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: 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 he has any questions; this is your chance!)

Next, take the information covered in the pages and notes you 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 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 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

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 his 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