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  • (Re)considering the Role of Breath in Training Actors' Voices:Insights from Dahnjeon Breathing and the Phenomena of Breath
  • Tara McAllister-Viel (bio)

Throughout 2007–08, UK and US voice trainers and practitioners have been revisiting the role of breath in training performers' voices. At several different international conferences hosted by major voice organizations,1 workshops and presentations suggested an increased interest among voice practitioners in combining Western voice with Asian principles and practices. Although training approaches differed in combinations of praxis, similar "problems" continued to emerge. This article proposes one principal reason for the difficulties: the different ways Eastern and Western modes of training link breath with the "self " of the practitioner. Through a systematic and self-conscious examination of current pedagogy, this article asks how Western voice training might better interface with Asian praxis—specifically, concepts of breath as "awareness" and body/mind unity in training actor's voices.

The role of self within praxis helps determine how breath is conceptualized and trained. Modern voice pedagogy emerges from a tradition of understanding the self of the actor through a Western biomedical model,2 which I suggest is viewed through the lens of Cartesian philosophy. By conceiving of the act of breathing as the act of creating a thought (Berry 1992, 26; Carey and Carey 39; Hampton and Acker 247–48; Morgan, 86), training is able to construct one kind of relationship between thought/mind and breath/body.3 The body/mind dualism is realized on a muscular level; specifically, the action of the diaphragm during involuntary/voluntary lung function. Involuntary breath understood as unconscious response is associated with the actor's self as biological matter of the body. Mind, or the will of the actor, understood as conscious motor control, is associated with the voluntary act of breathing and is conceptualized as representing the thoughts and emotions of the actor/character. During training, the actor is taught to become aware, or conscious, of the involuntary breath so that this action can serve as the model for training the voluntary breath. The impulse to speak is associated with the kinaesthetic feeling of the body's preparation to supply breath as fuel for voicing. Through this process, both actor and audience can realize immaterial thought as playable action. Conscious awareness of the breath and conscious motor control are essential parts of training through this conceptual model.

For Japanese philosopher Yasuo Yuasa, "conscious bodily movement" is a key difference between Eastern and Western praxis (28). In Western practice, "the mind that is subject dominates and moves the body that is object," but in Eastern "body-mind oneness" there is no longer a felt distinction between "the mind qua subject and the body qua object" (ibid.). A level of body/mind integration is assumed at the beginning of training. The function of training, then, is not to create a body/mind relationship, but instead to train toward further levels of integration (Kasulis, Ames, and Dissanayake 303; Sellers-Young 177).

The practitioner does not train the breath, but trains the body/mind through the breath, cultivating ki, or energy. For Yuasa, ki is "a function which cannot be perceived by ordinary consciousness in everyday life, but is a new function which consciousness (or mind) is gradually able to perceive [End Page 165] through mind-body training in mediation and breathing methods" (75–76). The manifestation of breath into ki means that breath does not remain conceptually or literally at the diaphragm, but travels through dahnjeons (energy centers) via meridians (channels) in the body. Ki, dahnjeons, and meridians are a part of an Eastern understanding of the body integral to Eastern medicinal praxis and fundamental to the way the body functions. This body knowledge becomes the foundation for the transmission of embodied practices. Breath/ki may first be experienced through the movement of the act of breathing. As the bodymind reaches further levels of integration, the breath into ki is experienced as "an energy flow" independent of the physical process of breathing (Nearman 1982, 347). Through long-term rigorous practice, the performer learns how to shift ki as "awareness" through the body/mind, thus contributing to a sense of the actor's presence (Barba...


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pp. 165-180
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