All posts by speechanddramascotland

About speechanddramascotland

Speech and Drama tutor in Paisley offering group classes or one to one tuition.

Vowels, eh?

“Vowels are the most illuminated letters in the alphabet. Vowels are the colors and souls of poetry and speech. (1976)”

“Leaves as vowels, whispers of words like a breath of net. Leaves are vowels, I sweep them up hoping to find the combinations I am looking for.” (Smith, 2015)

― Patti Smith

Vowels, eh? Clearly a fan, the great Patti Smith captures in two short sentence their importance for adding colour and emotion to the voice in a 1976 Penthouse (!) interview. Later, in her 2015 memoir M Train; she explains just how vital creative vowel combination choice by songwriters is to create the mood. Something, Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones elaborates on in his autobiography Life. The song writing method is called vowel movement …

“Many times you don’t know what the word is, but you know the word has got to contain this vowel, this sound. You can write something that’ll look really good on paper, but it doesn’t contain the right sound. You start to build the consonants around the vowels. There’s a place to go ooh and there’s a place to go daah. And if you get it wrong, it sounds like crap. It’s not necessarily that it rhymes with anything at the moment, and you’ve got to look for the rhyming word too, but you know there’s a particular vowel involved.”

– Keith Richards (Life, 2010)

In speech, we talk specifically about vowel sounds. Not just the ‘school’ vowels A-E-I-O-U’,  but the sounds we make and hear when the shape of the vocal cavity changes and these vowel sounds are combined with each other. There are 25i.

So, what makes a vowel a vowel?

For most of us, we only really know what we have been told in school and haven’t seen the need to explore it further. The official classification of a vowel sound is

“ a sound which is emitted through a free opening of the mouth. It is not stopped or hindered by the organs of articulation” (Luck, 1975)

What that means to you and me is that vowels are free sounds. Nothing in the mouth stops the sound.

This freedom is what we use to weave in our emotion and expression. The room the vowel sound makes, allows the speaker to slow down or speed up; and use pitch and inflection. So many times I’ve heard directors ask presenters and actors to slow down or speed up on certain words.

How? How can you say a word slowly?

Use the vowels.

Take for example the word ‘tack’ – it’s impossible to say the consonants ‘t’ or ‘ck’ slowly , happily or with sadness. But by sustaining the ‘a’, we can slow the pace; pitching up on it can make the sound happier and conversely lowering the pitch on the vowel makes it sound darker and more sombre. If we say the line “Wild horses wouldn’t drag me away’ and firstly try clip the vowels as short as you can and keep the lips and jaw as small as you can – the meaning is lost and the effect is cold. Now use the freedom of the vowels to open and push the lips and jaw freely to express the depth of the emotion intended in this line. You can hear instantly the warmth and the emotion.

We need vowels to change the temperature and intention of our spoken words.

They express our humanity and our souls. When we smile, we can hear it as the lips widen and the vowel sounds different. Vowels in the same words can sound different based on the subtleties of how we feel each time we say the word. The emotion we’re feeling.  Take the line ‘Where have you been” and try to firstly deliver the line as though you’ve just met a long lost dear friend. Then,  deliver it as though it’s 3am you’ve been waiting for a wayward teenager to return home. Hear that? You’re using the vowels sounds to convey the two different emotions changing pace, pitch, power and inflection accordingly. Note specifically the pitch differences in the word ‘you’ when we feel warm towards the recipient (higher) and when we feel anger (lower).

And these tonal subtleties are the very reasons why no AI voice recognition system will ever truly sound authentic or pick up on sarcasm (a word of warning though…whisper that last line. Since reading my first draft aloud, Alexa’s been giving me the silent treatment…)

Maura Currie 2021

[i] 25 Vowel sounds: /i/ as in hid; /i:/ as in heed; /e/ as in head; /æ/ as in had; /ʌ/ as in hut; /ɒ/  as in hot; /a:/ as in hard;  /ɔ:/ as in hoard; /u:/ as in hoot; /ʊ / as in hood; /ʒ:/as in heard; /ə/ as in china; /ei/as in eight; /ai/ as in ride; /ɔɪ/ as in toil; /əʊ/ as in coast; /ɑʊ/ as in how; /ɪə/as in pier; /ɛə/ as in pair; /ʊə/ as in poor; /aɪə/ as in higher; /ɔɪə/ as in employer; /əʊə/ as in lower; /əʊə/ as in our; /eɪə/ as in layer

#vowels #emotionaltone #speech #speakwithconfidence #speechanddramascotland

/TH/ fronting is bad for your wallet. You fink?

