Habit vs. Natural

In one of the early posts on this site, Breath Basics, I suggest that you just use the breath that comes naturally, or habitually, to you. Are those the same thing? Well, I guess that depends on how aware of your breath cycle you are. You may have created a habit of breathing in a manner that is highly unnatural, and so it may feel natural to you. In this case, natural and habitual mean exactly the same thing. But if you become aware of your actual need for breath, you may be able to reconnect with the way of breathing that babies, small children and even other mammals use “in nature”, the way you breathed before peer pressure and self-consciousness started to impact your body, voice and breath.

Often when I am teaching a beginner class, I’ll find students who are seriously invested in their habitual way of breathing. There is a bit of a cliché with regards to how this would look: the habit that catches my attention first and foremost is one where the breather is doing a lot of movement up into their clavicles, or collar-bones. It seems to me that these kinds of breathers are often really committed to their choice of breathing style. With each “deep breath,” they are visibly working very hard. This kind of breathing creates a great deal of sensation for the breather—and often it seems to generate some (fake) emotional affect for the breather. So the choice to breathe like this reinforces the idea that they are an actor, and that they are emotional. And they well may be emotional, and an actor too, but that habit limits their ability to really feel past the activity of the breath in the shoulders, and in the sternum (breast bone), down to the seat of emotion in the core. To get a lot of air in, you have to really lift your shoulders and puff your sternum out—it’s a lot of work, and you really feel it.

So for this type of breather, my first task is to get them to breathe away from their habit, down into their abdominal area. [Quick reminder: breath action moves into the abs, not actual breath air.] And this kind of breath has way less sensation than breathing up into the shoulder and sternum area. To get a lot of air in, your diaphragm drops and your belly pushes out—it’s quite easy (once you get used to it), and it doesn’t feel like much. It doesn’t take a lot of effort, which is why it is more efficient to do. Efficiency is something we desperately need as actors. We really don’t want breath to be drawing our attention while we’re acting, we want our focus to be on our acting partner.

Of course, it is possible to be an abdominal breather and be just as habit-bound as a clavicular breather. One example of this is the breather who has done a lot of classical singing training with a teacher who defines support as strong abdominal contraction with every breath. That was my singing teacher’s approach when I was a teenager, and so when I started speaking voice training with a Linklater-based teacher, I freaked out! My habit was RIDGE-ID! Rigid. I had taken me years to trust my singing teacher enough to start breathing abdominally, and now that I had mastered the skill she was asking for, tense as it was, I was completely invested. In speaking voice class, my intention (as always) was to show my teacher how exceptional I was, that I knew how to breathe the right way, and that this made me a special person. I was consciously blocking her suggestions, trying to prove something with every breath I took.

For me, now that I teach voice, I acknowledge that building trust with students is difficult. Getting them to let go of their preconceived notions of what is right and what is wrong is even more challenging. Creating an atmosphere where they can be merely “breathers” and where they can experiment with different ways of experiencing breath moving in their bodies is key. Accepting that they are experts of at least one way of letting breath move in their bodies is a great start. Finding a way to help them experience how they actually have many different ways of breathing, so that they don’t have to prove anything about their way being the right way, so that they can begin to get past a binary of good/bad, or right/wrong, or mine/yours. Maybe it is habit/natural, or maybe it is different/different. I am trying to work toward the idea that a style of breath action could be appropriate/inappropriate for a context, environment or need. I am working to stop my habit of assuming that my breath style is the only appropriate choice for a given situation. The only way that can happen is to constantly question my assumptions.

What habits of breath do you need to question?

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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