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Speaking & Calling

They have more in common that you might think

Over the years it seems finding meaningful instruction on how to properly operate a duck call has been a monumental task. In its simplest form it can be reduced to the "make a sound like this" approach, and in a more complex form it can be taught as a science.

The first approach relies on an abundance of talent, while the second puts a premium on intelligence. For years it was only the talented few who were able to achieve new heights in the calling world. Many less-talented waterfowlers were forced to sit on their hands while their more talented buddies did the calling. That need not be the case any longer. By exercising ones intelligence and understanding, the common denominators between simple speech and proper call operation, a whole new world can be opened.

While all waterfowlers can speak, it's not accurate to make the same statement regarding calling. If, perhaps, the waterfowler looking to improve communication could somehow relate calling to speaking, he may very well be able to progress in this much-envied aspect of the sport. The two have far more in common than most realize.

We are not born able to speak, and it takes years to fully develop the skills necessary to fluently speak one's native language. That being the case, why should we expect to develop our calling skills overnight?

Let's take a look at what the two forms of communication have in common. By better understanding the mechanics involved in both, we all may become better callers.

The same four elements of the speech mechanism are what allow us to both speak and operate a duck call. Those four elements are forward pressure, back pressure, mouth cavity size and use of larynx. Let's look at each and compare how they apply to both speech and calling.


In speech we must bring air up from our lungs in order for anything at all to happen. Likewise, in proper call operation, forward pressure is the controlled expelling of air from the lungs by use of the stable stomach muscles and diaphragm. In calling, just as in speech, the simple act of expelling air is not enough to create the desired results, be that the spoken word or a simple quack. Much more is involved.

In speech we provide necessary back pressure by using our lips. We could not say the words "back" or "pressure" if we didn't create the necessary pressure with our lips. In calling, the lips become immobilized when we put the call to our mouth. Thus, we define back pressure as the proper placement of the fingers and hand in front of the exhaust bore of the insert.

In speech our tongue is in constant motion. It is locating and configuring while moving back and forth, all in order to allow us to enunciate words. In proper call operation our tongue should also be in constant motion as it locates and configures to form the proper mouth cavity size required for the various effects we're trying to create.

In speech our larynx can be active, as when we speak, or passive, as when we whisper. Likewise, in proper call operation our larynx can be active or passive. It can also be used at various pitches and duration to, once again, achieve various and desired results.

When young we learn to speak by first learning to imitate the words spoken to us by our parents. Some obviously pick it up much faster than others. For some speaking comes much slower and harder. I would imagine the factor we call talent has much to do with the differing learning curves. Regardless of the talent level, we first learn to speak words, we learn the alphabet, we learn vowels and consonants, and eventually progress to putting words into sentences and sentences into paragraphs, all in an attempt to intelligibly express our thoughts. I think by approaching call operation the same way we can avoid the pitfall so common to both forms of communication, that being the introduction and ingraining of bad habits.

When speaking we are interfacing all four of the elements of speech, and when properly operating a duck call, we must also coordinate these same four elements. It's by learning how each of the four elements contributes to the composite sound of the call that we can progress.

Forward pressure and back pressure contribute to the overall chamber pressure that's required for whatever effect we are trying to create with the call. The location and configuration of the tongue is what determines the size of the mouth cavity, which relates directly to the overall chamber dimension. Chamber pressure and chamber dimension are the two common denominators of call operation. The addition of the larynx to the air stream being created by the caller contributes additional information, which, once again, contributes to the sound output.

Forward pressure is usually the easiest of the four to understand as most can relate to the controlled expelling of air from the lungs. Back pressure on the other hand seems a mystery to many. Every call has a certain amount of back pressure built into it by its design. It's the skilled operator who will understand the use of his fingers and hand in front of the exhaust bore of the insert as a control device to further refine the amount of chamber pressure. Aimlessly flapping the hand in front of the call provides little refinement of chamber pressure and usually results in inconsistency and mistakes.

The tongue and its location and configuration in the mouth is the biggest stumbling block for most students. When we speak our tongue is in constant motion. It needs to be shaped and located in certain positions in order successfully speak. Likewise, trying to get the calling student to realize that his tongue needs to be in certain locations and positions to achieve certain results is, at times, very difficult. The simple notion that the tongue can move forward and backward when calling seems foreign to some. Many are used to tooting on the call with the tongue in a fixed position, usually up against the back of the upper front teeth. This position may help create some of the softer sounds used while working close-in ducks but will result in major problems when one tries to create louder sounds such as the "High Ball" and "Comeback" calls or even louder "Hen Greetings." The relationship between mouth cavity size, as determined by tongue location and configuration, and chamber pressure, as determined by a combination of forward pressure and back pressure, is indeed real. By understanding and learning these important relationships the calling student will much more quickly get a grasp on what's required of each.

The last of the four element

s to consider is the larynx. Again, over the years the contribution the larynx plays in call operation has been somewhat misunderstood. Calls that lack the design characteristics needed to produce the raspy sound desired and understood as "ducky" requires the student to exaggerate or overuse the larynx. With these calls the larynx is often sustained throughout the entire duration of each and every note. Over the years the term "grunt" has come to symbolize this style of calling. Many students pick this habit up and carry it over to more functional single-reed calls, and the resulting sound is less than desirable. Breaking the habit of sustaining the larynx is one of the tougher bad habits to overcome.

A functional call that has all the necessary design components required to produce a wide range of sounds can be operated with little or no addition of the larynx function. To understand that the larynx can be used and at varying pitches and duration goes a long way toward understanding the contribution the larynx can impart to the composite sound of the call. Learning to turn on and off the larynx while practicing will demonstrate these various effects and can be a valuable practice exercise.

With most calling only a short, initial burst of the larynx is needed, usually at the caller's normal voice pitch, at the beginning of the note. The effect this short burst creates will carry on through the entire note resulting in a much fuller and preferred sound. Obviously, by varying the pitch of this short burst, a multitude of effects can be created.

Everyone's speaking vocabulary began small and grew with education, experience and age. There's no reason why, with some meaningful study, understanding and meaningful practice, a calling vocabulary cannot also expand. All it really takes is a better comprehension of what's involved. As complicated as it may seem, understanding the similarities between speaking and calling is one way of expanding your "duck vocabulary."

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