Making Characters with Your Teeth

When a performer comes to Flying Pickle studio for a demo session it’s likely they have come to record some characters. If they’ve not done much professional voice work beforehand making distinct character may prove challenging. But it’s always a surprise and delight to help them discover how they can use their vocal tract to create some extraordinary people!

(For any readers who don’t use voice over vernacular on a daily basis, vocal tract refers to the physical parts of your mouth, jaw and throat that you use to make different sounds.)

Pushing resonance up your nose to make a constricted nasal sound is a good one. So is lowering your larynx for a rich low sound. Both of these can be combined with high or low pitches for some really interesting effects. These techniques take some practice but there is one part of your vocal tract that almost everyone has plenty of. This part actually affects our voice sound every day whether we like it or not. I am, of course, referring to your teeth!

Teeth are a fascinating and inevitable part of the actor’s vocal tool kit. Hang on you say! Your teeth don’t make sound. How can your teeth possibly influence your character voice? While it’s perfectly true that your teeth don’t actually produce sound, it’s worth remembering that most of your vocal tract doesn’t actually produce sound.

The only sound producing part of your vocal tract are your vocal folds. These tiny pieces of tissue make a sound that isn’t much like what we recognise as speech. But, just like a racing cars aerodynamic surfaces fashion onrushing air into downforce generating vortices, so your vocal tract helps you to fashion the squeaking of your larynx into an infinite variety of recognisable sounds.

Teeth are a fascinating and inevitable part of the actor’s vocal tool kit. Fascinating because they allow you to create a rich variety of different characterisations. Inevitable because the sound from your larynx must get past them to leave your mouth! The configuration of your teeth influences your voice whether you like it or not. We are so used to understanding this that a voice spoken from a toothless mouth is instantly recognisable as such. So is a voice spoken from a mouth that is crowded with too many teeth.

I particularly enjoy combining my tongue with my teeth to create memorable audiobook characters. One obvious way to do this is to stick your tongue past your front teeth when speaking for a nice splashy lisp like Daffy Duck. Another is to reverse that by pulling your tongue back behind your alveolar ridge (the hard tissue just behind your top teeth). This is great for creating a nice Churchillian tongue tie or sounding like Boni from The Trap Door. I also love what we call a lateral lisp. This involves sticking your tongue sideways between your back teeth. Try it and you will probably think you belong in the world of SpongeBob SquarePants!

An absolute favourite of mine is a technique that comes in very handy for over-the-top caricatures of the English upper class. If you stick your front teeth on top of your lower lip and then try to smile while speaking with as much posh as you can muster, you will have used the rather grandly named Labio-Dentalisation. I like this technique so much that I made a video about how to do it. Check it out below.

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