Don’t forget the warm-up!

A professional singer, one who has been thoroughly trained and who sings advanced, complex pieces which require highly developed technique, strength, agility, and stamina, will tell you that singing is an athletic activity. A singer, like a runner or ball player, must warm up by using the muscles gently at first, stretch a variety of muscles that will be used in the performance, relax and prepare mentally, and finally, perform.

Actors undergo the same procedure when they prepare for a rehearsal or performance. Their warm-up activates the entire body (so they can move freely on stage or on set), the mind and heart (so that any and all necessary emotional expressions will be available to them), and of course, the voice (so they can produce strong, healthy sounds that the audience will be able to understand immediately). It’s the same – or it should be the same – for anyone who uses his voice in front of a group, such as teachers, public speakers, or businesspeople who may give a presentation or participate in an international conference call.

The warm-up is a very important part of the performance (even if the audience never sees it), and warming up the voice is an essential part of this process in all of these professions. It serves at least two major purposes, the first being to promote long-term strength and health in the muscles used in speech by avoiding strain and damage from sudden or prolonged overuse. The second purpose of warming up, which is even more practical, is that it actually makes the performance easier. Imagine standing up from the couch and immediately running two kilometers; now imagine standing up from the couch, stretching your legs for ten minutes, and then running two kilometers: in which situation do you think your legs will hurt less after running?

It’s easy to think that warming up the voice may not be necessary; after all, we’ve been using our voices our whole lives, and the muscles involved in speech production are so small that they must not need much warm-up, right? Well, wrong. These small muscles actually serve to make very precise distinctions between sounds, and these distinctions have a monumental effect on clarity and comprehension. A warmed-up vocal instrument will execute these precise movements more smoothly, more quickly, and more accurately than a cold voice.

It is also easy to forget about the importance of warming up when a performance is not imminent, but in fact, the muscles don’t know the difference between a performance and a rehearsal. Warming up before each practice session helps not only to strengthen the muscles and to maintain their health, but also to prevent or delay fatigue, as most rehearsals last longer than their respective performances.

As we continue to work together, we will discover effective exercises that can be used to activate the various parts of the speech mechanism, including the lower jaw, the soft palate, the tongue, and the lips. These exercises should develop into a routine that is repeated before every lesson and every individual practice session – and of course, before every performance.

The warm-up routine is usually unique for each person; it is rare that two people use exactly the same combination of exercises for exactly the same amount of time. Feel free to leave a comment describing your warm-up routine and why it works for you. Then click “Follow AD” at the bottom of this page to get more tips on practicing and performing!

Jeremy Coffman, English teacher & diction coach, Paris


The phonemic alphabet: Learning to use the symbols

Most dictionaries use phonemic symbols to indicate the pronunciation of a word, so understanding how sounds are represented with symbols will help the student to know immediately how to pronounce the word even without hearing it.

Learning the 40+ symbols used in English is actually easier than it may seem. For starters, many of the symbols look just like the letters which represent them most frequently, so they are learned quickly through natural repetition. The word “best”, for example, is represented phonetically as /best/*. Secondly, many of the symbols represent sounds that also exist in the student’s native language, so recognizing them as something already understood makes learning them much easier. For example, the first sound in the English word “shave” /ʃeɪ̆v/ is the same as the first sound in the French word “cher” /ʃɛʀ/.

After that, there may only be a dozen or so new symbols left to learn. Studying them one or two at a time (rather than all at once) can make the remainder of this seemingly arduous task much more manageable. For instance, it would be pointless to ask a French person to begin by using nothing but the symbols to pronounce a phrase like /ðæt θɜːd hʌŋk/ (“that third hunk”) impeccably on the first try, but by isolating one of the sounds, perhaps /θ/, in words whose other sounds are familiar, such as theme”, “theft”, “teeth“, or “bath“, the student can master each sound individually and gradually collect all of the sounds of the language.

*Not all linguists agree on the pronunciation of some words, the placement of some vowel or consonant sounds, or which region’s accent constitutes a nation’s standard of pronunciation. The pronunciation word “best” is often also listed as /bɛst/.

There’s more to say about phonemic symbols; scroll down to “Follow AD” at the bottom of this page!

