A few years ago, former West End star Roni Page came to Philip Foster with a problem. At 68, the soprano hadn’t worked in years and had been rejected by the top theater agents in London when she attempted a comeback. So Page turned to Foster, a voice coach and talent manager who had worked with her when he first broke into theater in 1985.
He had one condition: “ ‘If you come into the studio and really work on your soprano and we get it better than ever, then I’ll take you on. Because I think you’re just starting,’ ” Foster recalled.
A traumatic experience of molestation in the church as a child created in Philip the overwhelming desire to reclaim his voice. And not just in the speaking or singing sense.
“Our voice is held in the muscles of our body,” he told me. “The audible vibration of us is where we are. I was vibrating in the place of silence and trauma. My voice was locked in that experience at the age of 10 years.”
So for the past 40 plus years, Foster has undergone the process of unlocking his voice and sharing that method with everyone from top West End performers, to international actors and models, to those seeking the same form of catharsis.
“It is my mission in life to bring awareness to the importance of having a voice and not living in a society in fear and silence,” he says.
I caught up with Foster in London where we did his photo shoot. But our interview took place over Skype, with him seated at a piano he would play on occasion to illustrate a point or an anecdote. Foster says he’s been a natural at the piano since before he began lessons as a child.
The instrument would serve an important role in helping him overcome his early experience of abuse — and he courageously came forward this year in a lawsuit aimed at the church that took advantage of him and other boys. And when he started working in theater in London in his twenties, he found the ability to help singers find their voice came naturally as well.
Foster’s method is something he calls “vocal vibration,” which aims to unlock the primal voice, the vibration, with which all of us are born and which for all of us is unique.
“What I am doing is not teaching you anything when you come into the studio. I’m allowing you to remember what you already know and what you have forgotten,” he says. “How can I teach you your voice? Think about it. It’s already there.”
So getting back to the story of Page. After a few months working together, she scored a major role in the revival of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in London’s West End. The process wasn’t easy, of course. And in his work with Page there are lessons for all of us.
“The body has to work to create sound,” he says. “It’s like being an athlete. Like, ‘I’m 68 and I’m going to run my first marathon.’ It’s as physical as that. It’s about being totally engaged.”
The key is work and work and work. And that we’re not too old to keep understanding that we need to develop and adapt. For motivation, Foster reminds me to keep the focus on self, not on outside perception.
“People say the voice gets worse [as we get older]. No it doesn’t; people get lazier. It’s hard because we’re fighting the imprint of society. But if you truly find your voice, it opens the world of possibility, full stop,” he says. “I think laziness is when we start working in recognition of what others want us to be, rather than being who we want to be and who we are.”