Final consonants deserve a fair bit of attention in a speech warm-up. That’s because there is a range of articulations available to the actor that are, for most people, beyond what we do in everyday speech. As contemporary everyday speech tends to be informal and personal, rather than the more formal and public style often called for in classical texts, or the demands of a large playing space, it makes sense that actors have to put some effort into making the adjustment. As I’ve discussed in "Bouncing the Lips," there is an articulation form called unreleased where the final stop consonants, /p t k, b d g/ just stop—the aren’t released at the end of a phrase, or going into another sound. This is the default for many speakers. Of course, the other option is to release these consonants, and for the voiceless consonants, that means releasing them with aspiration. (The range of possibilities of voiced and voiceless consonants was discussed in the "Beginnings" step.)
Voiceless Consonant Endings
Think of saying "I’d like you to stop." In informal speech, most English speakers will not release the final /p/ (that’s [p ̚] in IPA). They’ll make the /p/, that is they’ll stop the sound with the action of closing the lips, but they won’t release the /p/ in a puff of aspiration [aɪd laɪk ju tə stɒp̚]. However, for the stage, that final release is important. Try saying that phrase again with a final /p/ that includes aspiration (that’s [pʰ] in IPA) [aɪd laɪk ju tə stɒp ̚]. That puff of air demands a greater commitment to the final /p/. Now, try it with a phrase ending in /t/: "It doesn’t fit," first with a stop, with no audible release [t ̚], and then aspirated, [tʰ]. Note that the other word-final /t/s don’t get the release, here, though they could if you were being really emphatic. Let’s try that: [ɪtʰ dʌzntʰ fɪtʰ]. See how the aspiration takes time, slowing it down while emphasizing the words? Finally, let’s look at an example with a final /k/ sound: "Pick up the slack, Jack." The /k/ at the end of "pick" must release into the vowel of "up," but it isn’t necessarily very aspirated because "up" is unstressed. The /k/ at the end of "slack" doesn’t have to be released, especially in casual speech, nor does the /k/ at the end of "Jack." Try aspirating both slack and Jack, and you might even try really overdoing the /k/ at the end of Pick, too: [pɪkʰ ʌp ðə slækʰ dʒækʰ]. Fully aspirated releases on all the final /k/ sounds is totally appropriate for a large theatre, though for those who are unfamiliar with playing at that scale, it often feels too extravagant. You have to work on this to get to the point where you’re more comfortable.
Voiced Consonant Endings
When a phrase ends in a voiced stop consonant, speakers are inclined to not release the sound. In the phrase "Bob is a slob," the /b/ in Bob releases into the following vowel. But the final /b/ in slob can easily be unreleased: [slɒb ̚]. To release that final /b/ may make it feel like you’re putting a tiny schwa [ə] at the end: [slɒbə]. That’s too much! Find the version where you release the /b/, but only just.
Try the same on the phrases, for /d/ and /g/ respectively:
"Brad is glad to see Fred."
"The rag is in the big bag."
These two sentences both feature linking stops (that release), stops before other stops (in glad_to and big_bag) where there is no release, and final stops that have optional releases. Some theatre voice people would insist on having a release in glad_to and big_bag though this sometimes gives it the sound of [ɡlædətu] or [bɪɡəbæɡ] if overdone. Try those phrases with a very subtle release, and see if you can do it. Then try the sentence with releases on those words and on the final words, Fred and bag. You really need to relish those sounds, indulge in them. Make a choice to justify why you would be so extravagant with those sounds. Sometimes people find that if they mouthe the words, as if they were trying to be heard through 3 in. of glass, that they are inclined to fully commit to those sounds. I suppose that one could think of reaching the aging audience of many classical theatre companies, whose hearing is beginning to go, as try to talk to them through sound proof glass. You really have to try hard!
It’s worth noting that most speakers devoice their final stops, so that "Brad is glad to see Fred" could essentially sound like "Brad is glad to see Fret," except that the vowel of Fred is sustained longer than it is in Fret. Try that out—compare "Slob-slop, Fred-Fret, Bag-back," but don’t release the final consonants. Notice how the second words have significantly shorter vowels, while the final consonant is pretty much the same? Committing to releasing final consonants helps to enhance the difference between the ends of these words, which is one of the principal justifications voice and speech coaches have for defending their preference for final releases. Try those comparisons again, but this time release the final consonants: "Slob-slop, Fred-Fret, Bag-back." Likely this feels a bit much wherever you are right now, but in a large theatre, it really pays off.
Continuants are the opposite of stops (affricates, like "ch" /tʃ/, are combos of stops and continuants): they continue. Final continuants at the end of phrases often have a tendency to not continue very long. Really committing to them takes time and energy. Try this phrase: "Sing the hymn, Tom." To take the time for those final nasal consonants demands a certain relish. Final voiceless fricative continuants, including /θ, f, s, ʃ/ in English are often very short, and final voiced fricatives, which include /ð, v, z, ʒ/, also have a tendency to devoice. Apart from the length of vowel that precedes them, the final consonant in believe-belief is frequently very similar. Especially at the end of phrases, like "I don’t know what to believe," these final fricates can devoice strongly enough that they’re very similar to the sound at the end of a phrase like "That’s beyond belief." By choosing to commit to the voicing and the length of these final consonants /ð, v, z, ʒ/, we can make that contrast greater, which theoretically should make the meaning slightly clearer.
Consider the ends of lines in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 17:
Who will believe my verse in time to come
If it were filled with your most high deserts?
Though yet heaven knows it is but as a tomb
Which hides your life, and shows not half your parts:
If I could write the beauty of your eyes,
And in fresh numbers number all your graces,
The age to come would say this poet lies,
Such heavenly touches ne’er touched earthly faces.
So should my papers (yellowed with their age)
Be scorned, like old men of less truth than tongue,
And your true rights be termed a poet’s rage,
And stretched metre of an antique song.
But were some child of yours alive that time,
You should live twice in it, and in my rhyme.
We encounter a variety of endings worth playing. I’ll go through the lines, one by one, to discuss the choices we have.
- come: take the time to fully voice the /m/.
- deserts: the /ts/ needs to be crisp and quick.
- tomb: relish the /m/ and recognize the rhyme with line 1.
- parts: check off the /ts/ sharply.
- eyes: the final /s/ of this word should be a voiced [z] sound.
- graces: again, final /s/ needs to be [z]; it’s debatable whether it should be preceded by a schwa [ə] or a small-cap I [ɪ].
- lies: needs a final [z].
- faces: make it match the [z] on graces.
- age: be sure that the [dʒ] doesn’t go to [tʃ].
- tongue: take the time to really make the /ŋ/. Some people choose to release this sound with a tiny release; I think this is inappropriate.
- rage: the same as age.
- song: of course this doesn’t rhyme with tongue anymore, but the final consonant needs the length to really be heard.
- time: again, give the final /m/ its due, let time take time!
- rhyme: of course rhyme must rhyme with time; indulge that /m/ just like in time.
Taking the time to indulge your endings gives you a chance to relish the substance of the words. It’s the sound of words that carries their meaning in a large theatre, and committing to the sounds also requires a huge emotional commitment to match the scale of the words. Often we get emotional and take it personal and small. In the theatre we have to take the emotion and support it, share it and make it public. Giving vocally means sharing what’s on the inside with the ouside world, and that happens vocally more than anywhere else.