Jeremy Coffman, English teacher & diction coach, Paris

Student tips: Practicing between lessons

Riding a bicycle, playing tennis, learning to cook, learning a language: the development of any skill requires practice. For languages, there are many ways to practice. Today I’ll talk about a few that every student can do, and should do. And as with anything, “practice makes perfect” – the more you practice, the faster your skills will develop!

First, allocate some time in your daily schedule to devote to practicing your language. I’ll talk more about this in a future post, but it’s very important to dedicate some specific time every day to this skill and not to allow anything interfere with it or distract from it.

Start by reviewing and rereading the material from the lesson. If you have a textbook or received some photocopies, read the pages that were covered in your last lesson. (Don’t hesitate to look at previous lessons, too.) Also reread your notes. This should be done immediately after the lesson, to ensure that everything you wrote down makes sense to you, and will continue to make sense to you when you go back and read it later. Keep a list of anything you don’t understand, and ask your teacher about it at the beginning of the next lesson. (I always start lessons by asking the student if they have any questions; this is your chance!)

Next, take the information covered in the pages and notes you’ve just read, and reproduce it. If, for example, the lesson explored using conditional structures (e.g. “If I won the lottery, I would buy a big house”), then write some sentences using that structure. The important thing here is to make those sentences relevant to your own life. Connecting grammatical structures or vocabulary words to your own personal experiences will help you to retain them better and recall them more quickly when you speak or write.

Finally, practice your speaking. A great way to do this is to read aloud. I usually recommend 15 to 30 minutes per day for language students, and at least 60 minutes per day for diction students. It doesn’t matter what you read: news articles, plays, history books, novels…anything. Just read. And again, keep a list of anything you don’t understand, and ask your teacher about it.

Go to “Follow AD” at the bottom of this page for more tips on how to be a good student!

Jeremy Coffman, English teacher & diction coach, Paris

The importance of proofreading

Today I’m speaking not only to language learners, but also to native speakers: please proofread when you write. This means read your text again, look for errors, and correct them. If possible, ask someone else to proofread your text, too. A well-written paper shows you have good ideas; a correctly written paper shows you understand complex situations.

When reading texts written by native speakers of the text’s language, I often see mistakes in mechanics, and occasionally in spelling and grammar as well. The reasons for this may be the writer’s lack of understanding of the rules and practices of writing, carelessness on the part of the writer, or sometimes, their apathy toward the idea of writing with proper style.

But whatever the reason, the result is the same: these errors make it difficult for me to take the text seriously or to believe what the writer is telling me. And unfortunately, this happens a lot. I don’t just see it in text messages or on Facebook, but in professionally written and/or published texts, in news and business-related magazines, and even (regretfully) in some language-learning materials I’ve used in the past.

If you’re writing a text and you get stuck, and you’re not sure what the rule is for your situation, please ask someone or look it up. You can ask me; I know a lot about these things, but I admit I sometimes have to look things up, too.

If you’re reading a text and you find mistakes, please inform the author or publisher if a medium for such communication is available to you. (Of course this includes me! I would like to think my English is quite good, though we all make mistakes, but I know my French is far from perfect!) More often than not, the writer will be grateful you’ve pointed out an error, that you’ve helped them to look more professional, and that you’ve made the content of their writing more easily accessible.

Scroll down to “Follow AD” at the bottom of this page to get all of my posts, which, hopefully, I will have proofread carefully before posting. Also, feel free to leave a comment about an error you’ve seen, how you felt when you saw it, and what result came of it.

 Jeremy Coffman, English teacher & diction coach, Paris

The phonemic alphabet: Why is it used?

English is a language with many ancestors, and many of its words have been derived, borrowed, or even lifted directly from hundreds of other languages.

Most of the time, these new words carry their original pronunciation, or a close approximation of it, with them when they enter the English language. This is the reason for the numerous apparent inconsistencies in the relationship of spelled words to their pronunciation. For example, the combination “ea” is pronounced differently in “great” [greĭt], “treat” [trit], and “threat” [θret]; the letter “g” has a different sound in “give” [gɪv] than in “gist” [dʒɪst]; and so on.

Some differences are easy to hear, but others are more subtle. Phonemic symbols connect the sounds to a consistent system of written representation that can be used for all spoken languages.

Go to “Follow AD” at the bottom of this page to learn more about phonemic symbols!

