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1.3: Vocal Elements of Performance

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    How many of you have attended an author’s reading or listened to poets read online? Do you remember story time in elementary school? If you have seen these sorts of events, think of what made the reading enjoyable or made you wish you were somewhere else—anywhere else.

    If we look at the characteristics that mark good literature readers, we frequently find these traits:

    1. Confidence
    2. Ample vocal volume
    3. Appropriate pacing
    4. Heightened inflection and cadence
    5. Eyes off of page

    In contrast, readers who bore the audience show the following traits:

    1. Disinterested demeanor
    2. Low vocal volume
    3. Pacing too fast
    4. Monotone voice
    5. Eyes glued to page

    The traits in the first list above are the bare minimum of what might make an interesting and compelling literature reading. In oral interpretation of literature, however, performers use their voice and body to take these things just a step further. An oral interp performer’s goal is to amplify a central message or theme that is inherent in a literary text(s). To breathe life into the literature and ensure the audience is compelled to receive that central message, interp performers make ample use of their vocal and body language resources.

    Whenever we are speaking or presenting to a group of people in the form of a speech, it becomes more important to use appropriate vocal characteristics and body language to enhance the effectiveness of our communication. When we present literature to an audience as opposed to a speech, it becomes even more critical to pay close attention to these elements so we can more accurately convey emotions, feelings, and nuance of characters/personae with literary texts.

    You may also find that while taking this course, it will behoove you to become a “people watcher.” What better way to analyze and discover different ways of using voice and body than by watching others use them? Pay close attention to what actors do with characters in TV and movies to convey feeling, emotion, and personality. As you wait for the bus, keep your phone in your pocket and simply watch the people walking by. Observe the voices you hear, the posture you see, and how the whole package comes together to send you messages (sometimes intentional, sometimes not) about the people. Begin to play with these sorts of mannerisms as you prepare and present your own oral interpretation performances.

    This chapter will explore the various resources at our disposal within our earthly vehicles (our bodies) that we can modify to effectively bring our chosen literature to life for our audiences. This use of voice and body to convey a message to others is often called “delivery.”


    Our voices are truly one of the most flexible instruments we possess. Consider all the ways you can modify your voice in order to create feeling and amplify a message. As you learn to perform literature for your audience in oral interpretation, you can learn to play with these variations to add color, depth, and emotion to the personae you portray. These various modifications we can make to our vocal instruments are called “paralanguage,” the non-verbal aspects of voice. In other words, paralanguage refers to everything we can do with our voices independent of simply saying words.


    This involves changes in the speed or tempo of our speech. Consider what it might communicate to someone if we speak at a rapid pace. What impression does that give to our listener? It might indicate we are in a hurry, stressed, or frustrated with the conversation, just to name a few possibilities. In contrast, speaking at a slower pace could indicate we are trying to get an important point across, that we are having trouble forming our sentences, or that we aren’t feeling well.


    When we lower or raise our vocal volume, we change the decibel level of our voices. We could use a loud voice to indicate that a character or persona is angry, excited, or in a crowded location. A quiet voice or whisper could indicate shyness, youth or old age, or small stature.


    Our voices come fully equipped with their own musical range, and even small changes in pitch or intonation using the musical scale of our voices can communicate many nuances of meaning to our audience members. If literature that you choose to perform includes a young boy character, you can raise your pitch a little to indicate his younger age. If your literature includes the character of a bear, you might lower your pitch significantly to demonstrate the bear’s large and intimidating stature. You may even want to use a one-note monotone to display a persona’s boredom or robotic qualities.


    Enunciation involves the pronunciation of individual sounds within a word. Small changes in this can help a performer demonstrate where a particular character might be from or even his emotional or physical state.

    You can indicate accents and dialects by using small changes in enunciation (and pronunciation, see next paragraph). Think of the way a Californian says the word “going” [GO-eeng] compared to someone who hails from Texas [GO-in]. In addition to the dropping of the last “g,” the Texan employs more of a short “i” sound in the second syllable while the Californian uses more of a long “e” sound.

    A performer might also decide to overemphasize all consonant sounds within a sentence or paragraph to show seriousness or a desire to be very clear with their words. Or, one may decide to purposely slur words of dialogue to illustrate a seriously inebriated character.


    Like enunciation, pronunciation deals with the way we say things. But, pronunciation refers to the sound of an entire word itself, and may also include the stress that is placed on particular syllables. Performers can use changes in pronunciation (like enunciation) to indicate origin of a persona. For example, the British typically say “adult” by placing the stress or emphasis on the first syllable [Ă-duhlt] while Americans place the stress on the second [a-DUHLT].

    Consider how words like sherbet, picture, drawer, and button may all be pronounced differently depending on where someone is from. You can research and use different appropriate pronunciations to enhance the depth of your character portrayals.


    It is important the note the absence of voice as a valuable tool to add meaning and feeling to a performance. It is amazing how much “nothing” can say. Pauses can indicate time to think, nervousness, seriousness, shock, suspense, and more.

    In addition to using pauses within performances, oral interpretation performers should also learn the value of pausing in the moments before beginning a performance (the time between arriving on a stage and beginning the first moments) as well as at the end (the time between the last performance moment and when a performer would walk off stage).

    Special Vocal Characteristics

    In addition to all the above, performers can use so many other marvelously effective techniques with their voices. You can play with resonance, letting your voice embrace deep, full sound or restrained sound depending on where you concentrate the air in your body (head, chest, throat). You can use nasal qualities, sending your voice into your nose on its way out of your body. You can use breathiness, allowing more air to escape from your mouth when you speak. You can use shakiness, giving your voice a bit of a warbly sound. There is so much more – stutters, lisps, onomatopoeia, sound effects. Often, these sorts of things can be called "vocalizations," sound effects we can make with our voices that don't necessarily involve words but that still add meaning to our messages. What effects do you think these sorts of vocal changes would have on the meaning of your words? What personality characteristics or emotions might they evoke?

    Variations in vocal characteristics are critical to engaging and meaningful oral interpretation performances. In speeches and formal, linear presentations, we are often told to use natural and conversational speech (clear articulation, adequate vocal volume, appropriate pronunciation, etc.) so that audience members may understand our words completely. In oral interp, however, we may purposely wish to violate these “norms” to better convey a character’s personality or amplify a message. Oral interp performers must learn to walk the line of using these techniques while still ensuring that their audience understands their words regardless of the choices they make in vocal variation throughout the performance.

    This page titled 1.3: Vocal Elements of Performance is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Anna Martinez.

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