Proper breath control will give you more power to your voice!
Breathing of course is necessary for us to stay alive, but did you know that most of us are actually doing it wrong?
This might be an English scenario, but have you ever been in a lift full of people when someone shouts out “breathe in”? This always vexes me, because actually, it’s the wrong thing to do and because I’m English, I invariably wince at the ignorance of this uninformed person.
Of course, ‘breathing in’ means that you’re expanding your lungs and filling them with air and consequently making yourself larger, which is not what you want to be doing to make yourself seem thinner.
As a voice coach I’m constantly meeting singers and speakers who are not breathing correctly!
In fact, most of us breathe incorrectly… we raise our upper body/our shoulders when we inhale and drop down again when we exhale. This can cause all sorts of problems, including anxiety, shortness of breath and unnecessary tension.
"On a philosophical level, breathing properly helps to keep the mind open, enabling you to think about who you are and what and why you're doing something. But primarily, if you breathe in the right way, you'll have better digestion, your balance will be improved, and you'll develop an optimum posture."
Here’s how to breathe correctly: (Diaphragmatic breathing)
Breathing in (inhalation)
Sit down on a chair with your back as straight as you can and your feet flat on the ground. Place your hands around your belly and relax your upper body.
Now completely (and without dignity) let your belly out as you breathe in. Your diaphragm will drop and contract allowing your chest to expand and your lungs to take in air. This can also be done lying down on the floor with your knees up (feet flat on the floor) with a couple of books under your head for support.
You want to feel not only your chest expand, but the whole middle section of your body, around your middle back, and the sides of the rib cage, rather like a corset.
Breathing out (exhalation)
As your diaphragm relaxes it moves up towards the chest cavity, and as your intercostal muscles between the ribs also relax, air is pushed out of your lungs, through your windpipe and out of your mouth and nose.
It’s worth noting that this action of inhalation and exhalation is your bodies’ normal daily respiratory function, and unless you have a lung condition or problems breathing, only excess physical activity or sometimes stress levels (anxiety, fear etc.) will change the rate that you breathe.
The Abdominal muscles
The abdomen functions to house the digestive system and provides muscles essential for posture, balance, and breathing.
How does this help me improve my speaking skills?
The vocal folds are a muscle that when connected, resonate to produce sound and by strengthening and engaging the abdominal muscles (particularly the transversus abdominis) you’ll be able to control the amount and rate of air that flows over them.
And by being able to control that, will give you more power, resonance, dynamic range, and tonal variety to your voice, and ultimately give you more confidence to speak with more presence and authority.
I’ve put together 5 simple exercises that will help you engage your abdominal muscles, control your air flow and give you more support and control over your voice.
Ex.1 ‘Silent laugh’ - Stopping yourself from laughing…
Take yourself back to a time, perhaps at school, where you were giggling uncontrollably, or the last time you were in fits of laughter… Can you remember how that felt particularly around your stomach, It hurt right?
With your hands on your belly, try suppressing a laugh now. You should feel a tightness in your abdominal area and perhaps around the middle of your body towards your back. These are your abdominal muscles contracting, and by using these muscles correctly will give you control over the amount of breathe you use, how powerful that breathe is and most importantly allowing the rest of your body (and mind) to relax.
Ex.2 “Sh” - Fingers on lips…
Still on the subject of school, do you remember the expression ‘fingers on lips’? Ironically, I was made to stand outside the music block with my whole hand over my mouth…. things haven’t changed.
Again, whilst holding your belly, make a short but firm ‘sh’ sound, as if you were shushing someone or shooing away a cat.
You’re now controlling very precisely how much and how quickly the air comes out of your lungs. This will help accentuate chosen syllables, opening your dynamic range and give your speeches more expressive qualities.
Ex.3 An elongated “Shhhhhh” - Concentrating on the recovery...
Just the same as the previous exercise, but this time, keep the breathe going.
Keep the pressure and the support going for x8 slow beats (approx. 1 per sec) or as long as you feel comfortable.
Once you’ve let all the air go from your lungs, allow your belly to drop. Your chest will expand and again fill the lungs with air ready for the next exhale.
Concentrate on the out breath and the in breath will take of itself!
It’s this ‘recovery’ when you breathe in (diaphragm drops) that strengthens the abdominal muscles, which in turn will give you less limitation to the length of your phrasing and more choice to the pace of your speech.
Legend has it that Frank Sinatra used to practice holding his breathe whilst swimming the Hudson river…
Ex. 4 An accented elongated “Sh” - emphasising the syllables
By controlling the airflow using shorter but ‘in time’ bursts simulates accented syllables within speech production giving you a larger dynamic range, better projection, and overall more control over your speech.
Just the same as the previous exercise, but this time we’re adding a pulse to the airflow. Start with 4 pulses in time (approx. 1 per sec), then double the tempo to 8, finishing with a final long breath. 1>2>3>4>, 1>2>3>4>5>6>7>8>, >...........
Not forgetting to let your belly drop and fill the lungs once more in time to repeat the exercise.
This will give you rhythm to you voice. Being able to control when and what syllables you accent will help with timing and phrasing.
Ex. 5 ‘Making a sound’ - From “sh” to “zh”
So far, we’ve only being pushing air over the vocal folds…. just breathe!
Let’s make a sound.
To do this we need to engage the vocal folds. Funny enough, this is a great way to start singing...
In fact, if you put your fingers either side of your throat, you should be able to feel the vibration as you change from sh’ to ‘zh’ This is your vocal folds engaging to create a ‘sound’.
Words like “Asia”, “decision” “regime or “beige” all use this sound.
Try doing the previous exercise but with a ‘zh’ sound instead of a ‘sh sound
This will get you closer to actual speech rather than just air. By taking the stabilisers off, you’ll now start to feel the resonance in your voice and indeed the natural pitch of your voice.
You’ll notice also that your pitch might change as you practice the exercise, that’s fine and infact by increasing your pitch range will give you more tonal range and consequently more variety in your speech.
Wind down - with some ‘Z’s’
Let’s wind with a “Vv”
Put your fingers gently on the side of your throat and form the letter ‘f’ (by putting your bottom under your top teeth) and slowly change that sound into a ‘v’. You should feel the vibration in your throat (larynx). This again is you vocal folds resonating together.
Now make a low gentle ‘revving’ sound like a car, making sure you’re supporting from the diaphragm and your larynx is nice and relaxed.
Producing a low resonance sound like this will calm you down alleviating any unwanted stress. This can also be done as a gentle warm up before speaking or going on stage.