Honoring the Masters. Sharing the Journey.

Joan Melton

Director, One Voice Centre for Integrative Studies; Emeritus Professor, Theatre and Dance, CA State University Fullerton; Artistic Associate, NY Classical Theatre

Introductory Video

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Biography

Joan Melton, PhD, ADVS, is a researcher in cross-disciplinary performance techniques and a pioneer in the integration of singing and voice/movement training for actors. She holds a Bachelor of Music and PhD in music theory, a Masters in vocal performance, and the Advanced Diploma in Voice Studies from the Central School of Speech and Drama, London. She has taught at leading centers of drama and music in the US, UK, Norway, Sweden, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand, and is a composer and voice coach for productions in a wide range of media.

Joan started life as a classical pianist, child prodigy, also studied dance, sang, and wrote poems, plays and music. She and her sister were a song-and-dance team, with mom as choreographer and accompanist, so integrative performance began early, and continues as a through-line in her career.

Technique, or how things are done, has always been a fascinating topic, and informal research on the subject led to observations, interviews, and travel to experience differences in approach from one part of the world to another. Two books, Singing in Musical Theatre: The Training of Singers and Actors (2007), and Dancing with Voice: A Collaborative Journey across Disciplines (2015) resulted from that research and from more formal studies in the UK, Australia, and the US. 

As a singer/musician with a wonderful sense of pitch, Joan was particularly drawn to contemporary classical material, which led easily to voice for the actor and a specialization in extended voice use. She is frequently called in to rehearsals or classes to help actors meet challenging vocal demands in a healthful manner. Her signature book, written with Kenneth Tom, One Voice: Integrating Techniques across Performance Disciplines, will soon be available in a 3rd edition (Waveland Press, 2022). 

Interview with
Joan Melton

What would you consider to be the main focus of your career, or your “specialty”? 

I’m a voice/movement specialist in theatre, and a composer. I integrate techniques across performance disciplines and focus primarily on performers who work without electronic amplification. I am passionate about the magnificence of the human voice on its own.

How did you discover your calling for your speciality? How did it start?

I started life as a classical pianist, child prodigy, and that experience continues to inform aspects of what I do. I was fortunate to study with an amazing teacher growing up and learned more about style—and the importance of stylistic elements–from her than from anyone since. I also studied, dance, sang, and wrote, produced and acted in plays, so integrative performance has always made sense to me.

What do you love the most about your work? 

What I love most as a teacher is helping others to realize their potential and manifest their dreams. When I create as a composer—and the music works—that, too, is very special!

In your opinion, what qualities do you feel make an “excellent” Vocal Pedagogue?

People are different, each performer is unique. Knowing and acknowledging that is essential. An excellent pedagogue in voice or any other aspect of performance is a person who is always learning, continues to expand and clarify skills, knows how to listen, is curious, appreciative, and supportive. 

Can you speak to the importance of having mentors? How have mentors influenced your life/career? Can you tell us about some of your mentors?

Mentors have been important always, starting with my parents and my first major piano teacher. My mom was a fine piano teacher herself, and had the good sense to teach me for only one year—when I was three. Then Annyce Worsham was my teacher and mentor for 13 years until I went away to college at age 17. Other important and inspiring people in my life included Meribeth Bunch (Dayme), who was our group singing teacher on the Advanced Voice Course (ADVS) at the Central School of Speech and Drama, London (now the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama). Meribeth was also the author of our anatomy text, I worked with her privately every week, and we became good friends. David Carey, who led that course, has been a mentor since 1989; and my dear friend and classmate at Central, the late Mhairi Armstrong, was truly a wise and inspiring counsellor.

Building Blocks – Questions About Ten Key Areas of Voice

When it comes to breathing, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?

Breath management has been a primary focus of my research and teaching for many years. Interested audience might want to check the Research pages of my website, especially, ultrasound clips on “The Technical Core,”  at https://www.joanmelton.com/videos. A particularly exciting and useful finding from studies in the UK (2007 – 09) and Australia (2010/2013) was that key expiratory muscles that manage the breath for voicing (transversus abdominis, internal obliques, external obliques), regularly multitask for movement, including dance and other athletic activities. 

A major “tip,” discovered early on during the course in London, was that the body breathes in on its own. Our job is to manage the breath out—and the way in which we do that is the bottom line of vocal technique.

When it comes to the larynx, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?

Performers should be guided to learn basic anatomy, so that they understand where and what the larynx is and how it functions.

When it comes to the vocal folds, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?

As I work primarily with actors, having a clear sound throughout a wide pitch range is essential. Though actors may need to make breathy, harsh, or weird sounds in various contexts, a healthy neutral that is neither breathy nor – pressed, is invaluable.

When it comes to acoustics/resonance, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?

I’d like to share something that is often surprising to singers, unless they’ve trained as actors: The same pitch and volume range is available for singing and speaking, and the vocal tract can have as many different setups for speech as for singing. So, if you’re doing classical material, for example Shakespeare, you need a similar kind of space in the vocal tract to what you would use for classical singing. More contemporary material—influenced by many factors, including gender, status, time period, age, and dialect—would likely require a different setup, depending upon character specifics.

When it comes to registration, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?

While singers often rely strongly on concepts of registration, actors do not. Actors must be able to go from ANYTHING to ANYTHING easily and quickly, so thinking of the voice in compartments is not helpful. Actors do need a large pitch range, however, especially if they are classical actors. They also need a clear sound throughout, and must transition easily from one part of the voice to another. One of the most valuable tools from singing that I use in actor training is adjusting the shape of the vocal tract (making more space) as we go higher (or very low) in pitch. That adjustment totally eliminates squeezed, strained speech in any part of the voice. And the most effective way I’ve found for actors to develop range and flexibility is through sung vocalises, done playfully, often with movement, and without concern for labels. 

When it comes to vocal health, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?

Listen to your own body, be sensible about eating habits, get adequate rest, and do your own set of integrated physical/vocal exercises daily! 

When it comes to style, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?

When approaching new material, research the style, period, composer, language, details of character status, gender, and physicality thoroughly, as all of that is integral to the way the character expresses vocally. Explore especially the way the character moves, since movement is intimately connected to voice.

When it comes to posture, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?

Again, character plays a significant role in how we use the body efficiently, both moving and still, and work with an Alexander teacher who is also a performer can help with awareness.

When it comes to teaching methods for communicating complex ideas about singing, what are the most influential tips, insights or research findings that you would like to share with our audience?

As not all singing is the same, ideas can be widely different from teacher to teacher, and performers learn in different ways. Actors must feel free to explore any sounds that are not hurtful, whereas singers tend to have more prescribed instructions, depending on style, genre, and the particular kinds of sounds that are required. As performers, we need to find teachers who communicate in a way that we understand, and the teacher who is perfect for one person may not be right for another.

Final Thoughts (Words of Wisdom, Recommended Books and Resources)?

Follow your heart and your instincts, even when others may disagree. Explore what intrigues you, wherever you are in your career. And don’t be afraid to change directions or take odd turns. Study as many movement modalities as possible and find out what your voice wants to do when you move—perhaps not during movement classes, but on your own! And study acting for real. A particularly good book on auditioning (singing or speaking) is Karen Kohlhaas’ The Monologue Audition: A Practical Guide for Actors. And the 3rd edition of One Voice: Integrating Techniques across Performance Disciplines (2022) deals in practical ways with many of the subjects discussed in this Q & A.

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