“Relax. Take a deep breath.”
For an actor, that’s not bad advice—but it is incomplete. Your voice is one of the main tools of your trade, and your breath is the raw material that allows that tool to work. The idea of “breathing life” into a character isn’t just a metaphor; the quality of your breathing affects not only the resonance and stamina of your voice, but also your bodily posture and mental focus.
Whether you’re preparing to belt out a Broadway musical or starring in a mumblecore indie film, proper breathwork is the foundation your performance is built upon. These breath control exercises will help you unlock your full potential as a performer, both onstage and off.
Your diaphragm is the elastic, parachute-shaped sheath of muscles that powers your breathing and separates the lungs from the abdominal cavity. When you breathe in, the diaphragm drops down, tenses, and flattens as the lungs inflate and the chest cavity expands. When you breathe out, the diaphragm relaxes, then stretches as it rises back up.
Voice teacher Andrew Byrne demonstrates how to feel for the diaphragm along the bottom of your rib cage so that you can establish a mental connection with it:
Now, you’re ready to tackle breathing exercises for actors and voice actors that will help you improve your breath control.
First, you’ll want to adjust the way you think about breathing. Hold your lips a bit apart as though you’re waiting to speak. Rather than an active, forceful inhale-exhale circuit, imagine allowing the air to “drop into” your lungs (much as the diaphragm drops down to facilitate this). Then, think of your exhalation as “letting go” of that air. Pause and wait for the next breath to naturally drop in. Trust in this little moment in limbo, and don’t force it.
Repeat this cycle for a minute or two, focusing on the rhythm and movement of the diaphragm. As actor and certified yoga instructor Natalie Roy says, the benefits of this awareness extend beyond acting. “When we can learn to relax and even extend the space between our inhale and exhale with ease, we can learn to more gracefully move in the spaces between work and active creation,” Roy says.
This simple, progressive sequence, called Square Breathing, helps to quell nerves and facilitate greater control. You can use it whether you’re waiting in the wings backstage or just feeling anxious about everyday life.
- Sit or lie down in a comfortable, relaxed position. When you’re ready, breathe in for a count of four.
- Pause and hold that breath for a count of four.
- Let the air out for another count of four, picturing your diaphragm rising and relaxing.
- Hold for the count of four.
- Repeat the cycle for progressively longer counts until you feel calmer. You can also start from a lower count than four and work your way up.
Byrne focuses on using full exhalations in this exercise in order to expand the diaphragm and improve your overall posture and improve breath control.
- You may sit or stand for this. If you can, lie down on your back with your knees up, feet planted, and lower back on the ground, as if you’re about to do situps.
- Let all the air out of your body through your open mouth. Do this until there’s nothing left, as if you’re deflating a balloon.
- Relax the tension in your ab muscles and allow air to drop back in, expanding your torso. Feel your lower back press into the ground.
- Take some natural breaths, then repeat the process three times. For a modification, try resting your hands on the floor above your head. You can also add tiny “extra” inhales and exhales at the end of each part, focusing on engaging your diaphragm.
- Stand up slowly when you finish so you can avoid a head rush from the influx of oxygen.
Here, we’ll add some vocalization into the mix with a challenging exercise to prime you for greater vocal control while acting or singing.
- Stand with your feet flat on the ground and your shoulders down and back.
- Place your hands over your diaphragm and key into an easy, natural breathing cycle.
- When you’re ready, let air drop in through your nose for a count of four.
- Release that air for four counts while making a “ssssssss” sound through your teeth.
- When you hit four, cut off the exhalation whether you’ve expended all the air or not.
- Repeat the process while increasing the exhalation count and/or changing up the vocalization (try voiced vowel sounds like “ooo” or “eee”).
Make this exercise part of your daily routine to see if you can increase the length of time spent holding that sound.
Dirga Pranayama, an exercise that encompasses deep breathing and relaxation, comes from the world of yoga. Manhattanville College dance and theater professor Jeff Kaplan says that Dirga Pranayama can produce performance-enhancing outcomes for any actor, including “relaxation, improved posture, lower stress levels, a pliable mental state, and a sense of well-being.”
- Place your hands on the side of your ribs, interlacing your fingers over the center of your midsection. Imagine breathing sideways, feeling your ribs expand out to your arms, then back in. Repeat this three to five times.
- Place one or both of your hands against the center of your upper chest, beneath your collarbone.
- Feel your breath expanding your torso and shoulders from the inside. This is the upper, or clavicula, breathing pattern; the others are the middle (intercostal) and lower (diaphragmatic).
- Do this a few times, and take note of how your body and mind feel.
- As you do the exercise over time, begin to cycle your hands and focus between these three areas. Repeat the cycle seven to 10 times, feeling the energy coursing from your head down to your pelvis.
These breath control exercises can be utilized at every stage of your acting career. Make them a part of your process so that when the next cast list goes up, you are calm, centered, and won’t be left holding your breath.