Breathing is Underrated

Years ago, I was in a recording studio in Los Angeles for my very first voice-over booking. It was all so new and overwhelming – rooms with no outside windows…padded walls displaying framed gold records…and a fancy mixing board with all types of recording equipment.

A hip looking engineer led me into a vocal booth, stuck a mic in my face, adjusted it a bit, and then left me alone with my thoughts, which were becoming more ominous by the moment.

Looking out the glass window that separated me from the recording room, I saw four people staring back at me: the laid-back engineer, the high strung agency guy, and two deadly serious-looking people from the client company.

My anxiety heightened. It felt like a vice was tightening around my chest and my throat constricted. My ability to breathe naturally was going out the window.   

 The rest of the session was a test of internal strength: I cheerfully complied as the director gave me adjustments, but inside I felt like I couldn’t catch my breath. I was experiencing performance anxiety. 

Performance anxiety and breath control are inextricably linked. 

One of the worst things we can do as voice-actors is sound like we are running out of air and/or take breaths in the wrong places. In my role as demo producer, I have seen how anxiety in students negatively affects their natural breathing, which in turn, impacts their vocal performance in their demo sessions.

Understandably, most of us tend to immerse ourselves in script analysis and acting technique way more than learning correct breathing. That’s counter-productive, because breathing naturally is one of the keys to an authentic and moving performance.

I’ve seen students try to do a script all in one breath…or, exhale all their air before they start to speak so there is nothing left to perform with…or, gasp for air after every two or three words, like they are panting all the way through the script.

If you fall into one (or more) of these categories, don’t despair! Knowing how to breathe correctly is inherent in all of us; we did it when we were babies, and we can do it again!

Learning to Breathe Naturally

If you’ve ever watched a baby sleep on their back you will notice their stomach go up and down with each breath. This is called diaphragmatic breathing. It is the correct way to breathe and fills their lungs with air.

As we get older, day to day stressors build up in our bodies, and our breathing becomes shallower. We tend to breathe only through our upper chest, and wind up using only a small percent of our lung capacity! 

Learning to relax and breathe through the diaphragm is one important step towards accessing who you really are.

Here’s one of my favorite videos on diaphragmatic breathing by Chris Collier, DC:

Leave the World Outside Your Booth

The late vocal coach and author Kristin Linklater went much deeper. She believed societal, environmental, and emotional factors all contribute to the walls we put up during a vocal performance – inhibiting us from expressing ourselves freely. Linklater devoted her life to developing techniques we can use to remove these blocks, which you can learn in her book, “Freeing the Natural Voice.”

Acting coach and actor Lee Strasberg had his students do relaxation exercises before doing scene work. He believed this tension had to be released, or it would block the actor’s ability to express themselves freely.  

Know Your Body, Free Your Breath

The first step to improvement is to notice our current habits, and the way we breathe (or don’t breathe) during times of stress! When you are nervous during an audition or performance, take note of where your breath starts to “catch.” For instance, I notice that I actually hold my breath, for no apparent reason, at various times of the day!

Once you begin to notice how you breathe during times of stress, begin to ask why. This is where the journey really becomes exciting, as we begin to face past events in our lives that may be holding us back from being our true selves! Be patient and remember perfection isn’t the goal as actors; honesty is.

Check out our free PDF with pro-tips from real working voice-over actors here!

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