but it makes sense to most people as soon as they think about it! Obviously many media outlets have capitalized on the sex toy angle because it’s sensational. Yet we continue to teach and do what we’re doing because the technique really works.”

Right now you’re recommending a “sensual personal massager” made by a Swedish company, but you’re developing a custom-made voice vibrator, aren’t you? What’s the word on that?

“Yes, we are in the process of developing our own vibrator. Unfortunately, I can’t say too much about that at the moment. However, if anyone reading this is interested in getting involved with the fundraising or research process, they are welcome to email us! You can find our contact info at Vibrant Voice Technique.

Apart from being the managing director of Vibrant Voice Technique, you run your own business called “Voice Body Connection.” What do you offer, and who are your clients?

“Voice Body Connection is based in New York City where I live. The business is all about helping people tune into the connection between their voice and body (as the name suggests). My mission is to help performers and public speakers communicate with more confidence and ease. I work in many ways: I coach clients privately in person, and over the internet. I teach actors at a studio in New York called Anthony Meindl’s Actors Workshop. I also teach an online Speak With Confidence class for public speakers. I’d love to develop a class for voice-over actors too!

In whatever format I’m teaching, the work starts with examining and shifting our mindset about how we communicate, and progresses to techniques and practices to create sound with more expression and less effort.”

I’m particularly intrigued by something you offer called Yoga for the Voice.

“I think there are many voice teachers now who are playing with combining vocal exercises and yoga. In a lot of ways the practices are complementary. So, I certainly can’t claim to have invented Yoga for the Voice. However I love exploring the interplay of how we might make sound while we do yoga, or how we might carry yoga concepts into voice work. It’s an exciting area of exploration for me, and I think for my students too!”

You also prep people for auditions. What are some of the common mistakes you help people correct?

“Well, I think the greatest challenge for a performer is that we’re usually given a script, and that maps out our impulses for us. It is so easy, when we’re being told what our impulses should be, to plan and make logical decisions about how we’ll perform. However the real goal is to allow impulses to bubble up creatively from our right brain, the same way impromptu speech pours out of us. So, the biggest thing I find I spend my time doing when I’m coaching people for auditions or performance, is helping them find a way to marry their own impulses with the impulses that have been provided in the script.”

Quite a few voice actors suffer from vocal fatigue. They got into the business because they loved to read out loud, and because they could do “funny voices.” Not everyone has had professional voice training. What advice do you have for an audio book narrator who records five hours a day, or for a voice actor who has to scream his head off while recording video games or cartoons?

“So, you’ve just brought up two issues: the duration issue (length of time doing the work) and the use issue (are we using healthy practices?). In either case, I highly recommend a warm up and a cool down.

Now, we’re doing the warm up not just to go through the motions. We’re doing it because it’s an opportunity to let our voice know: “This is how I’d like you to behave as I move through my work.” It sets us up for success. After you’ve done a warm up you can do whatever you want within reason – you can scream, cry, and make crazy sounds.

At the end of your session, you want to reset by doing a cool down. You’ve done a lot of work and potentially used extreme effort, so you want to come back down to a more healthy, neutral resting place. The primary reason actors get into trouble with fatigue is because they carry their overuse or misuse into the rest of their day or into the bar that night. So the biggest piece of advice I can offer is: Warm up and cool down! Even thirty seconds of humming will do.

Elissa Weinzimmer, performing "Home."

Elissa, performing her show “Home.”

And finally, back to you. Helping all these performers, don’t you feel the pull of the stage? Will you be coaching in the background, or is there a chance we could see you perform in public again?

“The answer to both is yes! I love coaching. I love helping facilitate people’s art. However, now that I’ve broken the seal, so to speak, I’m back, and I’m going to continue performing!

What do you mean?

I recently sang a cabaret show for my 30th birthday! It was an incredible experience. The theme of the show was “Home.” I’ve been moving around a lot over the last couple years, so it’s about finding home wherever I am. But it’s also about coming home to my voice. You can read about my three performances on a special website I just created.

I don’t know what my next project will be, but I’m very much open to the possibility and opportunity to perform again.”

SPECIAL OFFER

Elissa has developed an online training on how the voice works, and she offers online voice coaching. She also teaches one-on-one sessions in Vibrant Voice Technique via Zoom (online), or in-person in New York City. Check out her website for details.

She’s kindly offering readers of this blog 10% off of any of her sessions when you mention Nethervoice. If you’re unsure how to properly use your voice, or if you’re suffering from vocal fatigue, one or more sessions could very well save your career. 

Thank you, Elissa!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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