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Learn ventriloquism - How To Do Ventriloquism

How To Do Ventriloquism

Ventriloquism is no more a gift than is the ability to talk or sing; it does not depend on any peculiar formation of the throat; it is, in fact, an art which can be acquired by almost any one possessing a voice of average compass (some twelve notes), together with an ordinarily good ear for music. If, in addition to these, the tyro show any aptitude for acting and mimicry, there is prospect of his becoming an expert performer.

Excerpt from the book: Three Hundred Things A Bright Boy Can Do

Broadly speaking, ventriloquism consists in a close imitation of sound as it falls upon the ear, the ventriloquist effecting this by skilfully modifying the cavity of the mouth in such a way as to give his voice a deceptive character.

The young ventriloquist must study all sorts and conditions of sounds and voices as they fall on the ear. He must become familiar with the models he seeks to imitate. He must, for example, note that a voice from the cellar, heard in a room above, has a subdued and muffled sound, many of the consonants being strangely altered, so that the words, “I’m down here in the cellar, sir!” would sound more like, “In’e down here in a zellar, zir!” Again, in listening to the knife-grinder, he must observe, first the bur-r-r of the wheel, and then a combination of the bur-r-r with a prolonged iss when the knife touches the grindstone. These little hints will, we trust, sufficiently impress the beginner with the necessity of learning to listen with new ears whilst endeavouring to speak with a new voice.

You will observe, too, that the character of the assumed voice is determined chiefly by the shape of the mouth. This is the more important, because misguided learners are so apt to strain the larynx. There should be no pressure on the throat, though some pressure must necessarily be exerted on the chest and the abdominal muscles by reason of the slow rate at which the air is allowed to leave the lungs; for, be it carefully noted, the ventriloquial voice can only be spoken during a slow expiration of the breath. Consequently, the learner must exercise himself in controlling the breath, for which purpose let him practise filling the lungs with air and then reading aloud as long a passage as he can whilst the air is being slowly expelled.

With regard to modifying the natural voice, every one knows how this can be done by extraneous means. A speaking-trumpet, for example, renders it loud and harsh, whilst a hand placed lightly over the mouth makes it low and muffled.

At an evening party where we had been amusing some juvenile friends, a voice seemed to come from the chimney in obedience to one of the boys, who stood before the fireplace as a new fledged professor of ventriloquism, and we considered the imitation to be rather good until, upon lifting the table-cloth near us, we discovered a confederate on the floor, talking into an empty jug. This, of course, was mere jugglery, but genuine ventriloquism is to be attained by a careful management of the breath whilst modifying the shape of the cavity of the mouth by a proper adjustment of lips, teeth, jaws, tongue and palate.

And here let us point out that, although the best ventriloquial effects can only be produced by the mature voice, it is well to begin practising at an early age, in order to make the vocal organs strong and flexible. The present writer began experimenting at the age of twelve, only resting therefrom, as every boy should, during that beautiful period of “gruffiness” consequent on the breaking of the voice. After that we went on again, making slow headway, until one memorable night when we received undoubted assurance of our ability to deceive. It was at a party given by a bluff sea-captain in a northern town, and a young gentleman was singing a very sentimental ditty to a saddened audience, when we essayed between whiles to imitate the singer in a falsetto voice, muffled, as if coming through the closed shutters, towards which we took care to cast an occasional glance of annoyance. Presently the captain rose and left the room on tiptoe, at the same time indicating by vigorous pantomime that the singer was to proceed with his song. Before long a tremendous splash of water was heard on the pavement outside, and our host soon after re-entered, remarking that he had taught those young vagabonds not to mock people outside the shutters, for he’d given them “billows” from the top bed-room window.

There are in reality only three well-defined ventriloquial voices: (1) the distant voice, as from the roof, the street, etc.; (2) the resonant voice, as from a chimney, cupboard, cellar, etc.; and (3) the falsetto voice.

