Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Warm Up your Voice Part 1: Breathing

This is part one of the second of my Top Ten Public Speaking Basics

In my experience it is preferable to work with a qualified voice teacher if you want to develop the full potential of your voice.  So the purpose of this article is not to give some "quick-fix" voice exercises to try once on your own to little effect, but rather to offer some guidance on warming up your voice in preparation for your next presentation or speech.

All credit and honour is given to the brilliant voice coach Stewart Pearce whose teaching in his book "The Alchemy of Voice" (Hodder & Stoughton, 2005) has profoundly influenced my teaching in the past few years.


This section benefits from some introduction before getting to the practical routine. You can read on or scroll straight to the warm-up practice: THE BREATHING WARM-UP.


There are various breathing techniques and much information about breathing out there.  I suggest you let go of all the various techniques you might have learnt and all the conflicting advice you may have received and focus more on the naturalness and ease of breathing to speak as you prepare for your presentation.

The rhythm of breathing to speak is set by the rhythm of thinking as well as by what is needed for sustaining your biological functioning. To explain this more fully: we think an idea or concept, choose words to express it, voice it, pause and move on to the next thought we want to voice. Effectively we speak in groups of words which express separate thoughts.  As well as talking we may be sitting, standing, walking or running.  Other activities of the body influence our breathing and usually take priority.

We learn to coordinate our breathing with our feeling, thinking and voicing so well that we are mostly  unaware of it.  In everyday talking we learn to take a big breath to express a big thought and usually only run out of air when the feeling and thought are too big for the inhalation we have taken.

We've all had this experience in animated conversation: you think a powerful idea, draw breath to express it, get interrupted before you can voice it and find yourself with a huge lungful of unneeded air.  You then have to hold this air until there's a gap for you to talk into or let the air out more or less audibly.

Note that due to the different requirements for breathing for speech we may sometimes inhale through the mouth when talking. Breathing through the nose is of course preferable as the nasal passages filter, warm and moisten the air we inhale.

Because feeling, thinking, speaking and breathing are so interconnected the process can easily become uncoordinated.  Some causes of compromised breathing and speaking are that we:
  • are not speaking what we are thinking
  • are speaking someone else's thoughts
  • have become self-conscious and disconnected
  • are reading or reciting without thinking about the words

Some results of uncoordinated thinking, breathing and voicing are:
  • the voice fading or falling away before the thought is completely voiced
  • weakness, softness, thinness of tone
  • strained, harsh quality as speaker strives for volume (loudness) without adequate air
  • breathiness as air is released without being used to create sound
  • running out of air, gasping 


Explanation of what happens when we breathe

The diaphragm is a convex sheet of muscle which fits up against the lower surface of your lungs. It separates your thorax from your abdominal cavity. Underneath the diaphragm on the left is your stomach and on the right your liver. The diaphragm is attached to your sternum, to the lower part of your ribs front and sides, and to your spinal column at the back. When relaxed it lies under your ribcage something like an open parachute.

When you inhale the ribcage lifts upwards and expands sideways and the diaphragm contracts and flattens. As the diaphragm moves downwards you can easily feel the relatively slight expansion of the upper abdomen just under the ribs in the front. Exhalation is usually passive, however when we need to force it we contract the walls of the abdomen to push the diaphragm back. Normally you would feel a slight engagement of the upper abdominal muscles as you exhale.

For our purposes when we practise breathing we focus on feeling the lower ribs, particularly the back ribs, swinging upwards and outwards as the external intercostal muscles contract. This expansion and lift activates the diaphragm and the breathing flows naturally from there.

If you want to know a little more about the anatomy involved this article gives an easily understandable overview


In our short warm-up breathing practice we are aiming at breathing more deeply and fully to support a flexible and expressive voice. We use simple thoracic breathing, in other words: get your ribcage active!

Please note:
  • NO FORCING IS NECESSARY: forcing the diaphragm deeply down into the abdomen disregards the structure of your body and can compromise the pericardium and the pelvic floor
  • Stand relaxed, legs and feet rooted down into the ground and body lightly lifted up through the spine, shoulders relaxed and falling away from the ears, chin neither tucked nor jutting forwards, knees not locked, thighs not squeezed, buttocks not clenched
  • Breathe out fully without force
  • Wait till you feel the need to inhale, as your ribs spring apart inhale through your nose
  • As you inhale allow your back to relax, note how your lower ribs float apart as your diaphragm contracts and moves downwards. Pay particular attention to the swing of the back ribs as you relax your back.
  • As exhalation happens, let the air move out of your mouth, note how your ribcage moves simultaneously downwards and inwards and how your abdominal muscles slightly engage as the last of the air moves out of your body
  • Continue breathing easily and comfortably in this way for five breaths, breathing in through your nose for four counts, pausing for four counts, breathing out through your mouth for four counts, pausing for four counts.  Each successive breath in this warm-up practice should leave you feeling more calm, more in control, more steady.

End of Warm Up your Voice Part 1: Breathing
Part 2 to follow ...

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