Speak Clearly!

The next time you’re talking to someone—anyone—pay attention. Not so much what they say, but how. It’s very illuminating.


I’ve always had an ear for language—an ability to pick out what language is being spoken, even if I can’t understand it. I attribute this to two things—one, exposure to lots of languages in the years I studied music; and two, having inherited a good ear from my dad.


Dad is the quintessential blend of traditional and modern farmer. He’s got the wardrobe, the farmer tan, a degree in agri-business, and something that struck me even when I was growing up: a large, sophisticated vocabulary sprinkled with questionable grammar. Some years ago, Christian told me that my dad had a thick accent. We argued about it all the way to my parents’ house one day. Christian was insistent, but I knew he was wrong.


Until that night at dinner, when I heard it, too. My jaw just about hit the floor. Just goes to show, everybody has a blind spot. (Or a “deaf” spot.)


In the years since, I’ve started conducting choirs and teaching voice lessons. These days, clarity of speech is something of an obsession with me. Some of the things I notice are regional mannerisms; others are just plain wrong. In the former category belong my father-in-law’s “sangwich,” and my brother-in-law, who says “I run” instead of iron. In the latter belong the scores of people who can’t say “escape” without turning it into “ex-cape,” for whom “nuclear” becomes “nuke-you-ler.”


Recently I heard Brooklyn native read a passage from the prophet Isaiah. It had the word “Lord” in it a dozen times. “L(u)wahd,” is how she pronounced it. This word is a great illustration, actually. Have a church choir sing the word “Lord” in unison, and you’ll hear this wretched scratching all around the sound—truly dreadful. It has nothing to do with sharp or flat; it has to do with what kind of “O” people are singing. There’s “Laaahd” and “Lohd” and the proper “Lord” and the overdone “LOWRd,” and that’s just the variety among Midwestern singers!


I’m losing you, I know it. Sorry.


Among my voice students, who range from 5 to 18, I’m constantly listening for clarity. Believe it or not, the worst offender is “s.” Humor me for a minute and say “ssssss.” Then try moving the tongue forward or back along the roof of the mouth. The farther forward you go, the clearer the “s.” The farther back, the closer it gets to “sh.” One of my pet peeves is hearing meteorologists say “thunder-shtorm.” What’s up with THAT?


Then, of course, there’s Alex, who over-pronounces his “r’s” such that every day I hear, “Away in a mangeRRRRR, no crib for a bed, the wittuh woRRRd Jesus waid daaaowwwwn his sweet head.”


Clarity of speech is achieved by opening the mouth. It sounds inane, I know—but in speech, we don’t move our mouths much. Opening the mouth has implications not only for singing, but also for elocution. How many times did your teachers yell, “Project! Project!” There are two keys to projection and clarity—one is using enough stomach muscle (thank you Angeleita!); the other is letting the lips come forward in a relaxed position, slightly pursed (thank you Melissa!), and then allowing them to shape the words, instead of letting the words bumble past without moving them much.


The point of this entry, if anyone’s actually made it this far, is to show that I’m a complete geek. J Excuse me—I mean, to share a perspective that I’ve gained, and to encourage everyone to pay attention to how you talk, and strive for clarity. If nothing else, maybe that will help people understand each other when they’re talking on cell phones!