Breathing: The Seductive Key to Unlocking Your Vocal Variety
Everyone breathes. It’s one of the most natural things we do.
However, if you ask singers to name the most important part of vocal technique, 9 out of 10 will say “breathing.”
So, is there some special way to breathe that makes your voice better? Yes!
In this article, we explore breathing as it relates to vocal variety as a speaker. I’ll provide you an easy to follow technique, as well as tips to improve your voice through better use of air.
The results of applying these tips will be more Power, better Pacing, more interesting Pitch and more effective Pauses in your speaking.
- Lose Your Breath, Lose Your Voice
- Overview of Breathing
- Breathing 101
- Breathing and Vocal Variety
- Practical Advice for Daily Life
Lose Your Breath, Lose Your Voice
In Edgar Allen Poe’s short story, “Loss of Breath”, the narrator loses his breath as he is about to berate his wife. Except for some frog-like utterances, his voice also stops with his breath. Shocked by this, he agonizes, philosophizes, and tries to hide his condition, all to no avail. Eventually, he finds his voice when he finds his breath. (Did I mention that someone stole it? This is Poe, after all!) Although the story is a bit macabre, it underlines the fact that if you lose your breath, you lose your voice … and it’s never a good idea to berate your wife.
Overview of Breathing
So how does one breathe for better speaking and singing? Well, watch a baby breathe. You’ll see that she seems to breath from her stomach, but she is really using her abdominal muscles. It’s breathing 101 — so easy a baby can do it. Here’s how it’s done:
Read the following instructions out loud carefully, and then try them. (An audio file of these instructions can be heard by clicking here.)
- Sit forward in a chair and let your stomach muscles relax.
- Breathe in through your nose and imagine that you are a vessel filling up with air as you would pour water into a vase. Fill up your abdomen first, then your lower ribs (you should feel them expand) and then all the way up to your chin.
- Hold this breath for a count of ten.
- Now exhale slowly. As you exhale, keep your ribs expanded and tighten your abdomen as you would if you were doing a “crunch”—that is, the lower abdominal muscles should come in first as though you were rolling up a tube of toothpaste. (Since you are not a tube of toothpaste, keep your chest up as you exhale.)
- Repeat. Once you have mastered the exercise sitting down, practice incorporating it into your speaking and singing. You may need to do it slowly at first until you can coordinate all the actions smoothly.
The key thing to remember is that breathing should be low and expansive. If you do the exercise correctly, your stomach will go in while your chest stays out and expands. Practicing this technique will provide many benefits, including:
- Awareness of your breathing will enable you to breathe more effectively.
- Proper posture for breathing creates a confident, strong appearance. Deeper breathing makes you feel more confident and strong as well. Andrew Weil, MD writes, “You cannot always center yourself emotionally by an act of will, but you can use your voluntary nerves to make your breathing slow, deep, quiet, and regular, and the rest will follow.”
- Deep breathing decreases tension and helps to focus intellectual activity. Charles Kirk describes how proper breathing technique helps him to remain calm on the trading floor.
Breathing and Vocal Variety
Ideally, you want your content to align with your delivery method and both to align with the sound of your voice. Vocal variety is all about the sound of the voice and, in this case, that vocal image is created through several aspects of your sound, including pace, pitch, pause, and power.
Pace is the speed of your delivery. In general, for vocal variety you are encouraged to vary your pace by speeding up and slowing down appropriately for the message you are delivering. However, some people have trouble with pacing due to poor breathing. If you speak too quickly, or if your speaking is labored or too slow, consider the following:
- Speaking too fast is often the result of not stopping to breathe often enough.
Solution: To slow down your speaking with the breath, consciously take a breath before you begin. Remember to stop and breathe between ideas. The next time you practice a presentation, take time to inhale and exhale deeply five times before you start to speak. Then take one more deep breath and exhale vigorously into your first words.
- Speaking too slowly can also be caused by not taking in and using enough air.
Solution: Not using enough air can cause a person to sound dull and lifeless. This may also be caused by poor posture. Practice the breathing technique above, paying special attention to posture. Be sure you move that air with the abdominal muscles as you speak. Overdo the latter when you practice so you really feel the breath in the sound. By breathing deeper and then using all the air in your sound, you create a more energetic sound and you feel more energized, too.
