This exercise is a great way to check in with your body and voice, and helps to mix things up, so that you’re exploring voice outside of the ‘box’ of your habits. The Roll-Down, or “spine roll” is one of those theatre exercises that most actors have done at some point in their lives — for some actors, they’ve probably done these more than they ever imagined possible! In this precursor to the Intermediate Warm-up Series, I’ll talk you through the process of rolling down through your spine, and then we’ll add a little voice to the process.

Start at the Top

Before we begin, check in that you are standing tall, with your feet hip width apart, shoulders wide in front and back and with your pelvis balanced in line with your ankles. Make sure that your knees are not locked! Take a moment to let your arms feel heavy, so that when you roll through your spine, your arms will hang off your torso like spaghetti. Finally, make sure that your jaw is dropped and that you’re breathing through your mouth.

Now, begin with your head, and let your skull tip forward on the very top vertebra. Slowly, very slowly, allow the vertebra of your neck to begin to curl forward, as your chin drops toward your chest. Keep your shoulders wide at this point, because we want to be sure that your NECK starts the roll-down before we begin to move into the vertebra of the upper back, where the shoulders are.

Once your head has dropped as far as it can toward your chest, take a moment for a breath, and see whether the exhalation will allow your head to drop just a wee bit further toward your chest.

Now slowly roll the rest of the way down your spine, trying as best you can to go vertebra by vertebra. When you find that your hamstrings are stressed out, you can release in your knees (a little), before your finish the roll-down. At a certain point, your spine will be curled forward, and you’ll begin to roll through your pelvis, essentially tilting your pelvis on your hip joints, until you are hanging upside-down.

When you’re upside-down, just enjoy letting your head hang off your neck, and your arms hang off your torso. Gently sway from side-to-side, then bounce gently through your knees, letting your spine bounce. Make sure there is no tension in your neck here. Try lifting your head gently by following your eyes along an imaginary phone that extends in front of you, up the wall, and then let your head drop away completely.

Going Up!

As you roll back up, start by rolling your pelvis, as if you were tucking your tail between your legs. As that’s happening, begin to lengthen your legs, so you straighten your knees. Then vertebra by vertebra, stack your spine back up. When you get to your shoulders, let them roll around to your back before your roll back up through your neck. As you slowly roll back up through your neck, take great care to only roll up to the point where your head rests on top of your neck spine — many people roll too far back up and end up with their neck collapsed to the back.

You can view a video of me demonstrating a spinal roll here:

Now try it again, only faster!

Explore this next roll-down by focusing on breath — 3 breaths down, 3 breaths back up. Start this roll-down by dropping your head toward your chest in one smooth, fluid motion. Then continue the roll-down rolling through your vertebra, releasing in your knees, until you hang upside-down, and then roll back up.

If you can do it in 3 breaths, try it in 2 and then later in 1. (That’s 1 down, and 1 back up.) When that’s easy, try it down and up in a single breath. Once you can do that with ease, try adding sound to this process…

Hummuh on the Roll

Similar to the Getting on Voice post, start the “hummmmmuh” sound (“hum”) and then drop your chin to your chest. Sustaining the hum, roll all the way down, and when you’re at the bottom, open your mouth and let the sound out. When you need more breath, relax your jaw open, let breath “fill up” to your pelvis, and then start the process again to roll back up: “hum” first, then once you’re on the /m/ sound, roll up until you begin to roll your head back onto the top of your neck spine, and then drop your jaw open, opening the sound up onto “uh.

Once that becomes second-nature, trying rolling down and up on a single “hummmuh.” Work your way through your range, as we do in Getting on Voice, going up semitone by semitone.

  • This post is also available in a condensed form, so once you understand the idea of rolling down and up through your spine, you can add it to your warm-up playlist.


NEXT STEP: Sustaining Breath

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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