Breath Basics

Voice work always begins with breath. It’s at the heart of everything that voice trainers do, and it’s the core of every successfully trained actor out there. Even actors who don’t ever think about voice work, generally have effective breathing worked out. In this warm-up step, you’ll ground yourself and tune into your breath.

To begin a warm-up, our first goal is to be Centered. Centering is a process of quieting your mind and beginning to listen to your body, so that you can be present as an actor, in the here-and-now. Other goals are to attend to your body’s natural rhythms, so that you aren’t imposing upon your breath, but rather attuning yourself to your needs: the physical need for breath, the emotional need of what you want from your acting partner, for what you need to say in order to get what you want.

START WITH THE BODY

To begin, stand, sit or lie on the floor in a balanced position. (For tips on how to do this, see “Body Alignment.”) Take a moment to feel your full body, from the tips of your toes, to the top of your head. Scan the bones of your body, visualizing the bones of your feet, ankles, shins, knees, (…) thighs, hips, pelvis, (…) lower spine, (…) midspine, ribs, (…) shoulder blades, collar bones, shoulder joint, (…) upper arms, elbows, forearms, wrists, hands, (…) neck, skull and jaw bone.

At this point, it’s worth suggesting that you DROP YOUR JAW, and let your mouth hang open for the remainder of this exercise. (By the way, I’m not recommending you let your jaw hang open all the time, just for this exercise.)

TUNE INTO BREATH

Take a moment now to feel your body do its own thing. Let your body demand the next breath, without TAKING a breath, or imposing a rhythm or style of breathing. Just let it come “naturally,” or at very least, based upon your habitual, unplanned manner of breathing at this moment. If you weren’t paying attention, how would your body breath? Listen to your breath, as if you were a outside observer. Be sure to allow lots of time.

You should notice a pattern: inhalation, exhalation, wait.

Inhalation, exhalation, wait.

On the inhalation, feel the air enter your body. You want to feel the air passing over your lips, tongue and the back of your mouth, down your throat, and into your chest. You should feel breath-action into your whole body, including your chest and belly.

Inhalation, exhalation, wait.

On the exhalation, feel the air leave your body. If you’re relaxed, and simply ALLOW the breath to go on its own accord, this should be a simple and rather quick outward breath. The muscles used to draw the air in will relax and drop with gravity, while the pressure built up in your chest and belly will release. It might feel like the tiniest of sighs.

Inhalation, exhalation, wait.

In the waiting phase between breaths, you should feel relaxed, physically aware of yourself in space, and simply attend to your body’s need for air. When the impulse for breath arises, just let yourself breathe. Allow the next breath, and repeat the cycle: inhalation, exhalation, wait.

If you’ve closed your eyes in order to tune into your body, be sure to take a moment to open them, and see whether you can do this “tuning in” process while still engaged in the outside world. If you did the whole process of noticing breath with your eye open, take a turn with your eyes shut in order to feel the sensations more accutely without the visual sense distracting you.

At this point you might want to go on to expand your breath beyond your relaxed awareness, or you could go on with the Basic Voice Warm-up Series, and begin to focus your breath through voiced sounds.

Next Step: Getting on Voice

Eric Armstrong is the voiceguy. Eric is a dialect, voice, speech and text coach based in Toronto, Canada, where he normally teaches full-time at York University’s Dept. of Theatre. Eric has been teaching voice for the actor full-time since 1994, and has taught in Canada and the US, at the University of Windsor, Brandeis University, Roosevelt University, Canada's National Voice Intensive and York University. He has worked for nationally and internationally recognized companies such as Crow’s Theatre, Volcano, SoulPepper, & Canadian Stage in Toronto, and The Court Theatre and Steppenwolf in Chicago. Eric holds a BFA from Concordia University (Montreal) in Theatre Performance, and an MFA from York University (Toronto) in Acting. His mentors were David Smukler (York, Canada’s National Voice Intensive) and Andrew Wade (Royal Shakespeare Company). He has also studied at the Drama Studio, London, and Il Stage Internazzionale di Commedia dell’Arte in Reggio Emilia, Italy. He’s a long time member of the Voice and Speech Trainers Association, where he has served on the board, as a conference planner, photo editor for the Voice and Speech Review, Founding Director of Technology and Internet Services, and has written numerous peer-reviewed articles, essays and reviews for the VASTA Newsletter, the VASTA Voice, and The Voice and Speech Review.

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