Perspectives of a Writer and Musician

Issues related to writing, publishing and playing jazz music: One man's muse.
by Al Stevens

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Location: Florida, United States

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Lip Control, The Controversy

The interesting thing about lip control is the controversy that kicks up whenever ventriloquists discuss it. Ventriloquists on both sides of the issue get emotional about lip control, and unless you enjoy getting yelled at, you should probably avoid bringing it up.

I don't like getting yelled at, either, but this is a blog. People can yell at a blog, but the author can't hear it, so I don't much care. But ventriloquists should believe that they need good lip control, and they should be prepared for those who disagree.

Lip control is indeed important, but it is not the only important ventriloquial skill, and it's not the most important one, either, but it is certainly as important as anything else. You ought to learn good lip control if you wish to be a respected ventriloquist.

Lip control is, however, the first and often the only thing people mention when they assess a ventriloquist's ability. I think it's because lip control is the part of the craft that is easiest to identify. You can say that a ventriloquist's manipulation, separation, and voice control are good or bad, but it's difficult to enumerate, quantify, or qualify those skills. Lip control, however, is easy to assess. You either have it or you don't.

When ventriloquists themselves comment about the performances of other ventriloquists, they often mention the other guy's lip control. So, whether they believe good lip control is important or not, they usually consider this skill worthy of mention.

It has been said that unless you have good lip control you should not call yourself a ventriloquist. Imagine the response such a statement brings from people whose lip control is less than perfect, but who are working hard to achieve success and respect as ventriloquists.

Why is it such an inflammatory subject? I think it's because those who have poor technique are touchy about it, and those who have good technique tend to look down their noses on those who do not. These attitudes are human nature. There's not much we can do about that.

I know many ventriloquists. I have never heard a ventriloquist whose lip control is good say that lip control is unimportant. That alone ought to tell you something about the debate and why it rages on.

Here are the reasons I believe lip control is important.
  1. Paul Winchell, Jimmy Nelson, Shari Lewis and Willie Tyler had or have flawless lip control. By proving that perfect and consistent lip control is possible without sacrificing clarity, they set a standard that we should all try to achieve.
  2. Whenever laypersons comment on the quality of a ventriloquist's performance, they always mention whether the ventriloquist moved his lips.
  3. Today's venues tend to be up close and personal. Lip control is more apparent to the audience.
  4. Moving lips detract attention from the material. People fixate on the ventriloquist's lips rather than the message or material.
  5. It isn't that difficult to learn and practice good lip control, so there's no excuse for not having it.

Those who argue that lip control is not an important skill usually have only these two reasons to offer:

  1. Edgar Bergen had poor lip control, yet he was the most commercially successful and popular ventriloquist in the history of the art.
  2. Clarity is more important than technique. (Bergen himself made this argument).
First, Bergen was an innovator and pioneer. He blazed the trail. His skill in other aspects of the art is without challenge. We forgive him that one flaw because of who he was and what he achieved. And in Bergen's domain, lip control was not as important. He worked initially in vaudeville, which put the audience at some distance from the performer and which had no amplification. Clarity was indeed more important than technique. Bergen's biggest success, of course, was on radio, where most of his audience couldn't see him at all.

Second, clarity is indeed important. But you do not necessarily sacrifice clarity if you learn lip control properly. Winchell, Nelson, Lewis and Tyler proved that.

Choose a side in the debate and have at it if you will. But before you do, I encourage you to work to learn perfect lip control and not be discouraged. You can do it, and, once you do, the argument becomes moot. Those who can do it needn't worry about how important other folks think it is. Don't let specious arguments lull you into apathy about an important aspect of ventriloquism.

To summarize, here's why, in my opinion, you ought to have good lip control. If you lack good lip control, it does not matter how expensive a dummy you have, how funny your material is, how many bookings you get, how much money you make, or how slick your web site is, people—other ventriloquists and laypersons—will always say about you, “But he moves his lips.”

That's what they say about Edgar Bergen.


Blogger Steve Petruzzella said...

Regarding those who claim that clarity is more important than lip control. Most performers that I've seen with poor lip control have achieved the same result with their clarity... POOR.

Lip control, for me is a continuing process of improvement and maintainance (work).
I started vent in my adulthood which many have said is quite a disadvantage. Disadvantage does not mean the heck with everything.

4:44 PM  

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