I have had no acting training at all. This is not uncommon among improvisers and comedians, but it is almost always obvious, almost as soon as someone gets on stage, whether or not they have gone to drama school. A good actor is effortlessly compelling to watch. And even mediocre actors have certain qualities about them: they often appear more comfortable, more physically present, and their voices sound resonant and well supported. If these qualities sometimes seem mysterious – it is not immediately clear what they are doing that is special – it is for two reasons: because their skills have become intuitive through plenty of training and practice, and because they relate to very basic, internal functions: breathing, relaxation, listening.
In an attempt to gain an enjoyable and original introduction some of these skills without the expense of time and money that drama classes require, I'm taking a course in Mongolian "khöömii" overtone singing over five evenings this week. It's part of the SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies) Summer School and is led by Michael Ormiston and Candida Valentino, two excellent teachers. Michael immediately dispelled my main misgiving about the nature of the course: teachers of this sort of "intensive" classes often make extravagant claims about skills that can be acquired in a limited amount of time. But not Michael. "We'll show you how to practice, so you can go away and learn" he said, and later, commenting on how some will pick it up quicker than others, said "The important thing is that you start the journey. It makes no difference where your starting point is." Exactly.
After some extensive and fun physical and vocal warm-ups, which I will steal for improv rehearsals, we were introduced both to the internal geography of the mouth, and a bit of background about what we would be learning: tagnain, or palatal, khöömii, considered the easiest of the six or seven styles of khöömii. There was plenty of time set aside for singing practice. When everyone sang at once, naturally harmonizing, the room seemed to glow happily.
The participants couldn't be more varied: classical singers, voice coaches, ethnomusicologists, physicists and mystics. An elderly lady with ribbons and tinsel in her hair cornered me afterwards to tell me about her chanting rituals, excitedly telling me how important it was to shock people with menstrual blood and the word "cunt".
I walked home through Farringdon, feeling energized, stopping off at The Pakenham Arms for a pint. My progress so far has been largely exploratory. This attention has made my mouth and throat seem enormous. I'm playing with the caverns of my lower jaw, becoming aware of previously ignored pockets of resonance at the back of my head, and getting to grips with the different parts of my tongue. When I sing, I can feel the overtones buzzing around my head, but they're barely discernable when I play back recordings of myself. So I've a long way to go before I can produce those glorious clear notes.
I'll be back tonight for more. It's exciting.