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Voice Warm-Up

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This activity guides students through a series of steps designed to orient them more toward a powerful oral performance.

Activity title:  Voice Warm-up

Author:  Tom Freeland

Course:  PWR 2

Activity length and schedule:  This warm-up can be completed in as little as three to five minutes. With more text exercises and group improv games it can extend up to twenty or thirty minutes. These exercises can be used early in the quarter as ice-breaker activities, or later when students are preparing their final presentations.

Activity goals:

  • To help students relax and focus
  • To promote clarity, projection and stamina of the voice
  • To orient students toward performance in sharing their research with an audience

Activity details:  A good voice warm-up has three major components: general relaxation and breath; release and exploration of vocal sound; and shaping of sound through articulation and perhaps a bit of text work. As little as a minute or two or three spent on each of these areas can add up to a useful warm-up, as long as all three areas are represented to some extent. Some group exercises can also help in getting students to loosen up and ease into a more performative frame of mind.

First, then: breath and relaxation. Invite students to take a long slow inhalation (on a count of four or so). Let it out. Try it again—the point is not to take in the maximum possible amount of air but rather to slow down the process and to encourage to breath to drop into the midsection (away from the collarbone). Every breath should be deep (diaphragmatic/abdominal), not necessarily large. Invite students to stretch and yawn, to shake out their limbs gently. Wake up those bodies (if you teach in the morning, this part becomes all the more important)!

Next: a touch of sound. Have students place their hands on their abdomens, about halfway between belly-button and solar plexus. Let a breath drop in and then release one simple sound: huh. And again: a new breath, a new touch of sound: huh. Of course, you’ll have to do this exercise with your students, and your own vulnerability will encourage theirs. What’s important is that the voice be fully engaged (not breathy or forced), and the best test of this engagement is the pulse that each student will feel in their abdomen, a quick contraction of the muscles there. Try this several times, and students should feel free to experiment with it: try different pitches, moving up and down in their vocal range; try different degrees of amplitude—let it grow in power, then dial it back a bit. Always maintaining a rhythm of one touch of sound per breath.

Then try some sighs, first on breath only (no voice), then on voice, allowing the sound to arc gently down through the range of the voice from high to low. If you like, these sighs can be gradually extended, both in range and in duration. Here again, it’s important to be very clear about the distinction between breath and voice. Let a sigh be unambiguously one or the other—air or vibration (to overcome the very widespread problem of breathiness in the voice, which washes out the voice’s carrying power and conviction).

Now, the third component of the warm-up: articulation and text. Articulation is principally about consonants; a vowel is a flow of vocal sound, interrupted and shaped by the intervention of consonants. First let’s get a feel for where these consonant interventions occur. Have students say Topeka. Then have them whisper it slowly and deliberately: To—pe—ka. Notice how this moves from the hard palate (for the T) to the lips (for the P) to the soft palate in the back of the mouth (for the K). Then try bodega. Bo—de—ga. This one goes front-middle-back. These words each use the three major zones of articulation.

You can then try any tongue-twisters you like. Dr Seuss is always a good workout. More tongue-twisters are available in the Oral Comm Box (in Speech Resources). I have tons of this kind of material, and would be happy to provide more to any interested colleague (including articulation exercises focused on specific sounds and combinations of sound—especially useful for MLLs). Class favorites include repeating the name “Peggy Babcock,” and the dangerously challenging “I am the mother pheasant plucker...”  

With texts you can let your imagination roam. A few lines of a poem or a song, perhaps a text directly connected to the themes or readings from the class itself. Even a bit of singing could be helpful. I often use a line or two of Shakespeare because I’ve found it can open up a certain natural hamminess in students: they can try on a grand style of speaking, to get a feel for true exaggeration. This way the degree of magnification in articulation that I encourage students to adopt will not feel quite so overblown. Magnifying the physical business of articulation is the key concern here: moving the face a bit more and slowing down. This works wonders to help project the voice (increasing the volume is only part of projection, and not—in my view—the most important part).

Then, if time permits, a group exercise. Here’s a simple improv warm-up that is quick to teach and that students reliably enjoy: stand the group in a circle, then have one student point at any other student and emphatically say Zip! The student who receives the Zip then points at another student and says Zap! The student who receives the Zap then sends a Zip. And so on. The point is to be as quick as possible in response, and to be very clear about who is being pointed at. The gesture and vocal tone need to be highly energetic: this a warm-up, intended to share and pass along energy. Once they have mastered Zip and Zap you can a third term, if you like: Zop!

Another fun exercise along these lines is to keep the students standing in a circle, and have one student turn to the student beside them and say One. The student receiving the One then turns to the next student and says Two. And so on, counting up to four or five (or possibly six), then starting over. Make sure to count up to a number that is not a factor of the number of students in the group (you don’t want it to come out evenly; as the count moves around the circle students should get a different number each time). After one or two times around the circle you can switch direction whenever you like. Here again, the idea is to respond quickly, genuinely engaging both to receive the message and to send it on. The advanced level is to add the option of sending the message across the circle. I have also had success building on this exercise to include a simple text: the first student says To, the next student says Be, then Or, then Not, then To, then Be and so on: That—Is—The—Question. This can be a useful opportunity to explore variations in inflection and melody: how does each student make their word fit into the phrase?

In total, these are a set of exercises that help students warm up their voices, explore breath and sound, and practice articulation. You can modify them however you please, but a bit of each of the three areas optimizes the activity. Life is but a stage!