Breathing for Broadcasters, and Everyone Else for That Matter.

I recently attended an acting class at York University in Toronto and one of the participants came over and introduced herself. “Hi I’m Anita,” she smiled. I was taken aback by her friendliness and ease in approaching me. “Wow, to be around people who come over and smile and introduce themselves to a stranger,” I said. I’m used to smug Torontonians. Heads are down, eye contact is avoided, stay out of my space attitude.

In fact I’ve often felt rather lonely or frustrated in this city because no one seems to want human communication. I’ve smiled at strangers on the subway, even said hello. There’s never been a response. One man I tried speaking to on the subway pulled out his cell phone. It looked like he might call 911 and report me.

Has being friendly in person gone out of fashion?

Or has everyone switched to social networking and speaking to a human ‘live’ is no longer thought of as a viable way of expanding the social circle.

So, something about Anita’s greeting struck me. She had a strong, memorable presence. She’s tall and she wasn’t afraid to show it. Her posture was erect. She faced me when she spoke. She was relaxed. Notably her breathing was relaxed and even throughout her body, not stuck in the upper chest. She was physically open to give and receive.

I thought about Anita’s job as an actor. She has to be open to all people so she can portray them in her work.  She’s trained to be porous and pliable; ready to respond to her scene partners and release her emotions at any given time. I likened her to a tennis player ready to hit the ball when it’s volleyed to her side of the court.

 We have to be relaxed in performance.

I likened her to our role as broadcasters and how we have to be equally relaxed in performance. Especially since the trend in broadcasting is to be “real” and “interactive” with the audience. We too have to work with no extraneous tension.  I asked voice professor, David Smukler at York University, how broadcasters can best achieve this state. “It begins with breathing,” Smukler says.

He encouraged me to conduct a general survey on breathing at an RTNDA conference in Toronto. “Do you perform with awareness of your breathing?” All of the respondents said no.

 “Do you give any thought to what might prevent you from giving your best performance?”

Their answers included, over-thinking, hair, clothes, it comes naturally, or “I don’t think about it.” But no one said anything about breathing.

I also asked if any thought was given to tension or holding of the muscles. All of respondents said no. Typically my announcing students lock their sternums which inhibits the breath from moving freely. That’s also true of many professional news anchors.

“Military personnel are trained to lock the sternum and cut off the breath supply in order to be prepared to fight,” Smukler says. “They don’t want to feel any emotional connection to their opponent.”

I believe many news anchors don’t want to feel anything either. They want to control or inhibit feelings so the story-telling is balanced.

We have to find the delicate line between telling the story and getting involved in it.

It’s interesting to note that breathing is both voluntary and involuntary and if we wish to develop our natural voice we need to find balance between the two.

To obtain breathing that’s responsive to the story and delivery of it, we have to remove any restrictive tensions. When the tensions are removed the breath and voice can release.

“As you renew your breathing deep in the body, the oxygen that is released into your blood and your brain will enhance your ability to function,” Smukler says. “The breathing muscles will become responsive to speaking if the voice originates from deep in the body.”

How can breathing help us connect with the audience?

“Everyday, relaxed, normal breathing has more or less a universal pace. That is, everyone breathes in a shared interactive rhythm once habitual tensions have dissolved and involuntary responses are re-established,” Smukler says.

Before we speak if we can determine if we’re at the same breathing pace as members of our audience who are sitting on a couch or in a car, we’re already becoming interactive with them.

When we do speak our natural voice should be transparent and revealing. The story-teller should be heard, not the broadcaster’s voice.

All of that said, how do we allow the breath to flow freely and release our voices?

Here are some guidelines:

1. Check your spine.

Thirty-one-pairs of nerves are attached to it. It’s the main message carrier in our body. Information travels from the cortex of the brain, down the spine to the periphery of the body and visa versa.  If it isn’t aligned the channel through which the voice travels gets distorted. Close your eyes and do a quick scan from your head to your feet and then back up your legs to your torso. Relax the tight muscles so the spine and breathing muscles can release.

2. Check your breathing.

Try locking your sternum and observe what happens to the breath. Then release it and see what happens. If the sternum is locked the breath can’t move freely from the belly to the speaker system.

Now exercise a sigh of relief and observe what happens to the breath. If the breath didn’t go all the way down to the belly, relax your abdominal muscles and let the breath down.

If you have the sensation of breathing from the belly and the lower back both areas will expand when you let the breath in. Now try it again and sound the sigh on a “hah.”

If you’re having trouble sensing the breath travelling that far down, when you get home lie down on your back with knees bent, both feet on the floor. Take a moment and observe the belly rising and falling. Now let the bent legs release over to floor on the right and place your hands on the ribs on the left side. Observe the breath as it fills the side and back ribs.

When I ask my students where the diaphragm is located they place a hand in the front of the body below the ribs. That’s partially correct. Note that the diaphragm extends from the bottom of the front ribs in front around to the back. And we get most of our breath from the lower back lungs. That means we have to be physically unlocked in the front and the back for the diaphragm to do its job.

4. Check your jaw.

One of the strongest muscular defence systems is in the human body is in the jaw hinge. We place a lot of speaking tension in our jaws. It’s very easy to use them to try to control what we’re saying or feeling. With your index and middle finger make a small circular motion on your jaw hinges and let the jaw hang.

5. Check the back of the tongue and the soft palate.

Nervous tension can cause the tongue to bunch up in the back up in the throat. Since the tongue is attached to the larynx it affects free play of the vocal folds. Take in a big breath, have a yawn and let it out. It gets the breath flowing, stretches the soft palate and releases the back of the tongue.

6. Check your current thought.

Where did it initiate from? It’s common to assume the brain. But take into account what you’re feeling as well as what you’re thinking. Now try letting a release of breath initiate the thought.

We’re accustomed to breathing and hearing our voices in a certain way so we think that’s right.  If you want to improve your voice we have to make some physical adjustments.

And here’s a little something else to ponder. The medical term for breathing in is “inspiration.” So imagine a new thought comes in with each new breath. When the old thought leaves it expires through the “expiration” of breath.

And as Professor Smukler always reminds me, “as long as we’re breathing there’s no dead-air.”