The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."

By Miss M. Hay.
Volume 15, Number 1, 1904, pg. 33-42

Lecture delivered before the Reading Branch of the P.N.E.U.

Elocution is an art, although recognized by most people as a necessity, is yet one which has been most sadly neglected, but which I am happy to say is being thought a great deal more about, and is indeed now a subject taught in most of our large schools and colleges, and that this is necessary I hope to be able to convince you.

First let us then briefly consider what Elocution is; it is the art of speaking and reading with propriety and grace, and is surely as important a feature of education as grammar, and many other branches which we should think very shocking to leave out in the child's education--but alas, how few grown people even have the least idea how to speak in public, not from the want of knowing what to say, but of how to say it; how often the really cleverly-written lecture is marred by the bad delivery and the ragged incoherent hesitating utterances, and the public, reading these lectures or debates, is little aware how much it is indebted to the skill of the reporter for reducing the speech to something like smoothness and common sense--at the Bar, in Parliament, and in the Church, terrible examples are too constantly seen of the indifference with which the subject is regarded, and surely when so much depends upon stating facts plainly, arguing closely, and convincing and persuading, the speaker should feel compelled to cultivate a certain readiness of speech, and the force at least, if not the grace, of elocution.

There are many books written on the subject, and some very good ones, but they are too often written in such a learned and technical manner as to frighten the young and inexperienced beginner, or to leave his mind in a hopeless state of confusion and uncertainty; this arises, in my opinion, from their want of careful distinction between the two great branches of elocution, between propriety and grace, or art and nature, between, in fact, what can be taught and what cannot.

We will call the first the mechanical branch, to which belong pronunciation, articulation, accent, and emphasis, etc., to the second branch, viz., that of the sentimental, belong the pauses and the tones or inflections of the voice, the facial expressions and the gestures; the first of these two branches I may, I think, safely say can in all cases be taught, and the second beyond hints and suggestions for guidance must be left to the taste and judgment of the speaker.

Before going any further I must not forget to mention the great essential to good public speaking, and one that must positively be the first study of the would-be speaker or reciter, and that is the necessity of being heard, therefore let us deal for a few minutes with the management of the voice, that is, the speaking voice, because the student must gain the power of producing the voice and adapting it to the place in which he speaks, so as to be heard by everyone present and moreover to be heard easily so as not to strain the attention of the hearer in any way.

We all know the pleasing effect a sweet, musical voice has, while a harsh, discordant one has such a totally opposite effect, and I will ask you to remember that where the voice is naturally harsh it can be made sweet and musical--of course, in some cases, we find pupils have naturally beautiful and melodious voices, but I have had a great many and have never yet found a voice that could not be improved with judicious exercises and work. Let us consider then how the voice is produced and the proper way of producing it. It has often been compared to the organ, and they resemble each other so far as they are both worked by bellows, and produce their sounds from a pipe, but the voice is so much more wonderful than any instrument, and can by the exquisite delicacy of its mechanism produce through one pipe any variety of distinct and musical sounds.

The first great principle to be regarded in the right production of the voice is: --

Breath management. I might go into a great many anatomical details, but there would not be time to do this, so I will spare you; it is sufficient for me to state what you, no doubt, all know, viz., that the lungs occupy a large portion of the cavity of the chest, surrounded by the ribs, and extending from the throat to the abdomen, from which they are separated by a muscular arrangement called the diaphragm which rises and falls according as the portion above it is filled with or emptied of air and the portion below it with food. It is of this diaphragm that I would have my pupils think and take the breath low down, and not get into the bad and hurtful habit of the use of thoracic or chest breathing.

Midriff breathing, then, is the best and right method to adopt. I have found in some pupils that this is a difficulty that can only be overcome by much exercise and patient practice--the lungs should be kept thoroughly filled with air whilst speaking, and should be kept expanded as long as possible, and the speaker must be careful to take fresh breath before he feels the need of it, so that he never continues speaking when the lungs are empty, and so is obliged to recover himself with a gasp and gurgle which is most uncomfortable to himself as well as for the unfortunate hearers.

The child should be taught to breathe properly, but not only as a means whereby to cultivate a beautiful voice but also as a means to health. I have proved in many cases that correct breathing and use of the voice not only strengthens the digestive powers, but also gives the pupil the power necessary to possessing a graceful and upright figure; breathing exercises develop the chest to a wonderful extent, and I might just, in passing here, say how wrong and harmful it is to have any tight clothing, indeed, common sense must tell us that if the ribs are interfered with in any way, a right production of the voice is entirely out of the question.

