4: The Speech Warm-up Series

This series focuses on a warm-up targeted for speech. Speech is that aspect of spoken voice use that is about communicating language effectively, finding the right energy of vowels and consonants for the style of performance you’re doing. Sometimes called “diction,” it refers to the way in which you speak, and we often hear adjectives like clear, sloppy, lazy, or articulate. What interests me about speech is finding a manner of speaking which is appropriate to the style of language being spoken, the character speaking it, and the environment where the actor is performing. The needs of an actor in a large outdoor venue are very different from the needs of someone performing in front of a microphone for a voice-over, or in an intimate scene on film. For this reason, good speech training should train you to adapt your speech to different contexts, with a range of options from very intimate and subtle, to very expressive and gross. Though generally one doesn’t need to “over-enunciate” to get the message across in most settings, there are times when “going huge” is required.

I’m also interested in actors having the ability to play the full range of their voices, and access to the totality of the sounds of the world. Knowing about these things allows you a free pass that lets you into worlds of sound without the wait in line required to figure out the basics. As my friend Phil Thompson says, we need to be able to “hear with our mouths” to know what it takes to make a sound as soon as we hear it, and we can only learn that facility by playing with sound.

So what kind of exercises do we need to explore to have an effective speech warm-up? Traditionally, speech exercises have tended toward drills, where one repeats a target sound or sound cluster, usually getting faster and faster in order to challenge your ability to articulate the sound or sounds at speed. In the past, these exercises tended to focus on the sounds of certain “prestige accents” such as Stage Standard or Received Pronunciation. The tended to avoid pronuciations which were deemed “sloppy” or “lazy,” giving actors the impression that if they didn’t perform along the lines of the speech being modeled by the teacher that they were lazy or that they were arrogant in assuming that their own speech form was sufficient for the work they did. The reality that many actors’ speech was sufficient made speech trainging seem archaic and speech trainers like redundant school marms correcting their naughty charges.

The form of speech training were working on here requires sensitivity and a certain element of exploration. It still questions whether one’s own form of speech is adequate for all settings, and demands that the actor experiment with the energy, precision and quality of action of their articulators: the lips, the tongue, the jaw, the soft palate, the uvula, the pharynx and the glottis. In order to make new sounds, you have to make your articulators move in new ways. Because awareness of the feelings in our mouths is key to this kind experimentation, and knowledge of the structures of the mouth and how they function increases our ability to understand the sensation of speech, we’ll be learning about how we speak now as much as we’ll be learning how to make new sounds. Overall, we’ll be trying unfamiliar actions/sounds in the familiar context of everyday speech.

Some people find speech drills boring. In order to make the explorations more enlivening, one way to do it is by using improvised speech, usually in the form of gibberish. Phil Thompson and Dudley Knight have found wonderful ways of experimenting with speech through gibberish (a process they call “Omnish”) that we will touch on in the course of this warm-up. Other trainers insist on using rich poetic language whose imagery is best expressed through an awareness of how it is being spoken.

Much of this work is based up the ideas of Thompson and Knight, but also upon the work of such influential voice and speech trainers as Kristin LinklaterCicely BerryPatsy Rodenberg, David Smukler, Gary Logan and Ian Raffel. I owe a great deal to my colleagues at Canada’s National Voice Intensive, the teachers I’ve witnessed teach at VASTA conferences since 1994, and to those who’ve gone before.

The steps of this Speech warm-up sequence currently contains the following steps. It certainly  evolved during the 4 weeks that I wrote it, and I may continue to add components to it. Here’s what we have so far:

  1. Centering
  2. Bouncing the Lips
  3. Tapping the Tongue
  4. Stretching the Soft Palate
  5. Separating the Actions of the Jaw and Tongue
  6. Ride the Wave of the Tongue (continues in Part 2)
  7. Non-English Sound Exploration (continues in Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4)
  8. Placement Playtime
  9. Vocal Qualities
  10. Beginnings
  11. Endings
  12. Energized, De-Energized and Over-Energized
  13. Tempo: Dragging, Slow, Medium, Fast, and Rushing
  14. Chopping and Linking
  15. Really Larry: R & L
  16. R You Speedy?