The Power of the Authentic Voice
Jean McClelland on the transformative experience of breath-based speaking
In a recent Vogue feature article, writer Jessica Kerwin Jenkins explains how she lost her high-pitched squeak, a middle-school affectation that stayed with her for decades, and found her authentic voice through lessons with Jean McClelland, who teaches voice and breathing through The Open Center. Jenkins describes a transformative experience—liberating when her body picked up the new breathing technique as it would “an intricate yoga move,” empowering when she picked up the phone to take a work call:
“Not only did my voice ring low, but, remarkably, I said things I didn’t know I would say. In fact, I relayed thoughts I never had before—detailing an obstacle hampering a creative project, and one I had not been conscious of until that moment. On another call, I introduced myself in a way that I’d never conceived of myself: ‘I’m a writer,’ I said.”
McClelland’s classes are based on physiology, yet their goal goes beyond a more powerful voice to a more powerful sense of self. She witnesses such transformations all the time.
“The human body is pure genius,” she says. “When we connect to the inner muscles responsible for breath and voice, everything flows—our breath, our voice, and our self-expression. But these muscles live in a sort of no man's land between consciousness and unconsciousness, and we must bring them to consciousness. That’s the essence of my work. It’s a phenomenal experience to connect to these inner muscles. We feel a great sense of self. We are grounded in our being and the truth of who we are. That becomes what we hear is the sound of someone’s voice, and it is always compelling.”
McClelland is on the faculty of the Columbia University School of the Arts as well as The Open Center. Her voice classes incorporate the Alexander Technique, a postural and breathing method popular with actors. Yet there’s nothing stagey about vocalization derived from aligning the muscles of voice and breath, McClelland says. It’s quite the opposite.
“I tell a class immediately that our work is not about changing the sound of the voice, but rather about learning how to produce a voice on breath, which becomes their authentic voice,” she says. In fact, when students tell her they dislike the sound of their own voice, “that seems as if they’re rejecting a part of themselves.”
In McClelland’s experience, it’s common for young adults to affect a voice, as Jenkins did, to fit an assumed persona. Men try on a deep, resonant voice that sounds flat and artificial; women typically adopt a businesslike, “matter-of-fact” delivery.