Anyone who has ever had to speak in front of an audience has experienced stage fright. This kind of public speaking anxiety is a normal reaction to fear. Human beings are no less susceptible to the “fight or flight” reflex experienced by other species in the animal kingdom. The good news is that there are simple techniques that we can utilize to help ourselves not only relax, but channel our adrenaline effectively, thus performing at peak levels.
Experienced stage actors, and other public “performers” know that it is usually impossible to get the butterflies in your stomach to go away. However, you CAN get them to fly in formation.
Borrowing skills and techniques from the theatre, as well as a few actors’ secrets, the next few Hot Air articles will introduce simple, easy to use exercises that, if practiced, can significantly improve speaking skills, voice quality, and confidence. I will share with readers some tips I’ve learned over the years as a stage actor on proper abdominal breathing, vocal warm ups, and other ways to strengthen your voices and prevent vocal strain.
I. Back to Basics Breathing
What do you mean I don’t know how to breathe? Actually, most of us have forgotten how to breathe properly, or more likely, we have been taught to breathe ineffectively. David Thorpe, transformational breathing facilitator and alternative health and spiritual researcher, claims that approximately 90 percent of us use less than 50 percent of our breathing capacity. Less than 50%!!
Think about what happens when something scares or startles you. Most of us gasp, pulling a tiny amount of air into our mouths and throat. And then we hold our breath. Hold your breath right now. Keep holding it while you continue to read. Notice what it feels like. Notice the tension in your chest. Notice how hard it is to relax. Now try to speak. Feeling a little tense, are you?
Tension is one of the main causes for improper breathing. As we just illustrated, fear plays a role in that tension. Another cause is posture, or rather, what most of us have been taught to do so that we exhibit “good posture.” Stand up straight. Shoulders back. Stomach in. Holding your stomach in causes a tremendous amount of tension in your abdomen, which makes it impossible to breathe properly and efficiently.
So what happens to a person when they get up in front of a group to speak? Stage fright. Butterflies. Sweaty palms. Thoughts racing. Tension everywhere. Shallow breathing.
Many of us know that when we’re nervous like this, we need to take a deep breath. Unfortunately, most of us don’t take “good” deep breaths. Go ahead. Take a deep breath. Did your chest fill up with air? Could you feel your shoulders rise? Do you feel more relaxed?
Try this exercise: Lie down on your back, or recline in your chair, and place your hands on your stomach just above your bellybutton. Take a slow deep breath through your nose and imagine you are pulling the air into your stomach area under your hands. You should be able to see and feel your inhale push your hands up. Exhale slowly through your mouth and watch your hands sink. Your shoulders should not rise, nor should your chest cavity expand. Imagine you are about to drift off to sleep. Close your eyes and try it a few more times. Notice your hands rising and falling. (Almost fell asleep, huh?)
That’s proper abdominal breathing. By lying down, you allowed your abdominal muscles to relax, which is what we do when we are asleep. And that’s what we have to re-learn how to do when we are awake, when we are standing up, and when we are giving a speech to 782 of our not-so-closest friends.
Once you’ve “got it” lying down, practice proper abdominal breathing standing up. Stand in front of a mirror with your feet about shoulder width apart. Relax your abs, and place your hands on your stomach just above the bellybutton. Inhale through your nose for about 4 seconds, and watch your “stomach” fill up with air. As when you are lying down, your shoulders should not rise, nor should your chest cavity expand. Exhale slowly, for about 8 seconds. Repeat a few times.
Some of you probably feel more relaxed already. For others, it will take some practice. And yes, it is possible to stand up straight and achieve effective abdominal breathing. It just may not come naturally – yet. After a little bit of practice, you will be breathing properly – and more effectively – once again.
Abdominal breathing isn’t just for butterfly control either; effective breathing can have an enormous impact on your emotional and physical health. Did you know that improper breathing can lead to low energy levels, high stress, increased fatigue, aggravated asthma, and insomnia? On the other hand, good breathing not only improves energy and decreases stress and fatigue, it can actually lead to healthier digestion, improved heart function, and the elimination of voice strain. Individuals who practice Yoga, Tai Chi and other such forms of exercise, probably already know some of this and are realizing the wonderful benefits of breathing right.
Proper breathing. It’s not just a lot of hot air.
Tune in next time when Hot Air from the Spare shares more Secrets from the Stage, including Vocal Warm Ups that Strengthen Voice Quality, Tone and Volume.