Placement Playtime

"Placement" is a term we use to describe the sensation of the voice through sympathetic vibration. In this step of our warm-up, we’ll explore making changes to the vocal tract to make our voices sound different. If we feel the resonance of the voice through that vibration, we can sense our voices in a way other than just hearing it. In a way, placement is an antenna for perceiving the quality of our voices. What changes the quality of the resonance of our voices is the shape of the vocal tract, all the anatomical structures above the vocal folds. (See this website for more on the idea of placement vs. vocal tract shaping.)

One fairly easy "placement" to make is a nasal one. For this, we change the vocal tract by dropping the soft palate on the vowel sound, so that the sound of our voices comes out both the mouth and the nose. The sympathetic vibrations travel very strongly into the nasal cavities and bones of the face. The character of "Janice" from the t.v. show "Friends" has an extremely nasal voice—perhaps you could use that as a model. Try saying "mee mee mee" [miː miː miː] with a very nasal voice, and feel the vibrations in your nose and cheeks. You might put your fingers on the sides of your nose to really feel those vibrations. Can you feel how your soft palate is dropped? Few people can, so let’s try doing the opposite, and then try to feel the difference.

The opposite of nasal sound is denasal, which is when the soft palate is up accutely, even on sounds when you would normally drop it. It’s the sound you get when your nose is completely blocked with an upper respiratory infection (a cold in your nose). When that happens, the nasal consonants begin to sound like stop consonants: [m] becomes [b], [n] becomes [d], and [ŋ] becomes [ɡ]. So "my" sounds like "buy," "not" sounds like "dot," and "bring" sounds like "brig." Can you make that sound? Try saying "I have a cold in my nose," which sounds like "I have a cold in by doze."

Now, let’s try going back and forth between these two qualities: let’s count up to 10 with a nasal voice, and then back to 1 with a denasal voice. "nasal!:One-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight-nine-ten; denasal!: Ten-nine-eight-seven-six-five-four-three-two-one." You should notice the vowels especially on the way up to 10, and the nasal consonants in particular on the way back down (on 10—"ted", 9—"died", 7—"seved" and 1—"wud".) For something more challenging, try counting backwards from 10, start with a nasal sound, and then switch for the odd numbers: "Ten, died, eight, seved, six, five, four, three, two, wud."

What other "placement" qualities can we explore? There is a hallow, chesty sound you can make by opening up your pharynx (the part of your throat just behind your mouth). To me, this sounds quite a lot like the sound that Felicity Huffman used as "Bree" in the film Transamerica. Start by saying "hah, hah" with a mildly breathy tone. Then widen your soft palate, as if you were about to yawn. This should spread backward toward the throat. Keep saying "hah hah", and make sure that you stay on a low pitch. Now, with this placement (probably feeling some buzz in your collarbones and throat), speak the alphabet on a fairly monotonous pitch. "A, B, C, D, E, F, G — H, I, J, K, L-M-N-O-P — Q, R, S — T, U, V — W, X — Y and Z." Now try speaking freely: tell a story starting with "Once Upon a Time, there was a…"

Our last placement for today is what many might call the "Kermit" placment or the "Dudley Do-Right" sound, depending on your age/generation. This sound is immediately recognizable to most people, and has been used by animation voice over actors for years. (It’s also the sound of "Marvin the Martian" as well as an ingredient in the unusual voice of Bob "Bobcat" Goldthwait, especially in his early films like "Police Academy 2".) To manipulate your vocal tract to make this sound, you’ll need to tense your soft palate and keep the back of your tongue very close to your uvula, close to, but not touching the place where one makes the "ng" sound [ŋ], and tensing the tongue root, and pushing it down and out. This makes any sense of "double chin" that one already has look even large (very attractive)! Try saying that "ng" sound going into an "oh" sound [ŋoʊ ŋoʊ ŋoʊ], which is a sort of modified "No, no, no!" Now try Marvin the Martian’s classic line: "It makes me very angry!" or with Kermy’s "Hi-ho, Kermit the Frooog, here!"


Next: Vocal Qualities

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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