Breathing & Vocal Exercises for Actors

September 28, 2021 by Kathy Grable

Exercises for the Voiceover Actor

Last month, I talked about exercise, the importance of vocal warm-ups, and more. This month, let’s discuss specific breathing and vocal exercises. 

Breath Control: I cannot emphasize enough the importance of proper breathing and breath control. There are so many techniques for breathing for different workouts—yoga, Pilates, and many others—it can be confusing. 

Proper breath control for a voiceover artist means using your diaphragm. How do you breathe from your diaphragm? You actually use your diaphragm every day—every time you take a breath in and every time you exhale. It is active during inhalation and exhalation. I’m often asked, “How do I know if I am doing it correctly?” Here’s an exercise. Lay on your back on the ground. Then relax and breathe. Put your hand on your abdomen. You should be able to feel your abdomen and hand rise and lower with each breath. You breathe correctly when you are sleeping.

The goal is to have a sufficient amount of air with minimal effort. You want steady inhalation and exhalation, and to breathe from your diaphragm efficiently. Here are a couple of exercises to make sure you are breathing from your diaphragm and also helping with vocal coordination and control.

Diaphragm Control:

  • Step One: Align your body well while standing up or sitting down. Put one hand one your abdomen, and one hand on your lower ribcage.
  • Step Two: Inhale. Feel how your abdomen and the sides of your body are expanding. Make sure your chest and shoulders are not moving up and down. That would mean that you are filling up only the upper portion of your lungs, and that would mean that your diaphragm is not working efficiently. Instead, your torso should expand in all directions. While you cannot feel your diaphragm, your hands will tell you how engaged your muscles are, or if your torso is collapsing. Do this slowly.
  • Step Three: Exhale with a long shhhh and observe that your abdomen and sides of your body are moving slowly in. Do not do this fast, but keep your body expanded as long as you can. This means that your diaphragm is ascending slowly. Make sure you exhale all the air from your lungs. This will help you inhale efficiently since your body will want to draw the air in. It will also prevent you from hyperventilating or fainting. Also, maintain the expansion on the shhhh.

Hissing Exercise: Hiss first with short bursts. Make sure the body is not collapsing and is moving inward right away, yet that your body is maintaining the expansion.  Then go to a long hissing sound. How is your body maintaining expansion? Only at the very end of hissing will your torso go back to original standing position. This is a good exercise to help increase your stamina.

Remember your diaphragm moves up and down like a parachute or umbrella, not in and out.  

Vocal Warm-ups: Make sure you’re not holding tension in your throat or in your jaw. Then do a nice, easy massage of your jawbone where you feel any tension—especially where your jawbone hinges—and lightly massage. As you feel it relax and slack a little bit, work your way up and down the jaw line, then bring down the thumb anchored underneath the jaw line, anchor index fingers under your chin and massage gently.  

Wake Up Facial Muscles and Tongue Stretches: You may have heard this called “The Lion” in yoga. Stick your tongue out as far as it will go, open your eyes wide, and say a gentle aaaah.

Start with your regular speaking pitch and then build from there. It’s good to start with your resting pitch, or just a nice, easy hum. The way to find your resting pitch is to imagine if someone asked you a question, and you answered ‘hmmhmm.’  So many of us are used to talking in our throat or the “vocal fry” sound, that we don’t realize what we are doing to our vocal cords. 

Start with your regular speaking pitch or a hum and then build from there.  Here are some more specific ways.

  • You can start with light humming, then go from humming to “mmmmamamade me eat my M&M’s.” Then move down a half step in pitch and repeat, continuing down half a step at a time.
  • Hum, and then go into “Ma, may, me, mo, moo.” Move down half a step in pitch, repeat. Keep going down half a step at a time. You will feel the hum in the back of your nose.
  • Warm-up Apps: Some apps I have heard of actors using to do warm ups are: “Warm Me Up” and “Singer’s Friend.”
  • Tongue Twisters. Go back to those fun tongue twisters you used to impress people with as a child. One of my favorites to warm up with is, “Weather the weather is cold, or weather the weather is hot, whatever the weather, we’ll be together, whether we like it or not.” Also try: “Peter Piper picked a pack of pickled peppers,” or “She sells seashells by the seashore.’ You get the picture. Sometimes I read billboards while I’m driving if I have an early session, although make sure this is at stop signs, and obviously keep your eyes on the road.
Kathy Grable

Kathy Grable

Kathy Grable is an L.A. voice-over prototype with a warmth and sincerity that reminds listeners of a close friend. You’ve heard her in animated shows like Tom & Jerry, Rocket Power, and Futurama and commercials for Pepsi, Disney, Dunkin’ Donuts, Burger King, and as the Baskin-Robbins “Talking Spoon.” Kathy was also the voice double for Nicole Kidman in the hit film Batman Forever. On-camera, she’s been seen in Mike & Molly, Harry’s Law, Last Man Standing, and The Wedding Band on TBS. She’s a sought-after V/O coach, director, and demo producer. When not performing, Kathy co-owns and operates a company that distributes e-books, comics, audio dramas, and her own podcast, In My Voice, with guests from all aspects of the voiceover world. Find it on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts and Spotify, or go to https://anchor.fm/kathy-grable0 for all the episodes.

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