Rocco Dal Vera is the Head of the Division of Theatre Arts, Production, and Arts Administration at College-Conservatory of Music in Cincinnati, where he specializes in voice and speech for actors. He is the author and editor of six books, many of which have influenced curricular design at schools around the world. Rocco’s voice can be heard on numerous commercials, and he has worked on over 500 films and television shows, including L. A. Law, Hill Street Blues, THIRTYsomething, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and The Gods Must Be Crazy. Rocco possesses one of the most melodious voices I have had the pleasure of hearing. For that reason, it was also not surprising to learn that he is a trained hypnotist. We were introduced by a mutual friend and spoke by telephone.
Rocco: Hello, Brent! What a cool thing that you have a memory blog. Boy, is that ever useful.
Brent: Thanks for agreeing to speak with me. An actress I know who studied with you, Morgan Rosse, tells me that you use vocal exercises that aid in memorization.
Rocco: I can certainly talk about some of the ways we—or at any rate, I—speak to actors about memorization. One special circumstance for actors is that we can’t just recite or remember by rote. We have to coin and embody lines as if we are thinking of them for the very first time. That puts a special sort of requirement into the equation. It’s all part of the fun—not said ironically!
Brent: You wrote a 400-page book called Voice: Onstage and Off that captures your years of experience teaching voice training to actors. Among the hundreds of exercises, Morgan remembers one that involves varying the pitch. What can you tell me about it?
Rocco: Yes, the Pitch Isolation exercise was designed as a vocal technique. Its accidental output was that it also helped with memorization.
Brent: How does it work?
Rocco: The first thing the actor does is take a block of text and strip away all the punctuation and capital letters. What is left is a string of words, merely sound clusters.
Brent: What comes next?
Rocco: Actors must concentrate hard on what the voice does and always be mindful of pitch, tempo, and volume (also called intensity). In one version of this exercise, they must discipline themselves to keep the same pitch without varying the tempo or volume. They practice their lines by changing one variable and maintaining two constants.
Brent: And that’s harder than it sounds?
Rocco: Yes, it is! When going higher in pitch, say, the tendency is to get faster and louder. When going lower in pitch, one must resist the impulse to get softer and go slower. High attention is required on the task. Low attention is required on the text. It forces the actor to focus on patterns of articulation and behavior.
Brent: And you say that as a side note this exercise aids in memorization?
Rocco: That is an extra benefit, yes. Even if the actor already knew the material, this exercise completely removes any prefabricated patterns of memorization. It hits the reset button, so to speak. Memorization emerges accidentally; the lines were in there, but the actors weren’t fully mindful of how they sounded. Dialogue is not truthful or authentic if it sounds memorized.
[Instructions for the Pitch Isolation exercise appear at the bottom of this interview. Also included are the variations with Tempo and Volume Isolation.]
Brent: I played classical flute pretty seriously in my younger days. Your description reminds me of the all the breathing and articulation exercises I did back then.
Rocco: Very similar indeed! In theater, your voice is your instrument. Your whole body is, really. Our goal as voice teachers is to help actors do their job and bring out the best in them. One way to do that is through the mechanics of attention. What is it that you are setting out to do? What can you do with your voice to help accomplish that?
Brent: Not surprisingly, you prescribe different approaches to memorization depending on the circumstances.
Rocco: You know, actors have a lot of different contexts for memorization. They may receive word at the last minute that they have an audition that very day. Time is of the essence, and they have no partner to run lines with. In that case, the lines get stored in short-term memory. The rule here is essentially “repeat it until you can do it.”
Brent: And the process is different, of course, for longer, more complex texts.
Rocco: Yes, many actors find that learning Shakespeare can be easier.
Brent: Right, there’s the rhyme, rhythm, meter, and structure that prose lacks.
Rocco: Verse is better, there is a cadence to the speech. Actors become sensitized to the structure of the rhythm. And if there’s music, so much the better. Those first few notes from the piano put you on more solid ground. And going back to the oral tradition in epic poetry, there was not only lots of meter, but sometimes a drummer for accompaniment—and reinforcement.
Brent: Music definitely matters. It’s why very young children learn the alphabet better when they sing it to the tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” Let me ask you, though, about the internal logic of the text, the progressive thread of ideas or anchor words.
Rocco: Ah, yes. There is a rational argument for memorization as well. What you call “anchor words,” I refer to as “mapping.” The term comes from my training in Neuro-linguistic Programming.
Brent: Can you explain how mapping works?
Rocco: For example, I might ask you, What did you do last night? Perhaps your answer is, I made pasta.
Brent: You mean, like, for real.
Rocco: Yes, for real. If you actually made pasta last night, then, when recounting your story, you would visualize standing in your kitchen. You would know where the sink, stove, and fridge are. You might point to those spaces, move toward them, and recall the specific order of events. But if an actor’s character made pasta…
Brent: …And that person him or herself didn’t really do it…
Rocco: …Then the actor must “remember” these same physical spaces when recounting the imaginary episode or it will ring false. Actors can forget to do this. This holds true even for abstract concepts. If an actor must evoke truth, deceit, or affection, he or she must map those concepts to make them concrete.