Recently, my teenage daughter returned perplexed from a shopping trip having purchased two additional items she didn’t want. Originally there was one item in her basket – some face wipes. When she got to the till, the girl kindly shared the phenomenal news that although my daughter had just one packet of face wipes, she could take advantage of a deal as it’s “free for two”! A freebie? What a result thought my daughter! So she ran off, picked up the additional pack of free wipes, and beaming, took it back to the generous girl at the till. She looked at my darling smiling daughter blankly “No! It’s free for two! FREE! You’ve only got two. You need to get a fird to make it up to free!”…..ah right. Bingo.

So my young daughter bought the third item; too embarrassed to explain the confusion and went on her way, lighter of a few quid.

This my friends is what we in the voice world call TH fronting, when both th sounds( θ & ð aspirate and voiced) are substituted by /f/ or sometimes /v/. It’s currently the most widespread issue I’ve come across.

First of all – I would much rather hear one hundred confident teens talk and repeatedly make is error than have a room full of teens who are self conscious, cautious of making a mistake and clam up.

If however do you wish to make an attempt to correct it , read on.

I begin by asking the student to place their tongue lightly behind or between their upper & bottom teeth ridge, ensuring that there is a gap between the top and bottom teeth to allow the breath to escape. Then place the finger on the lower lip and don’t allow it (the lip) to creep up.

Start with words that have /th/ in the initial position. Three, think, thirty

Keep the lip down during the /th/ part of the word . This is an exercise you should reserve for the privacy of your own home.

If you’re finding this difficult, try eliminating the th words that are followed immediately with /r/ as the quick tongue repositioning can be challenging. Go back to words like think, thought, third etc.

Attempt just one or two words a week. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Practise in front of a mirror or record a video o your mobile.

Moving on to trickier words – brother, mother, three hundred and thirty three (3333, 33333 and so on)

Eventually, you can work up to attempt these:

Frances has a First, Francis has a thirst

Philip fought, while Philippa thought

This useful thread is free. This youthful Fred is three.

Also, life is short. In the end it’s the kindness behind the words we speak that actually count, so does this really matter?

Somefing to fink about…

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“Voice training in Gibraltar”

Sometime in 1978, my mother sought the services of a Mr Uisdean F Murray MBE, LLCM – a wise, kind gentleman who was the elocution teacher to the slack voweled Glaswegian children of the day. He sadly passed on many years ago, but Mr Murray was without doubt one of the most influential figures in my life. For the princely sum of a pound a week, I was immersed into lessons, poetry, drama and theory of Elocution (Speech & Drama). We shot through the LCM Speech and Drama examinations and even now as a broadcaster with 24 years experience in voice overs, every single technique I use today is thanks to that £1 a week invested by my parents. Today as a tutor following in his carefully positioned footsteps, it never ceases to amaze me the many journeys that simple £1 stake has taken me along the years.

This week it took me to Gibraltar. I was asked to travel over for a two day voice training session for a company based there. What began as a relatively straightforward session looking at articulation and expression, took the most interesting turn when I discovered the delights of the unique Gibraltarian accent.

Due to its proximity to Spain and its exposure in particular to Andalusian Spanish, English and Genoese; the Gibraltarian English accent reflects this exceptional cultural and geographical melting pot. With a thriving ExPat community, there is a strong desire to soften this accent in favour of a more generic English one. I am a lover of accents, however, when anyone dips a toe into the voice over industry , having the ability to soften or accentuate one’s own accent upon direction makes for a more successful and versatile performer. And that was my brief.

My first exposure to this complex accent and approach to softening can be drilled down to four main areas of attention – shortened/clipped vowel sounds, repeated use of upward inflection, the substitution of æ for ə in the final position in non rhotic words and the omission of /t/ in the final position.

