In this step of the Speech Warm-up Series, we look at the lips, and explore warming them up for a certain kind of sound: stop-plosives. We'll get to fricative sounds later in the series.
The lips are important in the formation of 9 English consonants and up to 5 English vowels, depending on your accent. The consonants are /m, p, b/ which are made with both lips, /f, v/, which are made with the upper teeth and lower lip, /w, ʃ, ʒ, ɹ/, which are made with at least some deɡree of lip rounding in most speakers, dependinɡ on accent. For example, you can hear those consonants in the words "Mom, pop, bob," "fife, Viv," "wow, shush, rouge." Most of these consonants are what are called ‘continuants’—that is, sounds that continue. Two of them are what are called ‘plosives’—which are sounds that explode or pop: /p/ and /b/. Start by feeling your way through the difference between plosive sounds and continuants by saying a bunch of them together: "puh-buh-puh-buh-puh-buh" vs. "fuh-vuh-fuh-vuh-fuh-vuh."
Part of what makes a plosive stand out in our speech is actually not its sound, but the moment of silence that precedes it. Final plosives are, in some cases at least, perhaps better known as ‘stops’ because they stop the sound that precedes it, chopping off the stream of sound, and then not necessarily releasing it again. (In the IPA, we represent that unreleased nature with a diacritic mark: [p̚].) Especially at the ends of expressions, stop consonants in mainstream North American English generally just STOP. This works very well for everyday speech and for naturalistic performance on tv, film or in very intimate theatres. But in larger settings, like a big theatre or outdoors, or when we're trying to be super clear with someone who doesn't understand what we're saying, we need to release those final consonants. Try this little experiment. Say "stop" to yourself—maybe even whisper it. I would imagine that most readers would stop the sound of the /p/ without any kind of release. Now, try over-enunciating it, being very emphatic with it, or imagine saying it to someone what can't hear you. In this setting, it is more likely that you will release that final sound with a big puff of air. (In phonetics, this puff of air is called "aspiration," and we represent it with another diacritic, a superscript "h": [pʰ]. Try feeling the stop nature of a final /p/, hold onto that stop closure for a second and then release it with lots of aspiration with the word "up": [ʌp̚ pʰ, ʌp̚ pʰ, ʌp̚ pʰ]. Feel how much air it takes to make that fully aspirated final /p/? Now try making that final /p/ louder: what happens? Generally people feel that the air-pressure behind the stop is more intense, so that when the aspiration is released, it makes more noise as it escapes. You may be able to feel the effort off that build of air pressure in your breathing.
As I said earlier, /p/ and /b/ are the two stop-plosive consonants made with the lips. The difference between the two sounds is that /p/ is made "voicelessly" and while /b/ is "voiced". Initial /b/ in English has little to no voicing on it however, while initial /p/ is mostly different because it has aspiration (the puff of air). Try making a stream of p's and b's in order to feel that difference: "p-p-p-p-p" vs. "b-b-b-b-b," [pʰi pʰi pʰi pʰi pʰi ǀ bi bi bi bi bi]. There may be a tiny amount of voicing on the /b/, but the main difference between the two consonants is the aspiration.
Actors need to be able to do different kinds of initial /p/ and /b/ for different settings: in many foreign accents, /p/ isn't aspirated, and /b/ is said with some voicing. Adding voicing to initial /b/ is fairly easy. In a way, adding that voicing is similar to /mb/, in that you are making voiced sound with your lips together first, and then popping your lips open for the release of the /b/. However, the difference is that on /m/ your soft palate drops, so that air can escape out your nose. To fully voice a /b/, you must lift your soft palate, so that the sound of the /b/ is trapped in your mouth. If you try this, you will find that there is a limit to how long your voiced initial /b/ can be, because the air that makes the sound behind your closed lips can only fill up your mouth. Once your mouth is full, you can no longer make any sound. Try making a string of voiced /b/ sounds — you may feel like you sound very Eastern European when you make this sound as it is very much a part of languages from that area (the diacritic mark for a voiced consonant is a subscript "v" as in [b̬]: [b̬i b̬i b̬i b̬i b̬i]. Go slowly, to be sure that your getting the voicing you want. Now, contrast that sound with a voiceless, but unaspirated /p/. [pi pi pi pi pi]. There is no diacritic mark, because the sound is, by default, unaspirated and unvoiced. It may feel a little like you're saying "bee" rather than "pee".
Now for the bouncing part. I find that when I energize my lips to make loud, powerful /p/ or /b/, my lips feel like they're bouncing, especially if I do a long string of them. Try whispering loudly a stream of "pee" sounds, as if you're spraying the sound across the room. As you do it, feel the compression of your lips, in order to build up enough pressure to before you pop off the sound. Now try it with a series of "bee" sounds, building the pressure behind the lips to energize it: [bi bi bi bi bi]. Finally, try it with this classic phrase for practising initial /b/: "Benny bought a bunch of beautiful bananas." Try saying it with a range of qualities, from small and voiceless, to loud and fully voiced.
Our last part of this step in your warm-up is to bounce your /p/ sound on a set of words. The classic tongue twister is "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers," the full text of which is below. Try it out the way you would normally say it. Then, try it with a lot of aspiration, spitting your /p/ sound across the room. Finally, try the sequence with as little aspiration as possible, almost as if you were replacing the initial /p/ sound with a /b/.
Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers,
A peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked;
If Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers,
Where's the peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked?