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 performance or rehearsal. Their warm-up activates the entire body (so they can move freely on stage or on set), the mind and heart (so they can generate any and all necessary emotional expressions), 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 business people 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 are so small that they must not need much warm-up, right? Well, wrong. The smaller 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

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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” /ʃeĭv/ 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.

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: 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 his 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 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 grammar in all expression. Consistency in these areas allows the speaker or writer to be understood by his 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 repeat those manipulations.  For example, you probably shouldn’t tell your client he’s 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