Shortened Vowels

During careful study, I became aware there was a pattern where long monopthongs like ɜ: as in beard or word were being shortened resulting in a more staccato delivery. Tonal production excercises helped improve and create awareness in the student.

Correct use of inflection

The upward inflection should only be used if the speaker is asking a question; is doutful; creating a dramatic suspense or itemising a list (with the last item inflected downwards). Perhaps this rising inflection is a reflection of exposure to the many languages spoken and heard in Gibraltar, it is common to hear statement of facts delivered with an upward inflection for example. Any good Speech and Drama teacher will have bags of vocal exercises to work on improving vocal inflection – which is what we did.

Non rhotic

As a Scot, I naturally have a rhotic accent – basically we pronounce the r sound when it follows a vowel. ButteR, mutteR, flutteR etc. The English accent is non rhotic – the r in these words are substituted with the schwa , the neutral vowel ə. The mouth is in a neutral position and the sound is like a short explosion of breath – it’s a subtle /uh/. In the Gibraltarian accent in these words this ə is substituted with the more exaggerated æ and butt-uh sounds like butt- AH, mutt-AH etc. We looked at word lists and vocal exercises to help restore the schwa.

Omission of t in the final position

The final fourth main area of interest was the omission of /t/ in the final position – float became flow; moat – mow and so on. I was told this might reflect Andalusian and once again, a vocal reflection of the cultural diversity in this wonderful 3 square miles could be heard. Creating an awareness in the student and repeated exercises using words and phrases with /t/ in the final position were prescribed and through time and attention will help.

There are many more nuances heard in this wonderful accent, but my initial approach to begin to soften it is to pay attention to these main areas. I’m intrigued now – I admit , I’ve listened to hours and hours of this accent online since arriving home. It’s piqued my interest.

Sitting on the Rock this week and looking at the shadow of Africa in the distance, I though of Mr Murray and thanked him again and my hard working parents – I owe a lot to their £1 weekly investment.

#Gib #Gibraltar #Accent #AccentSoftening 

Training the voice – anyone can do it. Right?

Wrong! Your voice is made up of every sight you’ve ever seen, every emotion you’ve ever felt and every Big Mac you’ve ever eaten.

It’s you. All you.

To enhance and develop voice is complex. Yet, go online and there are thousands of companies offering it. Unless your trainer is either associated with a recognised academic & performance body or a trained actor; the training being offered and usually offered at a high cost can only scratch the surface.

Check credentials.

Email and ask the company what professional qualifications and experience they have in voice work. Better still, phone them. Listen to their voice!

During sessions, I often find myself looking at the student’s mouth. What is going on in there? When I trained many, many moons ago ‘Classification of Consonants and Vowels’ was basic knowledge and we were expected to know it inside and out. Every single phonic was classified by what the tongue, lips, jaw & soft palate were doing and whether the sound was voiced or aspirate. I still use that classification technique today as it’s one vital area of voice training.

There are many areas of voice training, but I group them into the following vital topics for study:

Psychological – what is the motivation? Why the need to improve? Building confidence.

Articulation – what’s going on in that mouth? Listening to the sound. Consontant & Vowel formation.

Expression (vocal & facial) – making it come to life ! Where in a script should the expression be and how do we achieve that?

Breathing – proper diaphragmatic control and the ability to demonstrate.

Training their ears – how can the students improve if they don’t know what to listen out for?

The trainer should have the ability to demonstrate and effectively improve all of these areas.

For example, imagine how you would feel if you were suffering from a bad outbreak of acne and your doctor couldn’t help because he had only studied coughs & sneezes.

Here is a frightening fact – much of the techniques and approaches used by responsible trainers cannot be found online. When teaching Expression, we often refer to ‘The Law of Suspense and Conclusion’ which is a well known term to Speech & Drama academics and teachers. If however you try to search this on Google, you get the equivalent of search engine tumble weed. Nothing. This is just one very small pixel of a much larger picture of training the voice.

Pick up the phone – call the trainer and check them out.

Find your voice.