Much has been written about breathing through the nose, and it is perfectly right in theory and should be as far as possible carried into practice, but whilst in the act of speaking it is quite impossible, as it would involve the necessity of a pause and sniff--the nostrils should always be kept well open whilst speaking, as the sound is produced through them as well as through the mouth, and perfect sound cannot be produced without them. As most of you no doubt know, what is commonly called speaking through the nose is really quite the reverse, viz., speaking without the nose at all. The student of elocution has much to learn, in fact, the subject is inexhaustible, when to take breath must be thoroughly mastered. I cannot attempt to enter fully into these details as it would take far too long, but there is one rule to be particularly remembered, and that is never speak whilst in the act of taking breath, but during the expiration of the breath only, and it should be taken in quickly and given out as slowly as possible, which latter is an act of will and needs a great deal of practice.

I feel that I have said more than I should have done on the production of the voice, but I trust that you will forgive me when I tell you that I myself have derived the greatest benefit from the knowledge which it has been my privilege to gain.

I had, when a child, a very delicate throat, and even after one or two operations it seemed to settle into a chronically unhealthy and weak condition. I was always anxious to become an elocutionist and asked a throat specialist in London, under whose treatment I had been, whether I should ever be able to take up this work, and he assured me that it was entirely out of the question. I, however, as I fear we sometimes do, went against him and began to study, with the result that where I had a very thin weak voice it became quite strong and I rarely suffered from a bad throat, and I am now able to use my voice for six or eight hours if necessary with perfect ease; in fact, I maintain that if the voice is produced properly, it can safely be used for any length of time, if, of course, the body is in a healthy condition. It always makes me feel sad when I hear a speaker remark that his voice is tired, as I know exactly what that means--it invariably means wrong production.

Please do not imagine from what I have said that I underrate a doctor's advice for the throat when it is bad; indeed, I consider that the first duty of the elocutionist is to find out if the pupil has anything wrong with the throat or nose, and, if it is so, send the pupil at once to a doctor to be properly attended to, as, unless this is done, the elocutionist is quite powerless to produce the voice; when we know anything of our work it should be easy to tell if there is anything radically wrong and whether the trouble is caused merely by wrong production.

The air when expelled from the lungs is forces up through the windpipe, passing on its way through the larynx in which is situated that most marvellous and delicate machinery by which all the sounds of which the human voice is capable, from its lowest note to the top of its compass, are produced and sent on to be articulated into speech by the various organs situated in and about the mouth. There is much music in this said organ, but we must always remember that its functions are greatly strengthened by judicious practice.

It is most important that the student, when possible, should be made to stand to read; any stooping or poking forward of the head causes the voice, through the contraction of the throat muscles, to be strained and forced, and so soon to get weary and worn out; this contraction of the throat muscles is one of the causes of "clergyman's throat," a complaint which I feel certain will some day be a thing of the past.

The palate or roof of the mouth acts as a sounding board and the sound strikes upwards, and is sent ringing through the teeth with ease to the speaker and pleasure to the hearer; in fact, the pupil must endeavour, by practice, to extend the range of the voice and to give it resonance from the chest and from the head.

If the management of the voice be carried out in a proper manner, the pitch or key-note of any room will easily be found. One often hears the remark, "It is a bad room for sound," and, indeed, it is true that rooms do differ in this respect very much, but it is the duty of the speaker to learn to understand how to use his voice in any room.

We will now turn our attention to the first branch of elocution, which I have already named the mechanical branch, and which can be taught. In this branch is included pronunciation, articulation, accent, and emphasis. In order to pronounce properly, the language should have its own alphabet, but the English language cannot be said to have one at all, as, having adopted the Roman and Latin alphabet, we have to spell our English words by a series of letters designed for a language quite different from our own. Many of our letters have to do double duty, as we shall soon see by taking the vowel sounds, "a" has a different sound in slate, beat, ball, hard; "e" in he, her, there, went, and again "i" in bit, marine, bite, etc; "u" in club, rude, brush; "y" in only, try. The same difficulty presents itself again in the consonants, and again in the eccentric diphthong "ou" with its various sounds; on taking these few examples we must see at once how difficult the student of our language must find the study. We will next proceed to speak about articulation; the organs of articulation are the tongue, palate, teeth, and lips; I have not time, unfortunately, to take each of these organs and fully explain their functions; suffice it to say the elocutionist must fully master this knowledge.

