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Articulation: Speaking Clearly

In order to speak clearly, we have to think about the physical body and give attention to the apparatus that we use for speaking. This is literally the breath, the throat, the jaw, the tongue and the lips. Many people never give these basics much thought, but professional speakers and singers do. 

The Breath

We all know that breath and health go together. Unfortunately, many people do not learn breathing techniques when young because they are usually taught for specific arts or sports. Also, healthy breathing might not be fully understood by a young person.

To speak clearly, the body needs to be open--from the movement of the diaphragm muscle, where deep breath originates, through the lungs, the chest, the throat and the mouth. If any one of these passages is tight, speech will sound more quiet or strained.

As you breath, make sure you use your diaphragm (the muscle that expands your stomach). Use all of your lungs (try to feel the deepest or bottom-most lungs fill with air). Put your shoulders slightly back for good posture and to open your chest. Concentrate on visualizing your throat as an open passage. Let you jaw drop naturally and relax your temples (the sides of your face) so that the mouth is also free of tension.

Always remember that a healthy body acts as a whole. A healthy breath is a whole body experience. You should be able to feel the subtle expansion and contraction in your arms and legs as well.

The Throat

The throat is an essential passageway for sound. It holds the vocal chords which make slight adjustments for different vowel sounds. A well-trained singer can change vowel sounds without as much difference in mouth position as regular people use. It's very important to keep the throat healthy and in a relaxed state.

Many people hold tension in their throats. Most people have one or more particular area of the body where tension tends to build up: the throat, the back, the stomach (for people who get stomach aches easily) or even the feet. You will know that you hold tension in the throat if you notice that your throat becomes tight when you are angry, sad or experiencing any kind of intense emotion. If you do this, then you want to be especially careful about keeping your throat healthy. You can massage the throat, drink hot tea and visualize your throat as an open passage as often as possible. Since most of us get distracted when involved in a conversation, you may want to read aloud while visualizing your open throat. You can also visualize light inside the throat.

The Jaw

In some cultures, there is a preference to minimize facial movements. This is not popular in the U.S. and it does obstruct sound (or cause your voice to be more quiet). Clearly, for sound to get through, the jaw has to be able to move freely. As you speak, breath pushes upward, the vocal chords make slight adjustments and then the jaw allows the sound to turn that corner between your neck and your face. Think about the two sides of your jaw as hinges which need to be working well enough for the door to swing easily.

You don't need to open your mouth very wide to speak in a regular situation, but you do need the jaw to be unobstructed. Relaxing your temples helps to relax your jaw. When you are alone, you can squeeze your face around in funny ways to relax all of the facial muscles. This too helps the jaw to move freely.

The Tongue

Another sound-obstruction can be the tongue. Some people have the habit of letting the tongue be heavy inside the mouth. Now sound has travelled all the way from the diaphragm to the mouth only to get absorbed by a thick tongue. The tongue is a complex muscle. We use all parts of it as we speak. To articulate words, you want your tongue to touch in just the right way. Your tongue touches the roof of the mouth behind the teeth for T, L, D and N. It is between or just behind the teeth for the TH sound. The back of the tongue is used for G and K. The tongue gets into a flattened position for S and Z. It is in a slightly tubular position for the American R. No matter what sound your tongue participates in creating, the touch needs to be correct--neither too light nor too heavy. If it touches too lightly, sounds blur together. If it touches too heavily, sound gets absorbed.

Practice by reading or speaking aloud. You might also record yourself. Concentrate on what your tongue is doing.Think about how your tongue touches. If your tongue feels very tired easily, you may need to make a daily practice of reading or speaking aloud while concentrating on your tongue.

The Lips

Again, if your culture or family believed in minimizing facial movement, you may hestitate to move your lips as you speak. Yet sometimes the lips literally need to make space for sound. For instance, a long E, sometimes called "the smiling vowel," requires the lips to be pulled back in a slight smile position. If the lips are not pulled back at least somewhat, this sound may not be clear at all. Other lip-based sounds are W, B, P, M, short A, long O, long U, J, Ch, Sh, Qu. Professional speakers or singers often remove tension from the face and mouth by moving the lips in an exaggerated W repeatedly (kind of like being a fish).

If you are not used to using your lips, but want to begin doing this, trying reading or speaking aloud (alone) and letting your lips move in a very exaggerated way. Do this for a while once a day. In time, you should begin to naturally move your lips more whenever you speak.

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