In my opinion breathing is one of those areas in voice training that have to be tackled, sorted out, and then sustained with minimal effort as soon as possible. If not, you may end up sucking breath up into your shoulders, or doing some odd goldfish breathing a former British Prime Minister!
Breathing is a very complex activity, and one which the body was designed to operate without your conscious interference. So the ultimate goal of breathing training is to teach you to stop interfering with the process. And if that fails it is to teach you to interfere minimally, and in absolutely the right way. However, first you need to understand the biology of breathing, then you need to explore how to engage with the biology to improve your breathing fitness and capacity, and then as I have mentioned, you have to learn to let go of your desire to control your breathing, and just breathe deeply with spontaneous ease.
It is vitally important for actors (and professional speakers) to understand how their breathing apparatus works, as it is the powerhouse on which their thoughts and emotions ride. When actors do not know how to breathe properly, they derail almost every part of the job of acting. So, let us explore breathing and free you from the tyranny of a shallow muscle bound breath!
Let me start by stating the obvious. In its simplest form breathing can be described as air moving into and out of the lungs through the nose or mouth. But breathing is far more complicated than that.
There are two impulses that stimulate the body to breathe. The first is the body’s need to expel carbon dioxide/take in oxygen, and the other is the body’s need to breathe for speech! And in both instances the muscular chain of events is the same. Now I could start to describe the process from the moment of 'taking' breath in, but I find that this is where most people make their rookie mistake of shallow breathing. (I find that when people understand how breath is moved out of the body, they seem to grasp more easily how to allow the breath back in.) So I start with breathing out.
In order to move breath out of the body, the body needs to reduce the space occupied by the lungs. But how does it do this? Well, believe it or not the process begins right down in your legs and feet. For your first exploration lets start focusing on the thighs. Allow the muscles attached to the top of your knees to engage almost imperceptibly. Allow this sensation to spread through the thighs into the pelvis and your glutes, and then into your lower torso. Allow all the related muscles around the lower part of your stomach to respond too, moving the area behind your pubic bone in slightly. The tightening of these muscles causes the contents of your lower torso (your organs and intestines) to be displaced inwards and upwards towards your upper torso/diaphragm. As soon as your diaphragm feels this pressure arrive from below, it relaxes in order to allow the viscera (organs) to keep moving upwards and into the space usually occupied by the lower part of your lungs. This whole process puts pressure on your lungs causing the air in your lungs to be displaced and to also move up and out.
Now that expiration has occurred the breathing system remains inactive for a split second, until the body realises that it needs more oxygen. As it does so, so the brain prompts the body to breathe in by releasing. At this point the process begins at exactly the same spot as expiration began – right down near the knees. The muscles that tightened near the knees earlier suddenly release, once again setting off a chain reaction. And all the muscles that tightened earlier suddenly release. With the muscles released, gravity draws the abdominal contents downwards. The diaphragm which was relaxed (in its dome shape) involuntarily contracts (you cant feel this as its an involuntary muscle like your heart muscles), flattens and in so doing moves downwards too. All of these actions cause the lungs to effortlessly expand down and outwards and to simply fill up once again with air. This air is now available to you the actor/speaker to use again for sound. And the great joy is that in order to use it, all you have to do is start speaking. After all – isn’t that what you normally just do everyday when speaking to your friends and family?
© Donald Woodburn