“But,” exclaims the intelligent reader, "how can each voice be used for various imaginary places? Will the distant voice serve equally well for roof or street?" It will; and this brings us to a very important point, viz., that we judge of the direction of sound partly by means of the sense of sight. A railway traveller, for instance, seated in a waiting-room, is often perplexed as to whether an approaching train is “up” or “down” until he notes the demeanour of those on the platform who can see the train coming in. It is always difficult to determine the direction from which distant sounds proceed, and frequently of sounds much nearer. But this uncertainty is of vital importance to the ventriloquist, as it enables him “to make the ears the fool of the other senses.” When he uses the distant voice, the audience will be unable to refer it to any particular quarter, unless the place be suggested to them by the performer. The moment he does this, however, by word or sign or mere glance even, the imagination of the audience does the rest, and the illusion is complete. It is plain, therefore, that the tyro should have some taste for acting, otherwise he can neither conceal the internal efforts he is making, nor invest his shadowy characters with any degree of naturalness.

Coming now to practical details, let the student attempt the distant voice in the following manner. Say the word “Hallo!” just in your ordinary speaking voice, in order to fix the pitch. Then open the mouth slightly, draw in the lower jaw a little, and firmly fix both jaws. Next, stretch or arch the soft palate as in the act of yawning take a deep breath, and utter the word “Hallo!” in the same pitch as before, but softly, and without moving the lips, endeavouring at the same time to direct the sound against the soft palate by turning the tongue well back so as to strike the roof of the mouth. At first your strange gurglings may alarm the household, and much fatigue may be felt in the jaws and tongue, but persevere and you will soon acquire a new voice of startling character.

The resonant voice is produced on the lower tones of the scale, the sound being forced into the nasal passages with a jerky explosive delivery of the breath. The parts against which the voice and the tongue should respectively strike may be felt by prolonging the sound of the letter n on a low note with the mouth nearly closed and the lower jaw drawn back a little as before. In this way utter the sentence, “Joe’s down here in the cellar!” and the words will sound deep and muffled and be accompanied by a resonant hum. Remember always to keep the lips and jaws immovable, even at the cost of mutilating your words. These will greatly improve by-and-by.

The practised ventriloquist can, of course, judge the effect he is producing, but the learner, as soon as he makes any progress, had better get a companion to criticize his efforts.

The falsetto voice is feminine and must be familiar to all. If spoken with the lower jaw drawn in and the mouth all but closed it will strike against the hard palate and produce a thin, metallic voice like that of a child. It can also be used for “distant” effects, according to the method set forth for voice No. 1. The falsetto voice is frequently used for “doll-talking”—a branch of the ventriloquial art concerning which, and polyphonism also, we shall have something to say presently. Meanwhile, devote a few minutes daily to each of the following exercises:—

(1) Singing the common musical scale to the vowel sounds, as well as to the syllables ha and coo. All good vocal exercises are an aid to ventriloquism.

(2) Practising the management of the breath as already described.

(3) Experimenting with the three ventriloquial voices.

(4) Studying all the peculiarities of voices and other sounds as they fall upon the ear.

The learner still finds it difficult, no doubt, to enunciate his words at all clearly without moving the lips and jaws, but this difficulty, though it will never quite vanish, may be greatly reduced. The vowels run smoothly enough, but the consonants give trouble, particularly the labials, b, p, m, and their first cousins, the spirants, v, f, w. As to the spirants, one may soon acquire the knack of sounding f fairly well, so this must be used for v also, unless one can hit upon that nearer substitute got by compounding g and f. To catch this sound with lips and jaws immovable, pronounce the word never as "negfer," quickly, with a light touch on the g. The sound of w is well represented by that of oo. For the labials, however, demanding as they do a positive closing of the lips, we must substitute the letters g, k, ng. Thus, the sentence, “Jim broke seven of Tom’s pens this morning,” would be rendered as “Jing groke se(g)fen of Tong’s kens this ng-orning,” and the query, “When am I to come up?” would become “Oohen ang I to cung uk?” Such sentences, though good for practice, are bad for exhibition, and must be carefully avoided in the preparation of dialogue. Nevertheless, they look much more imperfect here than they would sound in the mouth of an able ventriloquist; besides, as nobody expects to hear perfect words from a distant source, the audience readily accepts the performer’s mode of rendering them. In this connection it should be remarked that the performer may occasionally turn his face from view, and allow his lips free play, although, as a rule, either a side face, or a three-quarters face should be presented to the audience, and, pretty frequently, a front face also.

