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The Speaker's Voice

Improving the Voice Starts with the Breath

The voice is the richest, most versatile communication tool we possess. It is also the most overlooked and under-rated in terms of the attention we give it when thinking of our presentation skills. Most people take their voices entirely for granted. Ninety percent of Americans have never taken a course in singing, breathing, enunciation or any other subject that would improve their vocal skills. That's a shame, because just a little time and effort can bring valuable rewards.

To create a more pleasant, powerful and effective vocal instrument, we must start with our breathing. When we were born, we breathed naturally from our diaphragms. A newborn can scream at the top of its lungs all night long and not wear out its voice. Why? Its voice comes out unimpeded because vocally, it is completely relaxed. Its voice is a force of nature and the center of power is in its abdomen. Most adults are vocally shot by half time of the basketball game. What's happened? Tension has brought the center of vocal power up to the neck and upper chest.

Would you like to have a clear, resonant voice again, with the power to fill an auditorium and the stamina to speak as long and as often as necessary? Then you have to rid yourself of that high vocal tension and drop your power center back where it belongs in the lower abdomen. This means learning some good habits or more precisely, un-learning some bad ones. Begin with a full stretch and a conscious relaxation exercise to rid tension from all parts of the body. It's strange but true, that the whole body is the vocal instrument and even tension in the feet affects the voice.

Our first task is to breathe correctly, from our natural power center. If you lie on your back on the floor, supporting your head with a book or small cushion, you will probably find yourself breathing correctly. Your belly should rise with each inhale and fall with each exhale - quite naturally. You need to be fully relaxed for this to occur spontaneously. If it doesn't seem to work that way for you, it means your bad habits are well established and you'll have to pay more conscious attention to your breathing for awhile.

Imagine that your torso is a rectangular elastic box. With each inhale you inflate the box on all six of its sides - front, back, left, right, shoulders and pelvic floor. When you lie on your back, the front seems the most elastic. Now, roll onto your belly, support your forehead on your hands or turn your head to the side. Now where does the breath want to go? Into your back and sides, doesn't it? Can you fill the spaces around you kidneys and between your ribs and pelvic bone with air? Now imagine that your pelvic floor too, expands with each breath. Your chest and shoulders, restricted by all those bones, is not so easy to expand, is it? Now you are breathing from your power center - low.

Relaxation is the key to great vocal performance. Take care not to overdo these exercises. Hyperventilation is not our goal here. Just take nice, easy breaths - exploring deep and shallow ones, light and strong, from a center below your navel. Once you've been able to establish abdominal or "belly-breathing" on your back, you must bring it to work on your feet. Keep the sensation of breathing low as you work with the exercises on the next page.

Exercises for the Voice

(There are countless exercises for relaxing, strengthening and focusing the voice. These are only a sampling for you to experiment with. For best results, consult a coach or voice specialist who can work on your specific vocal problems. If you have difficulty locating such a coach in your area, contact me and I'll be happy to help. - ML)
 

  • Stretch. Big muscles first, arms, back and legs - reaching for ceiling, bending sideways, flopping over and hanging from the waist, arms dangling, knees relaxed. Then roll up back from pelvis, one vertebrae at a time.
     
  • Shoulders, neck and face. Jam shoulders up to ears and hold for ten seconds, then drop them with a sigh. Roll head gently around in a circle, releasing tension in neck. Alternately squeeze and stretch muscles in face. Shake it out and let face go rubbery.
     
  • Yawn. Yawning is the best way to relax and open your larynx. Experiment with yawns vertically and horizontally. Shake out face and blow out lips between exercises. Vocalize a sigh as you release tension.
     
  • Sigh. Good release for tension anywhere in the body. Breathe it out on a sigh.
     
  • Breathe deep into your torso. Let a sound appear on the next exhale: "Fa-fa-fa-fa" very quiet. Repeat three times allowing yourself to breathe in a normal rhythm. Jaw is loose and dropped, posture erect and centered. Breath originates below the belly button.
     
  • Now vocalize: "Ha-hum-ah" gently. Repeat and hold the "Hum" a little longer. Find the vibrations in your sinuses.
     
  • Sing "May, Me, My, Mo, Moo" on an ascending scale, as long as it's comfortable. Pay attention to the placement of the tone in your mouth, head, throat and chest. Then substitute consonants "L, B, G & K"
     
  • Vowel Placement - from "fit" to "fall" - play with where they occur in the mouth.
     
  • Call "He-e-e-e-y-y-y-y" as though to a friend some distance away.
     
  • Extend your range - Practice singing the scales from lowest to highest pitch: sing "goog, gug, mi, ma, mum, no, nay" by turns, going up third, fifth, octave and back down.
     
  • Count to ten, tossing a ball to another person - one number per toss. The objective is to focus the voice and carry it to the listener in the same way you make sure the ball reaches them.
     
  • Articulators - "P - T - K" unvoiced, using only the lips and tongue. Then, voiced, they become "Buh - Duh - Guh." Repeat with a brisk rhythm.