Pitch is determined by the notes we use when we speak. Yes, we use notes when speaking just as we do for singing. Speaking notes, however, are random, informally ordered, and usually of shorter duration than notes we sing. To create vocal variety, one uses different pitches to make their sound more interesting. Sometimes problems with creating variety in pitch can be the result of poor breathing technique. Here are two such problems, their likely causes, and some ways to fix them:
- A voice that is too high-pitched and thin can be the result of shallow breathing (without abdominal expansion and support).
Solution: The solution to shallow breathing is to relax the abdomen and drop the air in lower. This also relaxes the larynx so it doesn’t ride so high. A high larynx can create a higher, thinner sound.
- If your voice sounds squeezed or strained, or too low, you may not be using all the air you take in.
Lisa Braithwaite comments rightly that speaking too low can do vocal damage.
Another lesson from Poe’s prose is that you can produce a sound without breath. He writes:
I discovered that had I, at that interesting crisis, dropped my voice to a singularly deep guttural, I might still have continued … this pitch of voice (the guttural) depending, I find, not upon the current of the breath, but upon a certain spasmodic action of the muscles of the throat.
If you don’t want to be limited to a guttural growl, air should flow freely in your voice. You can improve a strained sound by practicing a breathy sound and then gradually adding more and more vocal sound to it. I call this “energizing the voice.” It also has the effect of making pitch variety much easier to achieve because the voice becomes free to move and create more pitches. If you do this correctly, you will definitely feel the freedom in your voice!
When speaking, pauses are the golden silences that allow your listeners to take in what you are saying. They are the “beats” an actor uses between phrases; they are that special something that leads to “comedic timing.” Importantly, pauses also give us time to breathe.
Here’s how to apply breathing to your pauses:
- Breathe before speaking your first words.
Taking that first breath allows you to align everything physically, mentally, and emotionally. It also allows your larynx to be stimulated but relaxed. And finally, it gets the oxygen flowing so that you can think more clearly and look your best.
- Be aware of your breathing.
It is amazing to see how many people simply forget to breathe when they are in front of an audience. As you may have experienced, nerves can play a big part in forgetting to breathe and feeling out of breath. So the short term solution to this, as blogger Denise Graveline mentions, is to pause and breathe! The long-term solution, however, is to practice being aware of your breathing all day long. Awareness of breathing makes for natural pauses. The more you practice, the more likely it is you’ll remember to breathe when you’re speaking in public.
A common misconception about Power is that it is the same thing as volume. The truth is that vocal power is so much more than how loud you are. Vocal power is all about the impact your sound has on others. Your personal vocal power may be found in the tone of your sound or in how you phrase a thought. Many people are surprised to learn that power can be heightened or lessened by how they breathe and how they use their breath.
- Sound moves on air, so you need to have air to get a powerful sound. You can speak loudly, but if you aren’t incorporating that air into your sound, you will be shouting. Your impact on others may be quite different than you intended! In addition, keeping the air moving with the sound allows for wonderful control of your voice so that you can use all of your vocal variety techniques more effectively.
- A powerful speaker is one who is relaxed and comfortable. A powerful voice is relaxed and comfortable. Breathing deeply relaxes the larynx so the voice can settle into a comfortable, natural sound rather than one that is contrived or forced.
Practical Advice for Daily Life
Try to practice good breathing technique several times a day and soon you will naturally incorporate it into your everyday speaking. Here are a few tips for practicing breathing:
- Practice breathing while driving. Your hands are raised as you drive which makes it easier to keep your chest high. And practicing breathing can also ease road rage significantly!
- Practice breathing while sitting at your desk when you would normally be slumped over in your chair. Sit on the edge of your chair and take 10 practice breaths three times a day.
- Practice breathing when you are about to go to sleep or lying down on the floor at the end of a workout session. When you are lying down, it is easier to isolate the abdominal muscles and strengthen them for proper breathing. (You can even put a book on your abdomen to exaggerate the way you use those muscles for even better awareness of how to do this correctly. Watch the book go up and down as you breathe “with your stomach.”)
The final and real test, of course, will come in how well you incorporate good breathing into your presentations. On the day of your big presentation, remember to consciously practice using the air you take in. Take time to inhale and exhale deeply five times before you start to speak, then take one more deep breath and breathe into your first words. Don’t forget to slow down and breathe from time to time during the course of a talk in front of an audience.
As they say, practice makes perfect. So practice and it won’t be long before you are able to make your learned breathing as natural as the breathing you are using now, and the benefits will be enormous.