Jeremy Coffman, English teacher & diction coach, Paris

Student tips: Learning how you learn

Different people learn in different ways, some teaching methods are more effective with certain people than with others, and each student has their own way of understanding, retaining, and organizing information. One of the most important questions a student can answer is, how do I learn most effectively?

As a language teacher, I have explored a number of different teaching methods and had mixed results with each. A key part of my job is finding the right method to go with each student, and to adapt the method if necessary to fit each individual’s most effective way of learning. It’s also important for you, the student, to understand this about yourself; knowing your strengths can help you to define your needs more clearly. For example, if you learn best by seeing a word written before hearing it said, then you should start by writing new words in a notebook. However, balance is a key part of the student’s job: after writing the word in your notebook, say it several times; write some sentences using the word, and then read them aloud several times. This helps to balance your written/visual skills with your oral/aural skills, so you can both write and speak the language successfully.

More student tips to come! Go to “Follow AD” at the bottom of this page to get all posts!

Jeremy Coffman, English teacher & diction coach, Paris

The importance of rules

“Rules were made to be broken.” Some people agree with this idea, and others don’t; but in language learning, sometimes you can have it both ways.

It is very important for both native speakers and language students to understand the rules of spelling and mechanics in written expression and of grammar in all expression. Consistency in these areas allows the speaker or writer to be understood by their audience immediately, instead of leaving the listener or reader to decipher the sentence before being able to respond to it.

In music, the Baroque period was all about creating and following the rules of how music must be composed in terms of form, texture, rhythm, balance, pattern, etc. The rules were developed because music coming out of the Middle Ages had started to become difficult for the listeners to understand and follow. These Baroque rules changed all that, and listeners became much more engaged by music. The Classical period, which followed, was all about breaking those rules and trying new, creative ideas. But in order for the Classical composers to achieve the desired effect, which was usually to surprise (and hopefully delight) the audience, they had to understand the rules before they could choose exactly how to break them.

Most modern languages developed in the same way. From chaos came order, and creativity followed. This happens in English constantly these days. Writers of all kind, including poets, songwriters, and comedy writers, all participate in manipulating the language to elicit a wide range of reactions from their audiences. An educated audience will recognize when the language is being manipulated and when it is or isn’t appropriate to reproduce those manipulations.  For example, you probably shouldn’t tell your client they’ve just been “lawyered” or explain at a conference that potential consumers “don’t want none o’ dat”.

I’ll be back soon with more about learning and breaking rules. Get all the posts by scrolling down to “Follow AD” at the bottom of this page. And for now, trust your teacher and your textbook (even if one of them tells you the other one has made a mistake), and before long you’ll be able to bend or break the rules in your own way.

Jeremy Coffman, English teacher & diction coach, Paris

What is the phonemic alphabet?

Quite simply, the phonemic alphabet is a series of symbols that represent the sounds of spoken communication. Its fundamental principle is that one symbol represents exactly one sound, and one sound is represented by exactly one symbol.

For instance, the word “bags” has four sounds (b-a-g-s) and is represented by four symbols, as /bægz/; the word “green” also has four sounds (g-r-ee-n) and is represented as /griːn/; “listen” has five sounds (the “t” is silent) for /ˈlɪsən/; and “six” has four sounds, /sɪks/.

Of course each learner has their own learning style, and while it is possible to learn a language without using phonemic symbols, my teaching includes their use in order to give the student as many tools as possible to help them reach their goals. I’ll have more information about the phonemic alphabet in future posts; go to “Follow AD” at the bottom on this page to stay up to date!

Jeremy Coffman, English teacher & diction coach, Paris

Good pronunciation

Good pronunciation begins with good listening. Good listening begins with an understanding of how sounds are produced.

By learning how the tongue, the lips, the voice, the breath, etc. can be manipulated to produce different sounds, one begins to then recognize subtle variations in pronunciation from one person to the next. They can then incorporate these differences into their own speech more quickly and easily, because they already have notions of how the sounds are produced.

Jeremy Coffman, English teacher & diction coach, Paris

Edith says…

“Distinct utterance is the prime requisite of an actor. In fact, the audience should be able to take for granted that they can hear and understand everything the actors says, without straining to do so.”

Edith Skinner, Speak With Distinction