Basic Voice Projection part one: Deep Breathing

This is the first in a series of three articles I posted on the Magic Cafe in 2005, during my days performing escapology as Helen Held.  Though this was written for magicians, the principles described are the same for anyone looking to develop their voice for the stage or any other setting.  Just ignore the stuff about card tricks and straightjackets.

This originated from a thread on the “All Tied Up” board (though as it concerns all styles of magic and performance this seemed as good a section to put it in as any) which discussed assorted amplification options for use in street performance and called for some sort of discussion on microphone technique. As I’m a singing teacher as my day job this is a topic that’s close to my heart, but it does begin with the importance of developing good vocal technique and stagecraft in the first place. Amplification is, after all, a tool and not an excuse, and if the basic power and personality isn’t there the best PA system money can buy won’t supply it; any performer who doesn’t give at least some attention to being able to project their voice is leaving themselves way behind the eight ball.

So, if I may, I’d like to post a short series of articles on the basics of voice production and communication, stuff that I either wish I was told back when I started or that I’ve become particularly glad that I was.

The intention here is to encourage further study on the topic of how to use the voice; this is a big topic, way bigger than can be covered a few articles, so look for ways to train yourself; take acting classes, learn to sing, read up on theory and put yourself in situations where you are forced to use your voice.

Initially this was going to be a simple list of basic pointers, but when I started writing I realised that one of the most basic pointers, the first thing I teach anyone who comes to me for lessons and a huge fundamental skill, really needed a post all to itself;

1) Deep Breathing

Airflow is the most important part of projecting a voice. You make a sound by passing air over the larynx, which vibrates, producing a sound. If the airflow isn’t strong enough, the larynx won’t vibrate fast enough to make the sound you want. Given insufficient airflow to get a loud sound, the body tries to compensate by forcing the muscles in and around the vocal tract to provide the necessary effort; this simply isn’t what those muscles are for, and they won’t support that workload indefinitely (which is why you lose your voice after periods of shouting). So what we need to do is to get that airflow coming from the right place.

Most adults, through habit, breathe mostly using their chest. It’s closest to where the lungs are, but it isn’t very efficient in maximising the air available in the lungs or in pushing that air upwards. And to make this clear, there is a LOT of air in your lungs, way more than you are ever likely to use (it’s one of the reasons it’s impossible to commit suicide by holding your breath). What we need is a muscle that will give us access to all that lovely air and the power it brings. Enter the diaphragm.

Now, a lot of people talk glibly about breathing from the diaphragm (an internal muscle that sits inside the lower ribs, underneath the lungs) without really knowing how to do it. I remember being constantly frustrated in my schooldays at choirmasters who’d keep telling us to “breathe from the diaphragm” but who always dodged the subject if anyone asked precisely how. Well, here’s the problem; you can’t feel your diaphragm any more than you can your spleen (that is, if you can, you need to see a doctor post-haste). You can and should however feel and control the muscles that support and connect with it; the internal front abdominals.

Do this now; stand up, feet shoulder width apart, in a relaxed upright stance, neither slouched nor tensely erect. Put your middle fingers over your belly button and let your hands spread out across your belly. What you are now focusing on is your abdominal wall.
As you breathe out, contract your abdominal muscles so that your abdominal wall, centred around the belly button, is moving back towards the spine (you should be able to get a good few centimeters of movement). As the muscles contract, your diaphragm is being pushed up, which in turn squeezes out the lungs, as if squirting out liquid from a washing-up liquid bottle. Try to get the motion by contracted the abdominal motions rather than pushing with your hands; your hands are there just to help you focus on the correct point.

When you have fully contracted the muscles, just relax and see what happens.
What should happen is that the abdominal wall snaps back into its original position. In so doing, it pulls the diaphragm down, which in turn opens out the lungs, creating a vacuum will suck in air in a strong, silent intake of air that you won’t even notice. This action is called the “recoil” and is invaluable in taking strong, efficient breaths without the loud gasping noises that come with regular shallow breathing. Returning to the example of a washing-up liquid bottle, this is like holding a squeezed-out bottle under the water so that it sucks in liquid, filling it up again.

By the way, are your abdominal muscles hurting yet? If you are doing this right, they should be. Bear in mind these are muscles that you don’t normally use even if you do a hundred sit-ups every morning (sit-ups work the outer abdominals, here we’re using the internals abs), but the more you practice the stronger they will get.

Finally, try yelling out a constant tone, something strong and comfortable, focusing all the effort on that abdominal contraction (when pushing out) and recoil (when breathing in). Feel any better than normal?

It will take some time to train yourself into this kind of deep breathing because you are trying to break the habit of a lifetime, but once you get it right you’ll notice the difference. Many martial arts recognise the abdominal diamond as a source of power; it’s because controlling the diaphragm from here maximises the efficient use of the air in the lungs and as such is a huge source of power that can be used in just about everything you do. Keep practicing the cycle of abdominal contraction and recoil and learn to anchor your vocal effort to that area.

Before I finish, one final comment on taking breaths. It’s my experience that a breath taken in panic will also come back out in panic, so whenever you go to take a deep breath, make sure it’s a relaxed breath. If you suck in as much air as possible, cramming it into your lungs until you turn purple, quite apart from all that wasted effort you’ll find that when you let it out again it will come in an uncontrolled splurge that’s no use to anyone. So work to keep everything controlled and also relaxed. Another exercise you can do to train this is to pick a number (say, 5), breathe in smoothly for that many seconds (1-missisipi, 2-missisipi, 3-missisipi, 4-missisipi, 5-missisipi), hold it for the same (1-missisipi, 2-missisipi, 3-missisipi, 4-missisipi, 5-missisipi) and finally breathe out smoothly for that number (1-missisipi, 2-missisipi, 3-missisipi, 4-missisipi, 5-missisipi). Then repeat. As you get better at it, increase the number of seconds.

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