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Articulation Study Day with Ron Morris

Saturday 24th June 2006


British Voice Association event report by Heidi de Quincey – a speech and language therapist's view.

Not knowing – to my shame – of Ron Morris, I was unsure what a day on 'articulation' would hold for me. Getting anywhere promptly on a Saturday, despite knowing that I would meet up with SLT colleagues and make links with other BVAers, would always have been an effort; had I known how entertaining the day would turn out to be, my journey would have been lightened.

Ron took us, if not by the hand, then by the scruff of the neck, and introduced (or reviewed, depending on your background) the "plumbing" of the singing and speaking voice. If like me, you endured anatomy amidst the aroma of cadavers, Ron's approach was wonderfully straightforward, and would have subverted any of my university lectures, declaring anatomy to be "so for simpletons". His direct delivery via the Australian vernacular to a responsive and appreciative audience was achieved despite the rather hot room.

As an SLT, how awful that I might have assumed I could anticipate his message. I was wrong; Ron's careful work with habitual articulatory positions and their restrictive effects on the voice were generously shared with us, and I for one was scribbling down his observations on the assessment and diagnosis of postural and muscular inefficiencies and therapy exercises. His keen eye ("look from the side" and muscular inefficiencies can stand out "like the dog's balls"), his knowledge of learned articulatory movements; and the hard work of replacing these with modified muscular patterns are pure therapy, and truly combine the BVA professional strands.

I think we can underplay the prescriptive side of our therapist's role; not Ron, who seems to relish his "speech Nazi" side. However, in the afternoon master class with three talented young vocal artists, Ron showed us his keen persuasive style - with very little bullying - and coaxed from already pleasurable performances a rapid articulatory realignment using available props - fingers. Placed between the teeth, or as a tactile prompt on the chin, these gave an immediate change to jaw alignment. The hard work for our clients consists in learning to do this automatically, without the fingers.

The resultant improvements in quality, resonance, clarity and volume were exciting to hear, and I'm sure all of us were inspired with a determination to be braver with our plumbing skills.

Heidi de Quincey is a Speech and Language therapist, working both in the NHS in St Richard's Hospital, Chichester; and in independent practice in Winchester. She often loves her work in voice and complex swallowing problems. Her ambition is somehow to compress the South Downs and bring the two areas closer together.


A singing teacher's view from Pamela Parry

I hadn't been to a BVA conference for a while and was looking forward very much to hearing Ron Morris give a talk on Articulation – the unexplored key to vocal efficiency. I have to compliment him on the excellent handouts that were so easy to read and understand and included all his suggested exercises. It meant I could sit back and listen rather than scribble frantically in case I missed anything. Don't miss out, try and get your hands on them by any means!

I always think it's a tricky thing to explain to people this articulation word and Ron did stress it means different things to different people. I was always wary of singing teachers who shouted out "articulate darling" and then one would overdo everything by shoving the jaw out, overdoing the lips and looking ridiculous, the very things that Ron demonstrated affect vocal tone and quality. Isn't articulation about expressing ourselves in the easiest way? Can you understand what I'm saying?

There are the obvious rôles the articulators play in the system, such as changing the resonance by adjusting the oral/nasal cavity and shaping the voice into vowels, but I was more interested in the less obvious rôles. The system acts as a monitor for what is occurring below at the level of the larynx or respiratory system so any tongue root constriction shows inappropriate breath support. I think we see this so often when a singer gets to an uncertain part of the voice and the jaw is thrust out and that tongue is clamped down with a direct effect on the hyoid bone and therefore on the larynx; it's no wonder they feel so uncomfortable trying to force a sound out. The tongue is very strong, pure muscle, and exerts 1kg of pressure for every swallow, and we swallow our own saliva on average 3,000 times a day. The jaw plays only a secondary rôle in articulation - it's quite possible to speak clearly with an immobile jaw. The muscles are also incredibly strong - Ron did point out that they were invented to crack open marrow bones! This is why it is so important not to over-open, as bigger is not usually better! Exercises are needed to get the tongue and jaw divorced; the larynx if left alone will change pitch as quickly as you need to if the tongue is not rooted. He explained the soft palate (the velum) so well and if I hear one more person shouting "lift the palate" again I'll be carted away for GBH. Purely muscular, with attachments to the tongue and pharynx, it's only partially under our voluntary control and we can only get to it through changing other muscles. The Margaret Thatcher 'caring' voice that we all loved so much comes from tongue root tension pulling the soft palate down. She probably thought she sounded great, and singers who adopt this posture do too, but the voice is dark and muffled and sounds much older; many have a vibrato you could drive a bus through !! It takes a lot of effort and patience to retrain their aural and kinaesthetic perception.

Accents have always fascinated me, and Ron said that they are determined by the tongue position on vowels. Every language has an articulatory setting, most determined by tongue position. Ron's Australian tongue position is similar to Italian, very high. For diagnosing articulatory inefficiencies, he said that singing teachers and voice teachers are often excellent at spotting subtle difficulties and very gentle palpation helped. But the voice of doom, Tom Harris, warned that if we inhibit the hyoglossus a bit too much externally we had to be very careful, as the vagus nerve runs near which goes straight into the heart ! Maybe we all need to check our insurance !! The exercises he suggested to remediate are excellent, simple and repetitive in order to establish new motor patterns and can take place at any time in the singer's development. It's not a quick fix, though, and can take weeks, sometimes months.

The afternoon session was where Ron put everything into practice and with the aid of three brave guinea pigs he went about his business. There were two singers and one actress, who delivered a section of Juliet's speech. She was a great example of someone with an interdental lisp whom he advised should have some swallowing therapy. He gave her various exercises and when she returned to the speech she had much more resonance in the voice, but as he pointed out, he had done no voice work - only tongue exercises. The singers, ably accompanied by Gordon Stewart, went through several jaw and tongue releasing exercises with fabulous results. The Australian girl, Tamsin, currently studying with Janice Chapman, gave a great rendition of the 'Queen of the Night'. Ron made her find her Aussie roots and get the back of the tongue high; the sound became incredibly bright, bang in tune and she looked less agitated while singing. She really wanted to open her mouth more on the top Fs but by making her start from a smaller place she could then find her own way so the resonating spaces were not disturbed. I thought the whole day was excellent and Ron incredibly impressive and so entertaining. I thought we could have had a whole weekend of him as there was so much information.

Pam Parry is a singer and vocal coach and member of the Voice Clinic team at the Royal Sussex County Hospital in Brighton. She has forthcoming concerts and recitals in London, Brighton and Liverpool and is studying for a psychotherapy diploma. She is also taking up the post of singing teacher at the Central School of Speech and Drama in October.



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