The Mumble Method

In this second instalment of the Intelligibility Series, we’re going to look at what Intelligibility isn’t. Of course, we’re talking about mumbling, which is defined as “to say something indistinctly or quietly, to mutter something under one’s breath.” What I’d like you to do today is experiment with mumbling in your own private way. Take a piece of text that you have memorized, and mumble your way through it. Once you’ve done that, you can come back here and we’ll discuss what’s going on. Don’t have anything memorized? That’s ok — why not read some poetry?

You back? OK. So let’s think about what happened. Here’s what people typically report happens when they mumble. Maybe some of these occurred for you?

  • monotone speech (talking on one pitch, perhaps dropping at the end of phrases)
  • low pitch, probably in the “basement” of your range
  • slow pace, even rate
  • glottal fry, especially at ends of phrases, but possibly throughout
  • reduced movement of articulators, particularly the jaw and tongue
  • increased tension in articulators
  • “lazy” speech, whatever that means for you
  • eliding of one word into another
  • using contractions rather than full versions of words, like “gotta” for “got to”, etc.
  • reduced facial vibration (aka resonance), with the sound trapped in the throat
  • vowels not very distinct from one another (as if they were all approaching the centre of the mouth, like vowel schwa [ə])
  • devoicing at the ends of words or phrases, turning voiced consonants into voiceless ones
  • etc.

If you found other features of your mumbling you’d care to share, why not make a comment below?

Mumbling is typically a reduction of voice and speech energy. When we explore it as an affectation, we tend to go all out and do every possible variable that can lead to the qualities we think of as mumbling. But what if you went back to your text and did each of those bullet points individually, and not all at once? This all-at-once quality tends to make your mumbling completely unexpressive. But what if you could mumble and still do things like emphasize key/operative words? Why not try that now.

Dials on a Mixing BoardBy mumbling our way through the text we’ve essentially turned all the dials on our speech Mixing Board down to 1 (or maybe even zero). We want to explore turning only one feature down at a time, and feel its effects. Taken one at a time, many of these aspects of mumbling can be see as possibly beneficial, if used at the right time, in the right place, or as a means of emphasis. The only extreme ones that really compromise intelligibility are the reduced movement and tension of articulators, and indistinct vowels. So we have three features we really need to explore in greater depth in our next exploration: what impact do indistinct vowels, habitual tension, and immobility of articulators have on your speech?

Eric Armstrong is the voiceguy. Eric is a dialect, voice, speech and text coach based in Toronto, Canada, where he normally teaches full-time at York University’s Dept. of Theatre. Eric has been teaching voice for the actor full-time since 1994, and has taught in Canada and the US, at the University of Windsor, Brandeis University, Roosevelt University, Canada's National Voice Intensive and York University. He has worked for nationally and internationally recognized companies such as Crow’s Theatre, Volcano, SoulPepper, & Canadian Stage in Toronto, and The Court Theatre and Steppenwolf in Chicago. Eric holds a BFA from Concordia University (Montreal) in Theatre Performance, and an MFA from York University (Toronto) in Acting. His mentors were David Smukler (York, Canada’s National Voice Intensive) and Andrew Wade (Royal Shakespeare Company). He has also studied at the Drama Studio, London, and Il Stage Internazzionale di Commedia dell’Arte in Reggio Emilia, Italy. He’s a long time member of the Voice and Speech Trainers Association, where he has served on the board, as a conference planner, photo editor for the Voice and Speech Review, Founding Director of Technology and Internet Services, and has written numerous peer-reviewed articles, essays and reviews for the VASTA Newsletter, the VASTA Voice, and The Voice and Speech Review.

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