The word articulation may be defined to be a due proportion of sound to every letter whether vowel or consonant that occurs in every syllable according to the correct pronunciation.

The rule for pronunciation is to be careful to use that of the best educated people and not that of the fashionable, as, unfortunately, the fashion is not only often incorrect but also very ugly and not at all to be commended.

I feel I must say a few words here about provincialisms; as a teacher of elocution, I cannot speak too strongly on the absolute necessity of teaching the young child to speak his own language properly. Parents do not care half enough about this and it stands to reason that the child will naturally fall into bad habits of speaking with the accent of a nurse, or of those whom it is usually with. These habits are so difficult to overcome when the child grows, and no one knows except the teacher of elocution what disheartening work it is, when one is expected (which is often the case) to teach a pupil to speak correctly in, perhaps, twelve lessons, when for years they have been using anything but pure English and do not even know that they are speaking badly. We need not talk about the different provincialisms; I think that of Berkshire is quite dreadful enough to consider with its broad "r" sound as in "world," etc., and the cockney as in "day," "lady," etc.

It is, of course, a splendid thing that a child should be taught different languages, but if only it is taught to pronounce its own correctly as well it would be indeed a splendid thing. To articulate perfectly, the lips must be kept moist and flexible, and by using them freely on all occasions, one important step will have been taken towards a clear articulation which is the true basis of elocution.

Great care must always be taken to sound the final letters in words such as "d" in and, and "t" in lost, etc. Where several consonants come together there is a tendency to leave out one or two of them, such as for instance as in "worldly" where it too often gets pronounced "worlly"; then again the final "g" in the participle "ing" is often omitted, and all these things must be carefully avoided.

Accent and emphasis are both most important and there is much to be learnt about them, but I fear that I can only speak very briefly on them. Accent is the stress of the voice on a particular syllable of a word, and it holds the same relation to speech as quantity does to grammar, but must be distinguished from it, as the rhetorical accent is quite independent of the grammatical quantity; for instance, in grammar long and short syllables are fixed and invariable, whereas in speech the accent is placed where it is most agreeable to the harmony of the sound. It is unfortunately a very common fault among readers to sound only the accented syllables, and to appear to omit altogether the unaccented by dropping the voice so much that they are almost inaudible; but this fault can be cured by speaking slowly and keeping the voice well up at the end of each word.

The great object of emphasis is to make the sense perfectly clear, though a sentence may be written quite grammatically and the punctuation correct, yet the reader may fail utterly to convey the right meaning of the author, or it may even be read so as to convey several different meanings.

Those, then, wishing to become good readers must study and discover the meaning of the writer; the object of emphasis is to explain the meaning of a sentence without losing the force.

Of punctuation I shall say little, we may call it the grammatical pause--the stops that are used in writing to divide and distinguish the different parts of a sentence--and this pause must not be confused with that very important rhetorical pause or pause of the ear; the first belongs to the mechanical, and the second to the sentimental branch of our subject.

I should recommend the reader to study more the real meaning than the stops, as they sometimes not only fail to teach him but often instead mislead him; and I think they are intended more to mark the grammar than to teach us the meaning of the writer. The object of all public speaking is to convince and persuade; and if the mechanical branch of elocution is studied carefully much is gained towards this end; but fortunate indeed are those, and there are many, who possess that other branch, viz., the sentimental or the dramatic talent, those in fact who are able to rouse the feelings of others, touch their hearts and excite their passions. Without this talent we cannot go so far to persuade, and as I before remarked, this second branch is most difficult to teach as so much depends upon the natural gifts of each individual, and that indescribable electrical power which is sympathy and which no teacher can impart to those who have not already got it. I have found in my teaching that some quite young children have this art, or we may term it power, wonderfully strongly developed; all children should be taught the proper use of the speaking voice and also reading; but it is no use to insist upon a child reciting unless the gift is there, as it is so painful without depth or colour; however beautiful they may be in technique, what pleasure do they give without the art or what we may term soul, for to recite well the student must feel, must forget self entirely and throw him or herself into the piece heart and soul; those who are able to do this can move their hearers to tears or laughter.

