Getting on Voice

In this step of the Basic Warm-up Series, you’ll connect breath to voice. It’s important to start gently, with a great sense of ease, so that nothing is pushed or forced. At this stage of the game, loudness and pitch aren’t that important. You want to explore your voice for today, and see how it feels, where you feel it in your body, and enjoy the process while you’re at it. You may explore this exercise with your eyes open or closed, though if you’re reading this you’ll have to go back and forth if you’re going to follow the next instruction!

If you’ve been breathing, you’ve probably been working with your mouth open, jaw relaxed. Now I want you to bring your lips together, while keeping your jaw as relaxed as possible. Your tongue should rest comfortably behind your front teeth. Breathe in through your nose, and then hum gently with a sigh. “Hmmmmmmmm.”
Let the sound of the sigh last as long as your breath lasts. It isn’t a humming contest: there is no need to make the hum last a long time. If you are thinking of the hum like a sigh, the sound will gently drop down in pitch with each sound you make.

Be sure to remember to allow each breath to fill down to your belly, relaxing your tummy so your breath-action expands down around the waistband of your pants, rather than up in your sternum (aka breast bone). Keep your shoulders relaxed and wide.

One of the most important aspects of any voice warm-up is to increase your awareness of your voice. By humming, you enhance the vibrations that are felt in your face, mouth and head because your mouth is closed, forcing the air to go out your nose.

At first, when you begin gently humming, allow your sound to be focused around your throat, where you voicebox or larynx is. This is where the vibrations radiate from, as your vocal folds vibrate due to the air passing over them. These vibrations happen very quickly, several hundred times each second, so the sensation you feel is really a buzz. Buzziness is your friend. The feeling of a buzz on your throat, face and lips is a great way to know that you’re working in a way that creates resonance and helps your voice reach the back of an auditorium.

Now that you’ve got that buzzy feeling going in your throat, it’s time to focus on the sensations being made by the vibrations further upward, particularly in your face and lips. By making subtle adjustments in your mouth with your tongue and soft palate, you should be able to enhance the buzziness you feel on your lips. Focus on the part of your lips that is touching—just the parts that are in contact with one another, and try to let them touch as gently as possible. In fact, I try to feel as if my lips were just about to come apart, because I want my jaw to feel as heavy as possible and to try to have as much space within my mouth as possible.
You may gradually begin to get a little bit louder with your hum at this point, to ever so gently turn up the buzz-o-meter in your mouth.

It’s very important at this point not to push. Allow your voice to be gentle and buzzy, not forced, loud, pressing. It should never be hard work. At this point, you can begin to allow the sound to sustain on one pitch or note. Don’t worry about getting the pitch “right” or not—there is not right here! Pick a note that feels like it is in the middle of your voice, neither high up or low down. If you’re not sure where that is, think of saying “uh-huh” in response to a question like “Are you ok?” (Uh-huh.) Now hum on the note that you began your “Uh-huh” on, and that should be pretty good. Once you’ve found a starting note, begin to explore other notes that are nearby. For those who are musically inclined, you can go up or down by semi-tones if you like, but you can also make small jumps of a tone, or even intervals of a second or a third if you like.

A key point to remember about warming up your speaking voice is that we’re focused on communication, NOT singing. Though I will grant that good singing is all about communicating, singing voice exercises tend to focus on the sound of your voice, rather than on the feel of your voice, and on what you’re saying. So though you’re on a pitch, and exploring “notes,” try hard not to sing.

Now that you’ve been humming for some time, you can relax your lips and jaw open, and begin to breathe in and out through your mouth. Continue to sound on every breath, and ease the sound out on an open, central vowel, “Uh”, as in “cup, love, mother.” Allow the breath to fill down in your belly, let your mouth and throat feel as open as possible, and keep letting the sound out on a variety of pitches. You can preceed the “uh” sound with a little “h” sound, so it sounds more like “Huh”, and that will keep it easy and help you to avoid a glottal attack at the beginning of the sound.

Now you can begin to go back and forth between the open sound and humming, by sighing out on “Hummmmmuh.” Take time to feel the vibrations build up on your lips on the “mmm” sound, and the see where you feel the buzziness when you open up. Can you feel it inside your mouth, in your lips still, in the bones of your head and face? The more buzz you feel, the better, as long as you keep it all easy.

Next Step: Exploring Range

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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