We have next to deal with ventriloquial perspective, which appertains to the gradual increase or decrease in the loudness of a sound as it approaches or recedes. Attention to this will give our assumed voices just the magic touch. For the receding voice, speak more and more gently, whilst gradually closing the mouth, until the sound is shut off. For an approaching voice, reverse the process, but in either case take care to maintain the original pitch. This is just where beginners stumble; they mostly alter the pitch at every step, graduating it from a growl to a squeak, or vice versa; nor do they observe how the words spoken by a receding voice grow less and less distinct until only the vowel sounds remain. The following presentment of these important matters may impress itself on the reader’s mind:—GOOD-NIGHT! Good-night! goo’-nigh’! ’oo’-nigh’! ’igh’!

We shall now give in outline a few sketches for the student to fill in with dialogue of his own. The “situations” will readily suggest some simple conversations well suited for effective treatment.

For the man in the chimney, assume a voice of low pitch, strongly resonant throughout. Express your belief that somebody is up the chimney, and stoop near the fireplace to question the intruder in a soft and rather high-pitched voice. Then draw down the corner of the mouth turned from the audience, and deliver your answers with force, so that the sound may be deflected from the stone-work supporting the mantel-piece. Your man in the chimney is a rough, cantankerous fellow, who accounts for his presence in the most absurd way, and answers with great warmth, especially when there is a fire in the grate. As soon as he begins to ascend the chimney, step back a pace, keeping your face in the same direction. To wind up, either leave him stuck in the chimney, or dismiss him by way of the roof.

In speaking to the man on the roof, begin by taking a deliberate look at the ceiling, and then shout “Hallo-o!” The answer, given in the distant voice, should sound almost like an echo. Before answering, turn your face to the audience, and, with the head in an easy, listening attitude, produce the reply softly on a note of middle pitch. The man on the roof rarely speaks more than a few sentences. The audience seem to understand how trying it is for him to converse at such a distance, so he is humanely dismissed very soon, and may then be heard faintly answering as he wanders on from roof to roof, or reaches the ground by a ladder.
The man in the hall is a capital voice to practise. With your hand on the handle of the door, parley with the rough fellow who is trying to push it open from the other side. At this stage use the resonant voice, and explode your answers against the panel of the door. As the man is noisy, you may produce a striking effect by alternately opening and shutting the door rapidly, accompanying the action with a sudden swelling and sinking of the voice, remembering at the same time to maintain the original pitch. Much amusement will arise if your visitor happens to be a sweep who has come to the wrong house, but insists on cleaning the drawing-room chimney. You may even put your head outside the door for a moment to remonstrate with him, and then step back suddenly with the mark of a grimy hand upon your face—self-inflicted, of course, with a burnt cork. As the voice moves away, its resonant quality should be moderated, and, in case the man talks himself out into the street, it should merge into the distant voice. Sometimes, however, affairs take a novel turn, and the sweep, in seeking an exit, wanders into the cellar, where he may be heard making unkind remarks in accents faint and sooty.

