One of your most precious resources as an actor, singer, or presenter is your voice. It must be protected at all costs, and properly maintained -- otherwise, you may find yourself taking a backseat to your understudy, or worse, unable to properly connect with your audience. Like any other part of your body, the voice can be devastated by improper and extended use, and it is often the most natural of activities, like talking, that will cause the most strain.
To make sure you are always able to get the most out of your voice, follow the principles and techniques below.
As with any exercise, a proper warm up helps to make sure you don't damage yourself. The voice is a collection of small muscles and other interesting parts (vocal folds and the like) that need to work in concert as you speak, sing, or even make funny noises. To work as they need to, they require proper lubrication, some stretching and strengthening, and a healthy does of warm circulation. It's not only the voice that needs warming up, either. The lungs and diaphragm need some love too, as does the tongue.
Here are a few exercises to get you started. And don't worry if you sound foolish. You are in good company:
Deep breathing - Deep breathing is a great way to get the lungs and diaphragm warmed up, and it helps to stimulate blood flow throughout the body, which is one of the main keys to warming up any part of you. Breathe in through the nose for a five-seven count, and then out through your mouth for the same. Try to keep your shoulders relaxed and let your stomach extend as you breathe in. Do not breathe in through your mouth, as it will cause your throat to dry.
Warm up the voice, tongue and lips - Start out with a little light humming through some rising and falling scales, gradually gaining in strength and volume to an open-mouthed "mah" sound. Do this several times, but don't push it. Move into making motor-boat sounds with your lips and tongue, still moving through rising and falling scales. Follow that by quickly speaking soft vowels preceded by hard consonants, like "ta ta ta ta ta," "da da da da," etc. "Bah" and "ma" are good sounds as well, and varying the "ah" sound with mixed in "ee" and "oo" helps as well. Again, run scales if you know them, or try to run steadily up and then down in pitch.
Tongue twisters - These are great for encouraging flexibility and good diction. Make sure you enunciate. In fact, you should over-exaggerate the movements of the lips and tongue -- even the face -- wherever possible. Here are a few good ones to practice with:
- Little Teddy Tucker toots his tooter toute suite.
- Sally sells sea shells by the sea shore.
- The sixth sheep's sixth sheep's sick.
- Nine nice nieces never noticed nine nice nieces noticing nine nice nieces.
- Babbling Baby Bobby.
- Peter piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.
- Popular people, people popular places.
- Betty Botter bought a bit of bitter butter.
Read aloud - Read a poem, a song, or a story from the newspaper -- but not as you would speak it normally. Instead, over-enunciate everything, and do your level best to wax emotive on the subject matter.
A theatre is really nothing more than a large room with (hopefully) great acoustics. A large room that is (again, hopefully) full of people that need to be able to hear you, even at the very back, often without a microphone. If you attempt to talk, sing, or otherwise perform for the back of the room without proper projection, your career will be a short-lived one. You probably won't even make it to the end of the performance. Save yourself embarrassment, pain, and a future that involves surgery to remove vocal nodes by supporting your voice with your diaphragm.
Think of your diaphragm as the foundation of your voice. It adds strength to your voice, cutting down on the strain of powerful use. Make sure you properly engage your diaphragm at all times to avoid damage.
To better understand the difference brought about by an engaged diaphragm, try this exercise:
While holding a single "ahhh" note in a regular voice, place your hand on your upper stomach and push inward -- not too hard of course, it shouldn't cause anywhere close to discomfort. The push will force the diaphragm upward, adding additional air to your note, and making the sound fuller. This is your diaphragm increasing the power of the sound, without any additional effort made by the vocal muscles. Grab hold of this feeling. Foster it. It will help you learn how to manipulate the diaphragm at will.
Things to Avoid
Believe it or not, talking is about the worst thing you can do with your voice. It is so second nature to most of us that we don't pay proper attention to what we are doing, and end up putting a lot of undue strain on the voice. If you have a performance coming up, try to keep talking to a minimum for as much of the day as you can, and especially for the two hours before showtime.
Other things to avoid:
Smoking - That's right, you heard it here first, folks! Smoking is bad for you. Go figure. The tar and the toxins are just not very conducive to anything positive, and they can both affect your breathing and damage your vocal chords. Best to avoid places where other people are smoking, as well.
Dairy - Dairy products create that thing we all love so much: phlegm. It can get pretty yucky in there, so best to avoid it before a performance. Another culprit: juice and other sugary drinks.
Cold - I don't mean the virus -- though that is definitely a problem, too -- I mean the actual state of being cold. Avoid it. Avoid cold drinks, too. The cold will make your voice tighten up, limiting your flexibility, and increasing the possibility of damage.
If you find that, despite your best efforts, your voice has become strained and sore, there are a few things that will help you out.
Drink a lot of water -- and make it warm. Warm water (or even hot, when sipped) with lemon and honey is also very soothing, but don't go heavy on the lemon or the honey or you will only make things worse.
Peppermint tea. You don't even have to drink it. Inhaling some of the steam, especially through the opening in a to-go drink lid, provides a nice soothing feeling to a sore throat.
Slippery Elm lozenges - These are relatively disgusting, most of the time, but are a great way to soothe a scratchy or sore throat.
A well protected and maintained voice is a necessity to your longevity as a performer or presenter. When in doubt, remember to keep hydrated, always warm up first, use your diaphragm to project, not your throat -- and try to speak as little as possible before showtime.
What techniques do you use to protect your voice?
This post is an installment of Terry Fox Theatre's Owning the Stage series, where we bring you tips, tricks, and techniques to help you increase your confidence, power, and presence while performing. Check out the other posts in the series here.