How to breathe well. It’s easy, and it isn’t.


NOTE: This is the first post in a two-part article. Click here to read part two!

Everybody has to breathe. But some voice actors breathe better than others. Sometimes breaths should be heard, sometimes not. Some clients, in many genres, want breaths removed. For example, an audio book with the breaths removed sounds unreal, even spooky – it’s generally okay to breathe as you normally do. But in a commercial (and many other situations), it’s generally optimal to silence breaths and shorten the resulting pause by half. Software can be used to silence or reduce the loudness of breaths, but unless set properly, the result will sound artificial. How much easier it would be if you could breathe without making a sound in the first place! Can you learn to breathe totally silently?

As trained actors and singers know, proper breathing is a major part of one’s skill. Just as there are coaches for voice over, and voice, and acting, and singing, you can find coaches skilled at teaching breathing. The learning process involves demonstration, and physical conditioning, and awareness, and observation, and practice, and it can go on for many lessons. Many lessons. You won’t learn much in a single article (nor very well just from online videos). But you can learn what the factors are that you'll need to understand. So here goes ...

How to breathe, quick and easy

As we’ve said, breath control isn’t necessarily learned quickly or easily. And in the face of a sensitive VO microphone, a totally silent breath may be impossible. But it is possible to easily take a quick breath, and to breathe more effectively and quietly -- and to manage your breathing -- once you understand the factors involved.

Is breath control so important to success in voice acting? Yes and no. You’re already able to breathe. It comes naturally, and there are many other essential VO skills that don’t. Attend to those first. But this subject should at least be on your agenda. Because, yes, it is an important factor, especially if you habitually (or from nerves or some other reason) breathe unusually loudly.

Whatever way you breathe, it’s a habit. It might currently be a noisy habit that requires extra engineering work, strains your voice, dries your throat, and crimps your style. Or you might be naturally doing everything correctly already. In any case, just as sloppy breathing practices are a habit, so are correct ones. It will take time and repetition – knowledge and practice – for the correct way to become a habit and feel as natural as sloppy breathing might feel to you now.

What is the “right” way?

Surprise – there’s no one perfect “right” way to breathe, nor to learn it. People experience their bodies each a bit differently, and have different backgrounds, inhibitions, etc., all of which come into play. But there are certain principles to heed.

  • Have proper posture. (Some experience with Pilates, yoga or the Alexander Method could be helpful in understanding this.)
  • Stay loose. Relax your body, and relax your neck, jaw and airways. One of your goals is to relax your larynx (voice box) and let it “float.” Too often, tension causes it to be locked in an up position.
  • Breathe using your torso, not your shoulders. You should be using your chest muscles (the “intercostal” muscles, the ones between your ribs), but don’t just stick out your chest. And you should be able to use much more of your torso than that.

The last of these first:

Breathe from the diaphragm ... and then some

Even if you don’t intend to speak with “full voice” (as in old-school theater and oratory), breathing from the diaphragm is an important skill that can help you breathe more effectively, taking in more air. With more air, you may need fewer breaths. (Or at least it gives you the option.) And -- assuming you’re not straining to use every last bit of what’s in your lungs -- the quietest of all breaths is the one you don’t take.

Quick anatomy lesson: The diaphragm is the muscle that separates your lungs from your abdomen. Extending the diaphragm downward (which causes one’s tummy to protrude) draws airs into the lungs. This is counter to what many of us did artificially as children; taking a deep breath should not be a matter of lifting your shoulders and pushing out your chest. (Ironically, without such artifice, kids use their diaphragm quite naturally.)

To get a good sense of breathing from the diaphragm, lie on your back, relax and breathe. Maybe put a book on your tummy. See the book going up and down? Don’t exaggerate it – just do what comes naturally. We all tend to breathe from the diaphragm when in this position.

Now stand up, remain relaxed (from your toes all the way up through your neck and head), and imagine that the floor is still at your back. Breathe as you did while lying down.

Advanced anatomy lesson: That’s not the half of it.

Although – as shown by that book on your tummy – the most obvious movement was in your belly, breath support doesn’t involve just the stomach muscles. It involves the entire torso, including your diaphragm, your ribs (feel them expand outward, to the sides), your stomach, your back, even your hiney.

As an opera-singer friend once put it, “You even breathe with your ass.” (When we mentioned this to a staffer here at Edge Studio, the quick-witted co-worker quipped, “Better have breath mints!”)

Think we’re kidding? Cough. Notice how even your fanny muscles (one in particular) react?

Or, as Kristin Chenoweth has advised, “Sing from your hoo-hoo.”

Unlax!

(Of course, we mean “Relax,” but we’ll work in one of Bugs Bunny’s trademarked expressions on any excuse. In this case, we use it because all this technical stuff might seem so dismayingly formal, even intimidating. Don’t let it be. After all, this is simply about you, breathing.)

Relaxed breathing is an integral part of relaxed speaking. Speaking in a “vocally free” manner is a highly valuable quality in any voice over talent.

Surprise -- among the techniques you can use to relax is ... controlled breathing! Here’s a page on various exercises you can do in 10 minutes or less: http://healthland.time.com/2012/10/08/6-breathing-exercises-to-relax-in-...

And here’s the goal, as summarized by voice coach Jeannette LoVetri, Director of The Voice Workshop:

There is much research to suggest that the [vocal] mechanism functions optimally (but not that it can’t function if things are less than perfect) when the posture is erect, aligned and strong (but not stiff) and that the inhalation is easy, deep, and freely taken.
http://somaticvoicework.com/category/uncategorized/page/22/

Is breathing for speech like breathing for song?

The answer to this is yet another “yes and no.” The most obvious similarity is that we all need to inhale. Song phrasing might sometimes involve phrases that are longer than typical phrases in speech, so a singer might need to take more deep breaths than a narrator. But as far as inhaling goes, the two arts have a lot in common.

Here’s a list of singing tips from Jeannette LoVetri: The least You Need To Know About Singing. You’ll note that several of the top tips apply as well to voice-over, and that some of the others have an analog in VO. (For example, the ones about believing your words, and emotional expression.)

But when it comes to exhaling, note that there’s also an important difference between most singing and most voice over work: The singer intends to make a very different sort of sound. It’s roughly akin to the difference between stage acting and film acting. In film acting, the voice is used more naturally, while stage actors must project their voices – something they might need to unlearn in order to do voice overs. And even singing contemporary music (known in the trade as Commercial Contemporary Music, or CCM) near a sensitive mic might involve a wider dynamic range (range of volume) than is likely to be used in a voice over situation at the same mic.

But we’re talking about inhaling, so let’s get back to that ...

Next week: How to catch a quick breath almost silently. May you be breathless in anticipation.

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