In some cases, the art does not show itself at once, sometimes from shyness and a natural shrinking from, as it were, letting themselves go. The teacher of elocution has then a great responsibility, he or she must be absolutely patient and endeavour to bring out the art which is lying dormant, there must be no mannerisms, no affectations--the reciter must in a word be true.

To this last branch, then, belongs pause, that is, the rhetorical pause, or pause of expression. No strict rules can be laid down for this pause, it must depend a great deal upon the taste of the reciter and also upon the temper of the audience--it may be given either before an emphatic word or after, or both, much depends on it; in fact, a recitation is often marred by the lack of this pause.

Inflections are those gliding tones of the voice, upwards and downwards, which form the true and real expression of speech. It is one of the most important parts of elocution, and I think decidedly the most difficult, that rising and falling of the voice upon which so much depends; it is quite impossible to learn from a book, but much can be done by oral instruction. I have found in some cases tone deafness, which is most trying, as the pupil does not know that he is speaking flat, so that he gets monotonous. The monotony in speakers, etc., is in nearly all cases caused by want of right inflection.

The chief inflections are the rising and the falling. The latter should never be used except at a full stop or at a command, but we nearly always find the untrained reader drop the voice at every few words; I may say here that the compass of the speaking voice is not so great as that of the singing voice, but at the same time we speak on notes and we can speak either sharp or flat, and the speaking voice needs as careful cultivation as that of the singing, but strange as it may appear, often we find those that have really beautiful singing voices are sadly wanting in a melodious speaking voice and have no ear for inflection, and vica versa, many of the exercises are almost the same.

Looks and gesture I must pass over very briefly, though we could find matter for a long discourse on them; they are of course most necessary to the speaker and also to the reciter, as what is more awkward than a speech, we will say, where the speaker (as is often the case) seems to find his hands in the way and varies the action between placing them behind his back or, what is still worse, placing them in his pocket. Gesture must not be taken as a separate thing but must be appropriate so as to be part of a perfect whole. Again, with the face all emotions should be shown by that wonderful facial expression, the eyes of course taking a large share; but as I have often told my pupils there is no part of us from head to toe that has not some function to perform in the building of a perfect recitation; but it is so difficult to impart this art, as above all the reciter must be true and natural, free from self-consciousness and affectation, and in teaching facial expression and gesture, one must be careful to gain this end; therefore never let a child pose in front of the glass, except in cases where there is speech defect, when sometimes it is absolutely necessary. I believe that many people think that to teach a young child to recite has a tendency to make it conceited and unnatural; to these I do not hesitate to say that they make a great mistake; in all cases I have found the opposite effect, indeed in many I have found that it has been a wonderfully refining effect, making the child discover beauty in poetry and prose that it little thought of, and when one can develop and bring out that wonderful dramatic art, surely it is something to have gained.

There is far too little reading aloud done; I grant the child is taught to read very young and skims through a great many books, and, no doubt, they are good ones, but if that child is asked to read aloud a simple well-written passage--what is too often the result? She invariably gabbles through it without apparently understanding what she is reading and certainly conveying nothing of the real meaning to the unfortunate listener. I am sorry to say I have proved this many times.

Let the young child take delight in reading aloud and teach it so to read that you may take like delight in listening to it; there is nothing more charming than the sweet, clear little voice when trained, but we must remember that it must be trained and taken care of, as there is great delicacy in the little voice box.

Cases of laryngitis, as well as many other throat affections, are often caused by wrong production.

The teacher of elocution must be careful never to teach his or her pupils to recite all in the same way, it is a great mistake.

They should rather do all in their power to preserve each pupil's individual originality, and, after first carefully training the voice and grounding them in the first or mechanical branch of elocution, then next carefully, by suggestion, chiefly bring out that beautiful power which in so many is lying dormant.

There is much talked of education and very rightly, too, but let us not forget that we all have a wonderful gift to be cultivated, and let the preacher, lecturer, etc., not only learn to speak beautiful words, but to speak them beautifully, and so gain power to convince and persuade.

I trust that you will forgive my having said much that you already know, and, after all, there is nothing new to be said about Elocution.

Typed by melissaknoll625, November 2022; Proofread by LNL, June, 2023