One of the biggest challenges for an actor’s voice is a role that requires a lot of screaming. While the high emotional stakes of these parts can be very fulfilling, it’s important to make sure such vocal demands are approached safely.
Let’s take a moment to talk about what a scream is: When we shout, our vocal cords are pushed together, which increases pressure. The throat muscles that perform this action are explosively powerful, but over the course of a long rehearsal, they can quickly get fatigued. The vocal cords will then begin to swell, resulting in hoarseness. To avoid this result, try these screaming tips:
1. Use less air.
Yelling is an instinct that is designed to work with no preparation. Therefore, the mechanism of the scream is designed to work best with very little airflow. It may seem that taking a big breath before yelling would make sense, but that’s not the way it works. The more air we have in our lungs, the faster it wants to rush back out, which increases vocal strain. So to shout in a more vocally healthy way, blow out most of your air right beforehand; it may surprise you how efficient your vocal instrument is.
2. Open your throat in advance.
Our throats are ringed in muscles known as constrictors; these muscles are designed to help us swallow food and liquid properly. They are not intended as muscles of phonation; if screaming is making you vocally tired, you are probably engaging your throat constrictors in an improper fashion. The two throat motions that reduce constriction are a silent laugh and a silent sob; depending on the emotional content of your scene, try creating one of these shapes in your throat before shouting.
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3. Make extra noise in your soft palate.
Bloodcurdling screams often have a “rattle” in them, i.e., a noise other than the sound made by the vocal cords. If you have to produce a scream like this, the rattle should be produced in your soft palate, not your throat. To find this additional sound, you can think of the end of the German word “ach”; you should feel it at the upper back part of your mouth. If you add this sound on top of a scream, the effect can be both terrifying and vocally safe.
4. Stabilize your neck.
A good scream technique requires a steady neck. Try interlacing your fingers and placing your palms on the back of your skull. Gently but firmly press your head back toward your palms when you scream. You can also place a fist against your forehead; try yelling while pressing your head forward against your fist.
5. Put your back into it.
Back muscles are the extensors of our body, and part of their job is to decelerate movement. Most of us scream with too much respiratory force, so your back helps you balance out that tendency. Any pulling motion with the arms will engage your back; try some arm movements that feel natural and strong to you, and use them as you scream.
6. Bend your legs.
If you watch sports, you will see that athletes often take a position where their knees are bent and their hips are flexed; think of a tennis player waiting to return a serve or a baseball player about to steal a base. This position provides a mechanical advantage for explosive movement. A scream is explosive in a similar way; try bending your knees and letting your body hinge at your hips when you yell.
7. Warm-up and cool down.
Never scream on a cold throat. If you are a singer, you should do a vocal warmup before yelling. If you don’t sing, do some voice and speech warmups, or at least some slides through your range on a hum or an “ng” sound. After the show, do a cooldown for your voice; I prefer descending scales or slides on “oo” and “ee.”
*This post was originally published on Oct. 11, 2016. It has since been updated.
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