Brent: So, conjure up the world you were in when you experienced these emotions or performed certain actions.
Rocco: Exactly! Map first, text second. The words follow the experience.
Brent: This makes perfect sense. Humans fare much better with spatial and visual memory than with words.
Rocco: Indeed we do. Still, as you know, people have different learning styles. Actors—everyone, really—needs to understand their own learning process: are they primarily visual, auditory, or kinesthetic?
Brent: I’ve been lucky enough to have some teachers who knew how to make material accessible to all three groups. They would provide handouts, have us write on the chalkboard, get up and move around, and repeat aloud.
Rocco: Those are very wise teachers. I encourage everyone to learn which style is best for them—AND to know how to translate from one style to another to convey the concept to others. For example, if you are saying or writing the word "arrow," move your arm in a sweeping gesture.
Brent: Speaking of styles, I once saw Sutton Foster do a cabaret show. She said that one of her techniques for mastering the nuances of a song was to sing it with different emotions—wistful, defiant, hopeful, etc. Approaching it from distinctive angles made her more aware of the flow and meaning. She had a bowl on stage with folded-up pieces of paper that had different adjectives written on them. She pulled one out at random and sang her next number in that vein.
Rocco: That is so exposing! So vulnerable!
Brent: She’s a pro and made it look effortless, but I’m sure she took delight in the challenge.
Rocco: How beautiful!
Brent: Well, it has been really thrilling to talk with you. Anything else you would like to add?
Rocco: Going back to memorization, I will say that when actors transition from stage to screen work, they lose the ability to memorize long stretches of text. Movies are shot scene by scene, and dialogue is learned in smaller chunks.
Brent: Like an Olympic athlete who stops training so strenuously. Use it or lose it.
Rocco: Yes, exactly. Memorizing for the stage can be fatiguing, but oh so rewarding.
Brent: Thank you, Rocco. Your students are very fortunate to have such a knowledgeable and compassionate mentor. This has been incredibly enlightening for me.
Rocco: You are very kind. Thank you so much. It was so fun talking to you. You are carving out an amazing sub-specialty. I look forward to reading your book!
[UPDATE: Sadly, Rocco Dal Vera passed away from brain cancer on Sep. 29, 2017. His death is a blow to all those whose lives he enriched. Read the loving tribute from those close to him at this link.]
The following exercises are used with permission from the second edition of Rocco Dal Vera’s book Voice: Onstage and Off.
EXERCISE 22.214.171.124 PITCH ISOLATION
1. Use either your performance text or [dummy text from elsewhere]. Speak each syllable (not each word) separately at a clearly deﬁned regular rate and volume. Start at your normal median note.
2. Maintaining rate and volume consistency, move the pitch upward away from your median note.
3. Step the pitch using regular intervals, never repeating any pitch, as high as your voice can go (be sure to explore way above the normal speaking range, well into the falsetto range). When you are as high as you can go, step downward evenly to as low as you can, then return to your median note. You have completed one cycle.
4. Continue repeating this cycle as long as you like, or until you run out of text.
EXERCISE 126.96.36.199 TEMPO ISOLATION
1. Use either your performance text or [dummy text from elsewhere]. Speak each syllable (not each word) separately at a clearly deﬁned regular tempo, keeping them all on the same pitch and at the same intensity. This will sound robotic.
2. Gradually increase the tempo until you are going as fast as you can articulate. Do not raise the pitch or volume.
3. As soon as you have reached maximum speed, smoothly begin to slow down, passing through your starting speed and becoming deﬁnitively slow. Do not drop the pitch or loudness.
4. Return to your original tempo. You have completed one cycle.
Hints: as you may suspect, this requires superior breath management. Don’t break the rhythm to breathe. There will always be space for breath until you reach maximum speed. If you have a hard time maintaining a steady pitch, pick a pitch just above your normal note so you can hear it more distinctly. If you still have a problem, put someone on each side of you and have them hum the pitch in your ear to keep you on track.
EXERCISE 188.8.131.52 VOLUME ISOLATION
1. As with the other isolation exercises, Use either your performance text or [dummy text from elsewhere].
2. Isolate loudness or intensity away from pitch and rate. One’s natural instinct is to raise pitch and increase speed as you get louder, and to do just the opposite when you get softer. Resist those impulses.
3. To ﬁnd the easiest pitch for this exercise, shout “HEY!” as if you were calling to a friend in the next block. Listen carefully to the pitch you choose and say “hey” softly on the same pitch. This is your starting point. You may be surprised how high it seems.
4. Speak each syllable separately. Start at a conversational volume level, with each syllable slightly louder than the one before it, until you reach maximum level, then reverse the process, through a barely audible level back to normal, completing one cycle. Remember that throughout, the pitch and speed must remain constant.
5. Being wary of vocal fatigue, continue to repeat the cycle until you have gone through the full text. Watch for general body and neck tension and focus on keeping a clear, consistent tone throughout the full range from soft to loud.