Please note: The Usual Disclaimer applies as always.
For those of you who are part of a more acting-heavy game, or who do voices for their NPCs, you need to make sure you're getting your voice ready before a session. Here's a quick guide to ensure you don't strain anything while you're doing that amazing gravelly-voied Strahd.
Why We Do Vocal Warm-Ups
First, what's the point in vocal warm-ups? Why not just jump in and run your game?
Well, whilst you're probably not going sitting in front of a mic recording a show for thousands, or doing voice over work, you're still going to be putting on a show for your group, and doing a variety of voices. With an average D&D/other tabletop RPG session lasting 2-3 hours, you're going to be talking a lot, and so your vocal chords need preparing for what's about to come. Otherwise, at best you risk losing your voice the next day, and at worst you could over time do some real damage to your vocal chords.
More than that, having a warmed set of vocal chords helps minimise mistakes, squeaks, vocal cracks and other unintentional noises.
How to Warm Your Voice
Firstly, unless you're running a session first thing in the morning, it shouldn't take more than 10-20 minutes to get going. However, if you are running at say, 8.30am at a meet-up or running early sessions in organised play, I'd think about doing vocal warm-ups first thing.
Secondly, producing sound uses a lot of your body, so this is going to be slightly more than just warming your lips and vocal chords. You'll want to get some physicality into your performance too, partly to help with certain types of voices, and partly to help convey a sense of character. So I'm going to have a few non-vocal parts in here at the end too.
If you want them, there's samples of the sounds for parts 1 and 2. I'll be putting up more soon, but I've just been recovering from a heavy cold, so I've been resting my voice.
1. Lip and Tongue Trills
Start your warm-up here. The most basic parts of any sound production are rooted in three elements of your body - your lips, tongue and vocal chords. This gets all three of those gently started.
Begin by trilling a "b" sound, keeping a single, steady flow of air. You're not aiming to engage your vocal chords yet, just to get the lips themselves moving, and start diaphragmatic breathing. This means the chest will expand and your stomach become more firm, as you control the rate of air moving. It'll also start to work your cheeks a little. Breathe in deeply, and gently exhale as you trill the "b", trying to keep the trill going as long as possible. When it fails, pause, hold the breath, and then carry on. To make it easier to keep the trill going, press gently against the middle of your cheeks.
Next move on to tongue trills. Shape your mouth as if to produce a "d" sound, and again run your breathe out through your mouth, to roll your tongue.
Alternate between lip and tongue trills. On the first go round, simply control your breath, not producing any note. On the second go round of each, pick a single note in your modal voice register. Then on the third run of each, siren your voice, running from a low to high note and back again.
2. "T", "K", "N", "M" and "P" Sounds
These are all designed to warm up the lips and tongue further, without working the vocal chords. Try saying each over the course of a single breath as quickly as possible. This produces an active version of the exercise we've just done. Whilst before we were loosening up the muscles involved, now we're engaging and using them, getting them ready to work.
This is then complimented on the other side by warming our vocal chords, in the next exercise.
3. "M", "N", "Z" and "ing" Sirens
The first pair of these sounds are done with a closed mouth, whilst the second pair are done with an open mouth. All are done to a sirening tone, moving through the vocal registers. At the point where you switch from one register to the next, focus on the transition to make it as smooth as possible. You're aiming here to control your vocal chords and breathing to produce smooth, steady changes through pitch and tone, keeping a steady volume.
You'll also find that you may start to move your neck, head and chest as you move through different pitches, allowing you to better support your voice and control the flow of air. I find that when I'm transitioning between registers, there's a feeling of the sound production moving backwards to smooth the transition, but whatever works for you, go with that. Try and feel the transitions, and spend the most time moving gently between them, to smooth them out so you can alter between voices with the most subtle of interruptions.
4. Neck and Shoulder Warm-Ups
With your voice starting to warm and stretch a little, we'll now rest it a moment. Have a drink of warm water, and move on to these next exercises. Here we'll be doing some simple shoulder shrugs and rolls, both forward and backward. Begin with moving both together, before moving on to each shoulder on its own. Then gently twist your torso from the base of your ribcage one way and then the other.
Next, warm your neck muscles by gently leaning your head forward to touch your chin to your chest, then back, and then side to side, before finally twisting left and right. This loosening through pitch, roll and yaw of the the neck muscles also gently stretches and relaxes the muscles at the base of the skull and engages the shoulders.
5. Lion and Mouse
The penultimate part of our little warm-up focuses on warming the facial muscles. Firstly, drop the jaw, open the mouth wide, lift the eyebrows and flare your nostrils. Every part of your face at this point should be pulled outwards. Then close your jaw slowly, before scrunching up your lips, pulling in the eyebrows, and tightening everything up. Repeat three or four times, moving slowly between the two stages. This expansion and contraction engages all the muscles in your face, getting those muscles ready to engage and allow for better control when performing accents and creating different facial shapes.
6. Tongue Twisters & Monologues
Now we get to the final part of our little warm-up. This puts all the other parts together, by having us speak challenging pieces which get the voice moving fluidly. I'll generally start with a couple of tongue twisters, before moving on to something more actorly. The first engages the tongue and lips effectively, whilst the latter starts producing different tones, volumes and physical positions. Here's a few I like to use...
I'm going to split the monologues into men's and women's, but obviously that's just what they were written for. If you want to use something that's not written for whatever you are/identify as, go for it. You do you.
Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.
A peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked.
If Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers,
Where's the peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked?
There was a fisherman named Fisher
who fished for some fish in a fissure.
Till a fish with a grin,
pulled the fisherman in.
Now they're fishing the fissure for Fisher.
She sells sea shells on the sea shore;
The shells that she sells are sea shells I'm sure.
So if she sells sea shells on the sea shore,
I'm sure that the shells are sea shore shells.
She is a thistle-sifter.
She has a sieve of unsifted thistles and a sieve of sifted thistles.
The sieve of unsifted thistles she sifts into the sieve of sifted thistles,
Because she is a thistle-sifter.
Monologues - Men
Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scene 2
But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
That I might touch that cheek!
Julius Caesar, Act 3, Scene 2
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
And I must pause till it come back to me.
Richard II, Act 2, Scene 1
His rash fierce blaze of riot cannot last,
Of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame.
Henry V, Act 4, Scene 3
What's he that wishes so?
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.
Richard II, Act 4, Scene 1
Ay, no; no, ay; for I must nothing be;
And send him many years of sunshine days!
Monologues - Women
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
I never writ, nor no man ever lov'd
Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
The Merchant of Venice, Act 4, Scene 1
The quality of mercy is not strained.
Must needs give sentence 'gainst the merchant there.
Twelfth Night, Act 2, Scene 2
I left no ring with her: what means this lady?
It is too hard a knot for me to untie!
More Than Your Voice
Finally, remember that producing good voice acting means producing a physical performance as well. Whilst you can make a timid sound with your voice alone, lowing the head, bending the neck down, hunching the shoulders and rounding the back will aid you, by both making you feel the physicality of the emotion, and also setting up your voice to more readily produce the sort of sounds required. Similarly, sitting straight, chest puffed out and head held high will produce the kind of supported, strong base needed for regal or official voices. That's before we get into the benefits of creating a better performance for your players.
So remember to use your body, your physical performance, to not only create greater characterisation, but also to help you produce a better vocal performance, engaging your players more, and helping create some truly memorable moments at the table.
I'll leave you with this...
Critical Role, Episode 23
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