Breath in the Belly

Ball TossIt’s the start of a new year at my university where I teach voice to the acting students in the Dept. of Theatre. We begin, as you might imagine, with breath. The first day, we do an exercise that I borrowed/stole/appropriated many years ago from Christine Menzies when I was an associate teacher at the National Voice Intensive in Vancouver. We take a largish ball and throw it up in the air and catch it. As simple as that. We explore the idea of breathing “out” with the ball going up, and “in” while the ball comes down and we catch it. In this exploration, the ball is a metaphor for the air we’re breathing: air goes out, ball goes up; air comes in, ball comes down.

Then we switch it up. We reverse the pattern so that as we throw the ball up, we inhale, and as we catch the ball, we exhale. Up is “in”, and down is “out,” if you will. Then we discuss.

And what comes up is that, for some, one way of doing it is more comfortable that the other way. For some, the action of throwing and exhaling feels right: the effort of the action is married to an exhalation, which is what many of them have been taught to do for sports, or weight lifting; the inhalation is easy, like catching the ball. For others, the expansiveness they feel on the inhalation is more easily married to the upward toss of the ball; the compression and closing of the body involved in catching it matches nicely with the sensation they feel as they exhale.

Who is right?

I think it will come as no surprise to my students and colleagues that I will say that “no one is right.” Both experiences are appropriate responses to the exercise, and though one might feel more comfortable for some students than the other, it’s likely that about half the students will prefer one way, and the other half will prefer the other. Perhaps a small smattering of students will have no preference.

I love this exercise to underline the idea that we breathe in many ways, and that some are more comfortable, more familiar, than others. Each of us is different, and we may have habits that inform our experience. Personally, I like the metaphor of the breath IS the ball, so that when I exhale I toss it up, and when I inhale it drops into my core. But I recognize that the natural rhythm of my breath, which at rest goes something like in—out—rest | in—out—rest, fits more comfortably with the other pattern of tossing/inhaling—catching/exhaling—wait to toss the ball again. In the reverse pattern, one cannot stop and rest while the ball hangs in mid-air.

But part of the reason why I’m attracted to the inhalation on the catch is that it reinforces a sensation I feel in my gut, where “breath drops in”. This is an image that is at the heart of the tradition of Iris Warren/Kristin Linklater/David Smukler voice work, to which I am deeply connected. The feeling of allowing breath into my core is one that centres me, grounds me, and connects me to my partner and to the moment at hand. I love it, and this ball tossing thing gives me an opportunity to relish that feeling in a most satisfying way.

Today I began working on helping the students in my class, the ones for whom breath sensation in their core is a foreign experience, find the movement of their abdomen, their bellies. For a small few, this is familiar territory, and I reassure them that things will get challenging later in the year when we invest in the ribs in a big way. But for now, we need to deepen our connection to the action of the diaphragm, and to the movement of the abdominal wall, to allow breath to move us in a downward-and-outward direction. It’s slow going, and it requires not just a “wish for it and it will come” approach I feel. We experiment with different breath actions, small coughs, preparations for a sneeze, the memory of vomiting, folding ourselves into a ball, to feel the action of the abdomen in our personal body experience. Each of these actions connect with part of the experience of breath into the core, but not the whole of it. I’m pointing towards the breath I hope they’ll experience, but not making it happen. I know that, in time, their body will remember, their breath will drop, and they will find the action we seek. Forcing it won’t help, but searching for it with all of our imaginations, our intellects, our sense memory, our emotional core, all of it can come into play. All ways are explored, and no way is rejected.

Breathing from the core is, in my mind, the single most important step towards an embodied practice of acting, and finding that breath is essential. It cannot be rushed, but we must seek it out with determination and vision. It holds the key to so much that the actor needs. For some it is easy, for many it is scary, but my goodness, it is worth it.

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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