Friday Exercise: Voice and warmups

Posted on 24 July 2009

For standup comedians your most valuable asset is your voice. As such you will need to take good care of it. The last thing you want is for your voice to become hoarse or raspy during a performance, or worse still, lose it all together. Ongoing abuse of your voice can result in vocal cord nodules or polyps, the later for which you may need surgery to remove.

The four points you need to remember concerning healthy and effective use of your voice are:

  1. Good posture
  2. Proper breathing
  3. Projection
  4. Enunciation

Gentle warm-ups are a way to prepare your body to get the most benefit and least damage out of these points. Running is a good aerobic activity, but if you start running without warming up, you may damage your muscles and negate any benefits from the exercise. The same is true for your voice.

Posture warm-ups

Good posture, particularly good neck and shoulder posture, ensure that you are not forcing your voice. Air has a good clear passage in and out of your body and the muscles around your vocal cords will be less strained. The most popular piece of advice to assist with good posture is to imagine a string at the top of your head pulling you up. This helps to a degree, but without good body awareness, some misalignments may continue to be over-looked.

Stand with your back against the wall. Feel the places where your body connects to the wall.

Pull your shoulders back, so you can feel the entirety of your shoulder blades against the wall. Breathe in and slowly lift your shoulders toward your ears such that you can feel your shoulder blades sliding up. Breathe out and lightly drop your shoulders. Do this three times. Feel your shoulders relax into this position.

People who work at a computer are particularly prone to holding their heads forward and pushing their chins out in order to see the screen. While standing against the wall pull your chin in forming a turkey neck or double chins. The back of your neck will lengthen and move closer to the wall (not touching). Let this position go and sense where the most comfortable posture for your neck is now. Does your neck seem to be rising straight up from your spine? Do the turkey neck three times.

Place a hand between the small of your back and the wall. Sense how large the open space is there. Remove your hand. Now flex your hips forward so that the small of your back is flat against the wall. Release the flex. You should still have a space between the small of your back and the wall, but it may be a smaller space. Do three hip flexes.

Once you have adjusted your posture with these exercises take a step away from the wall holding your posture. Take three deep breaths and the observe what this posture feels like. I find if I have begun to slouch, all I need do is take a deep breath and allow my expanding chest to move my head and shoulders to the correct places.

Breath and projection warm-ups

Key to both proper breathing and strong projection is the diaphragm. Your diaphragm is a system of muscles just below the rib cage and above the abdominal cavity. A good way to find these muscles and to strengthen them is to place your hand just beneath your ribs and say “HUH-HUH-HUH-HUH…”. Feel the muscles bouncing up and down. Try deepening the tone of your voice, so you can really feel the trampoline effect forcing small breaths out of your body.

Adjust your body to the correct posture, slightly bend your knees, and hold your arms loose so they are hanging at the side of your body a little way from it. Close your eyes and slowly breathe in through your nose to a count of five while expanding your stomach. Feel the air lifting the lower part of your rib cage and then the upper part. Make sure your shoulders remain relaxed and do not move up and down.  As you breathe out through your mouth, do so slowly and lightly while still holding the muscles of your diaphragm gently taut and only fully releasing them at the end of a breath. Do this at least three times before going on stage in order to ground yourself. It’s also worthwhile taking up breath meditation or singing lessons to really learn how to control your breathing.

You will not be using your diaphragm to force breath and sound, but rather support strong projection. Another exercise to help with breath and voice is to just yawn loudly several times. Make sure to open your mouth and jaw wide and go “Aaahh!” Notice how little breath is required to make a big sound?

Enunciation and vocal cord warmups

For your jokes to be understood you will need to use good enunciation. I’m not talking about speaking like some toffy-nosed Henry Higgins, just speaking clearly. Part of that will be about warming up the muscles in your face and vocal cords so that they respond quickly and accurately each time you wish to form a word. A good start is to just open and close your mouth while massaging the muscles in your cheeks.

Quietly begin humming, take a breath, and continue to hum for two more breaths. Turn the hum into the sound of “mum-mum-mum-mum…” Go back to humming and hum like a siren: starting low and quiet, getting higher and louder, then lower and quieter again.

You should be familiar with the musical scale sung as “do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do”. Instead of singing the scale, speak “do-re-me, etc” with the same tone as the note, then go up and down the scale.

Finally and most fun, go through a number of tongue twisters to get your mouth and tongue in good working order. Here are a few samples.

  • Red leather yellow leather.
  • Eleven benevolent elephants.
  • Peggy Babcock.
  • While one slick seal slid up the slide, the other slick seal slid down.
  • While one purple porpose popped up the pole, the other purple porpoise popped down.
  • A critical cricket critic.

Tips

Before going on stage you will need your vocal cords to be moist and supple. Do not drink anything with caffeine in it nor alcohol, both of these will dehydrate you and the vocal folds. Lots of water before and during will be the biggest help. After a session warm water or a spoon full of honey will soothe the throat.

Peace and kindness,

Katherine


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