Your voice is singular. Like a fingerprint, it’s unique – a vital link between your mind and your body. The way you use it, through pitch, tone, rhythm, and cadence indicates your mood, ideas, desires, and confidence level. And from your voice alone, people make assumptions about you, some good and some not so favorable.
Many people are attracted to my industry, the voiceover arts, because they’ve been told they “have a good voice.” But success in my field is so much more than the instrument. The voice itself is only a small percentage of what makes a good voice artist. That said, it still is part of the equation. In working with my voice for over 30 years, I’ve picked up some exercises and practices that can help anyone sound better. Let’s explore some of them here.
Breath Control – Throat vs Diaphragm
Babies and young children naturally breathe from the diaphragm. As people develop, this often switches from belly breath or diaphragm to the throat or chest. Our bodies learn that sometimes we don’t need that much breath (sitting at a keyboard, or when wearing tight clothing for example), that other times we need rapid shallow breaths (like when we’re trying to catch our breath or are sobbing) and that still other times deep breaths and slow expulsion of air is preferred (as with swimming or singing, for instance). We may take a few short breaths followed by a longer, slower breath all in the same minute of breathing. Basically, we learn that we have lots of ways to breathe for any given occasion and we generally use them all.
Beginning voice artists often hear the terms throat and diaphragm regarding breathing and breath support of vocal production. They may seem unrelated – after all the diaphragm is the muscle that draws in air to the lungs and the throat is just a passage-way for the air. But here we’re generally referring to the amount of support for the air and therefore the freedom the voice has or doesn’t have to do its job.
Throat or chest breathing (in other words, taking shallow breaths that feel like the air doesn’t get past the upper airway), obviously limits the amount of air you can use to produce sound. It often leads to tightness in the upper body which in turn can lead to vocal tension. Speaking with very shallow breath support creates muscle tension that can be heard as broken, raspy, scratchy, or “throaty.”
Breathing from the diaphragm, however, that thing we were born knowing how to do allows for the entire lung capacity to be filled with air and for lots of good stuff like deep lung gas exchanging and blood enrichment to happen. Speaking with a much deeper, diaphragmatic breath support allows for much more freedom, reduces tension in the throat and upper torso and gives you more fuel for sustained vocal production. Diaphragm breathing also gives greater voice control. So it’s this type of breathing that voice over artists really need to master.
Impact of Posture on Your Voice
Another critical body part or system that impacts the sound of your voice is posture. Unless you’re making a performance-related decision to help create a character, hunching your shoulders, leaning to one side and other poor posture aspects close down your wind. I always sit with a straight back, slightly and comfortably forward and with my legs parted slightly. This keeps a nice open column of air and keeps me connected with all the muscles I want to engage in performance.
If you’re not sure if you’re sitting or standing with correct posture, try sitting or standing against a wall. Once there, pay attention to what parts of your back and shoulders are touching the wall. Check to see where your shoulders are – are they rolled forward away from the wall, or touching the wall when your arms are at your sides. If you’re standing, also check to see where your lower back touches. You want to be careful not to over-extend backward by pulling your arms and shoulders back further than necessary and cause your back to arch while trying to find the proper posture. The goal is to have most of your back from the back of your shoulders to your lower back comfortably touching the wall without causing tension to make that happen.
Breathing Exercises that Improve Voice Control
How to get there? There are many great breathing exercises that you can use to improve your voice control and breath support. Here are just a few.
Try some breathing games. Sometimes it’s fun to make a game of your breath practice. This could look something like:
- Square Breathing – Counting slowly to 5 in your head, inhale. Then, hold the breath for 5 seconds. Count to 5 while you exhale. And count to 5 with your lungs empty.
- One More Sip – Take a very large breath until you feel you can’t take in more air, then take one more sip of breath (and another). Now exhale all of the air out of your lungs, really empty them, then push out one more sip of breath (and another).
Add some voice into your practice. Stand up straight with your legs solidly under you and inhale to the count of four. Now exhale on an “ssssss” to the count of four and then cut off the exhale abruptly (it’s ok that you have breath left). Now inhale to the count of four again and exhale on an “ssssss” for a count of eight (or ten, or twelve, etc). Change up the sound on the exhalation to use “ah” or other vocalizations. The practice is to get to where you can sustain the exhalation longer and longer and replenish the air you use with just a four count inhalation.
Try lying on the floor. For this exercise, lie on your back with your knees bent and feet on the floor. Exhale all of the air out of your lungs. Really get it all out of there. Then try to relax and allow your diaphragm to reflexively fill your lungs with air. This can help you isolate the muscles that are used for breath support and practice what full, relaxed breathing feels like.
Use touch to isolate the diaphragm. Stand in front of a mirror. Place one hand flat against your upper chest, in the center, just under your collarbone. Place the other flat against your torso, just under your sternum – this is where your diaphragm is. Try to inhale to move only your lower hand. Your upper hand stays stationary.
Once you are breathing from your diaphragm and using good posture, you should notice other benefits that help overall vocal performance. Relaxation and releasing held tension are essential for being able to speak or sing for long periods of time in a healthy manner. But getting there, especially for beginners, doesn’t happen without practice. I recall feeling frustrated the first few weeks I switched to diaphragmatic breathing. I felt I had lost control of my voice, when I was actually learning a better way of using it.
There are other ways to exercise the breath and body-mind connection without making sound. Meditation, for example, is a wonderful way to pay attention to the breath – in fact, with meditation often the goal is to focus solely on the breath and letting go of thoughts. It is also a great way to clear the mind which brings so many other positive benefits. Yogic breath is another good practice to incorporate – both breath with and without voice.
We all find confidence is an attractive attribute. In a voice over artist, confidence is one of the most important tools they have in their arsenal and is an important layer in any nuanced voiceover performance. Learning how to combine deep diaphragmatic breathing, posture, relaxation with confidence can help in all kinds of challenging situations in which voice artist may find themselves – from nerves or excitement over a new opportunity, to vocal stress from a taxing session (like with long narration or gaming), to mental stress from trying to deliver a voice over that satisfies everyone in the room from client to creatives to director and engineer.
Confidence comes from a grounded mental outlook and is also a bi-product of good vocal practice and a factor of breath support, posture, and relaxation. The Genard Method, a public speaking training method, brings confidence full circle back to the breath. It says breathing from the diaphragm:
- Slows your heart rate and calms you physically
- Provides oxygen to your brain
- Aids your stance and appearance, avoiding a “caved in” look (promoting good posture)
- Creates the sound of authority
- Supports sound to the end of the sentence, where the important words come
- You appear confident and in control (rather than gasping for breath).