It’s really important to stay on relaxed breathing when nerves set in at the audition or performance – or for any public speaking. If you go into upper chest breathing, you get an imbalance of oxygen and carbon dioxide which makes you feel dizzy, nervous, sound unconfident and stops you thinking clearly. That’s why it’s called a ‘fight and flight’ breath – it’s to be used only in extreme moments when you need to take immediate physical action. You’re not meant to stay there. If you’re ‘fighting lions’ as you work, your hands will go numb and your brain dead before you’re through – if you don’t pass out! Extreme top breathing leads to a panic attack. Then you faint – like Victorians in corsets – or have hysterics! It’s the body’s way of getting back to relaxed breathing.
Remember your stomach goes OUT when the breath comes IN to let the diaphragm descend fully, and IN when you breathe OUT or speak, to help the breath-stream out.
Shut your eyes and rest your hand on your stomach. Relax until you feel the up and down movement of your abdomen under your hand: the rise and fall of relaxed breathing – outwards as you breath in, and inwards as you breathe out. Now breathe into your hand feeling this outward movement, and then let the breathe out on a long SH feeling the stomach moving inwards. At the end of the sound, make sure your stomach relaxes back out again as the breath comes in. If you feel your upper chest rise significantly – you’re back in ‘fight and flight’!
It’s not a good idea to relax yourself by letting the breath out in a sigh before you speak. Your voice will sound flat, dull and sad – you’re buying time and you’ll ‘miss the moment’. So don’t take a locking ‘preparation’ breath or sigh out. Before you go into the situation, simply rest your hand on your stomach for a moment, and breathe into your hand. Then go in smiling, respond naturally, and your breath and voice will work as one.
Don’t forget your posture. The larynx is suspended by ligaments and muscles – you can’t breathe properly if you slump. (And you won’t look confident!)
STAR QUALITY: Sit or stand straight, Think And Breathe!
Warm Up (5 mins)
- Shrug your shoulders and let them drop. Gently turn your neck from side to side. Check your posture – shoulders free, neck lengthening out of your back.
- Lie on your side, sit, or stand comfortably. Feel the movement of your breath – abdomen releasing outwards on the in-breath, moving inwards on the out-breath. Fill for a count of three as abdomen releases. Now consciously pull abdomen back towards your spine on out-breath, trying to use up all the breath (keep your neck relaxed) – ‘sh sh sh’. Relax your stomach and the breath will automatically drop in. Repeat again. Do a few rounds. Alternate voiced and unvoiced fricatives: z or v or the sound in ‘leiSure.’ Your voice should sound ‘buzzier’.
- Release your jaw by putting palms at the sides of your face under the cheekbones, slowly bring them down your face letting your jaw drop. Massage face.
- Put your hands over your ears and breathe through open mouth. Hear the breath (like making an ‘h’ on in and out breath). Now, with your mouth still slightly open, make your breathing silent. Feel your throat is open. Your sound will be fuller and more relaxed.
- Hum gently up and down on NG going as high and low as possible. This stretches the vocal folds.
- Hold your top lip up like a rabbit. Count 1-5. Let go and count again. Hang your tongue out. Count 1-5 – put it back inside and count again. Count 1-10 like a ventriloquist. Now count normally – feel the freedom.
- Clasp your hands and hold in front of you. Shake out a released sound on ‘AH…’.
- You need to find vocal energy from your abdominal-diaphragmatic centre, not from your larynx. Put your hand on your stomach as you speak. Make sure you feel your stomach going gently backwards towards your spine when you speak and releasing outwards as you take a breath (which you will do with each new thought).
- If your back is strong, bend your knees and hang over – making sure your head and neck are free. Speak loudly without letting the pitch rise – just allow a free sound. (Breathe when you want.) Come slowly up through your back, bringing your head up last, without letting your voice change. You should hear a full sound. If you can’t resist pulling your voice back as you come to standing, fool yourself by bouncing up and down – speak loudly in the hanging over position – roll up quickly (head last) and speak again. (Mind your back – knees bent!)
- If your back can’t take this last exercise – simply stand, knees slightly bent, drop your head, and roll your head around in a three-quarter roll (not to the back). Speak loudly while you do this, then balance your head back into normal position and continue speaking without changing sound.
(Pretending to be an opera singer (middle range) then speaking with same placing and energy will also result in a full centred voice.)
- Make sure your sound travels forwards to conquer difficult spaces (or your cold!) Press your knuckle or thumb onto your hard palate – just behind your top front teeth – on your alveolar ridge. Speak loudly. Take your knuckle away and continue to speak – feeling that you are sending the sound forward to resonate on the place felt your knuckle pressing. Derek Jacobi mentions the wonder of this exercise in As Luck Would Have ItJ – I’ve been using it ever since some great elderly voice teacher demonstrated it to me many, many years ago!
- Put your hands, like wings, in front of your ears and speak. You will hear the sound bouncing – or not – off the space around you. You can tell whether this is a dry or resonant space. Both need strong consonants. Resonant spaces need more time. Dry spaces can lead you to push – as there is little resonance feeding back to your own ears.
(If you are a fitness instructor using loud music – or in a really impossible space – use a microphone. There are some background noises you can’t beat.)
Cool Down (2 mins)
- Sip luke-warm water.
- Yawn gently & sigh.
- Go up and down your range gently on NG. Or hum.
- If you feel any vocal strain, breathe in steam – steam is the only thing that will reach your larynx. (liquid will go down your oesophagus – unless you choke!)
Mind you don’t burn yourself – use hot water – not boiling! You can put a towel over a basin in time-honoured manner or buy a special electric steamer – or just have a hot bath…)
Auditions: Before you leave home:
Stand still for a moment, shut your eyes. Imagine a string pulling from the crown of your head to the sky. Go up onto your toes. Now lower yourself back slowly until you really make contact with the ground (don’t lock your knees). But still feel the string taking you upwards.
Rub your hands together until they are warm. Place your hand over your upper chest and let it soften. Rub your hands together, place them over your belly. Take in the warmth and breathe into your hands. Rub your hands together. Place one hand on your belly and the other at the small of your back. Take in the strength from the warmth of your hands.
Open your eyes. ‘See’ yourself (with your back to you) standing in front of you in a ‘magic circle’. See yourself at your best, most confident. See yourself as you want to be – your successful, confident self!
Take a big step and stand ‘into’ yourself. Look around. You are unique. You can do anything. You are strong. You are brave. (You can step into your role this way too:)
**You’ll find more in Mel’s Acting for Film: Truth 24Times a Second (Virgin Books/Random House) and A Screen Acting Workshop + DVD (Nick Hern Books)