The voice of the man in the cellar is a modified form of the resonant voice, delivered with less force and less of the nasal quality. A fine effect may be introduced by making your man slowly ascend and descend the cellar steps, talking or singing all the time. Moreover, this effect may be greatly heightened by using a trap-door made in the following manner. Cover a sheet of stout cardboard (about 2½ ft. square) with grained wall-paper to imitate woodwork, and let it dry thoroughly under pressure, as warping would render it useless. On it paint two large hinges with black enamel, and near the front edge fix a large black ring by means of a loop of leather or black tape. The ring may be either a wooden curtain-ring or a coil of cane bound with “wax-end.” To the under-side of the board glue two leather tabs, in line with the hinges, but projecting, so that the trap may thereby be fastened to the floor with drawing-pins.
Before the audience arrive, fix the trap-door in position, well to the right or left of the platform or other space, and take care to indicate the thickness of the woodwork on the edge which is to face the performer. Under the trap a corresponding square of black tissue paper should be pinned to the floor, so that, when the trap is raised, a dark hole may appear beneath. During the performance, the trap must be lifted with considerable toil, else its flimsy nature will be discovered, and perhaps cause an untimely titter. If managed properly, however, it is most realistic, and may be employed in a startling way to convey the idea of a man raising it from below. This is done by fixing to the upper edge of the board a piece of strong black thread (invisible to the audience) at a few yards distance and attaching the other end to a strong finger-ring to be worn by the performer. The ring, if placed on a table or chair near the trap-door, may be slipped on the finger at the right moment, and will thus enable the performer, whenever he raises his arm with a gesture of alarm or of command, to raise the trap-door at the same time.

Doll-talking is a branch of our subject which finds great favour with boys, for it is often as funny as droll figures and smart witty dialogue can make it. The nature of the dialogue, indeed, is of much more importance here than in pure ventriloquism. The voices are easy to acquire, but not so easy to describe. Draw back the lower jaw pretty well; press the tip of the tongue against the lower teeth; raise the rest of the tongue until it nearly touches (and it will touch every now and then) the roof of the mouth, and then project the sound forcibly against the hard palate, just above the front teeth. The falsetto voice treated in this way, sometimes becomes almost perfect, enabling the ventriloquist to sound nearly every letter; whilst appearing to be absolutely mute.

Fix upon two well-contrasted characters: one speaking in a shrill falsetto, the other in a hard, metallic voice of middle pitch. Figures for this purpose can be purchased at some of the London toy bazaars and conjurers’ shops. A pair of large dolls, with practical mouths and eyes, would cost about two pounds, but heads may be purchased separately and fixed to home-made bodies. These heads, which represent a funny man, an old woman, a little girl and a negro, range in price from five shillings and sixpence to eighteen and sixpence, the latter kind being life-size. The pairs of dolls mostly used are styled “Tommy and Joey,” “Tommy and Granny,” etc. The performer places a doll on each knee and holds a lively conversation with them, often interrupted, however, by the crying, giggling, and singing of the dolls, whose unseasonable jokes and general naughtiness call down upon their wooden heads many a resounding blow.

Betty Bouncer.

There is a cheaper figure, however, called “The Talking Hand,” which may be bought at almost any large toy shop for about half-a-crown. As great fun can be got from this figure, we shall now tell our boys how to make it at the cost of a few pence. Get a quarter-yard of unbleached calico, fold it double and trace upon it an outline of the right hand and wrist. Then cut round the outline, taking care to leave a broad margin and a long thumb. Stitch round the glove, turn it inside out, and insert the hand. Now close the hand, and, with a soft blacklead, mark in roughly the eyes, nose, etc. The projecting knuckles will form the nose and the thumb the lower jaw. To give the latter a better appearance fill out the tip with wadding and sew it to that part of the glove just above it. Having withdrawn your hand, flatten the glove, and proceed to mark in the features more carefully with good writing-ink and a quill pen. The furrows in the face and the hair should also be marked with black ink, but the wide mouth and the tip of the nose with red ink. Colour the face with powdered chalk (yellow ochre and red) rubbed in with pellets of blotting-paper. Take care to make the eyes extra large and paint them with Chinese white. To complete the figure, sew to the glove a cap-frill, a shawl of red flannel, and a large bow under the chin, and “Betty Bouncer” becomes one of the most comical creatures you ever saw, ready to talk, laugh, or cry to order, while as to singing—well, you should just see the old lady getting her top note!

The chief subject of our next section will be polyphonism, or the imitation of various musical instruments, cries of animals, and other sounds. Meanwhile the young ventriloquist will find quite enough to do in practising: (a) Sentences containing labials and spirants; (b) voices saying “Good-night,” etc., in a monotone, whilst approaching or receding; (c) voices at the door, on the roof, up the chimney, in the cellar; (d) the “talking hand” or other figures.

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