Continuing Professional Development – First Learn to Breathe!
At the start of working life it may seem unimportant to consider how you actually speak words. For some it gets overlooked and unremarked upon through the whole of a successful career. For others it becomes a thing that prevents promotion, can even hinder the way you manage your relationships. It also delivers uncomfortable internal tensions the cause of which remain a mystery.
Over the summer I spent two days at a workshop entitled ‘The Accent Method’. Let me add this was nothing to do with regional or foreign accents, but all about using rhythmical released breath flow to help create a free and relaxed sound.
It has made me think a great deal about the voices we hear at work. In addition it has made me very conscious of how little breath many of us use when we speak. The result of this is that voices can become tight and tense or far too quiet. Or, driven and harsh. Physics dictates that sound can travel – we can hear each other across space. For our voices this means that our sound travels on our breath. If we don’t release enough breath and it is under-powered then so is our speech. The upshot of this is that our communication suffers. We are not easily heard .Breathing is an autonomic system thankfully. It takes care of itself.
Technique versus content
Breathing for speech is a slightly different matter however. We create bad habits that impede the release of breath and therefore affect the way we speak. Luckily the muscles and structures of the voice are very adaptable and flexible and respond to exercise. It is usually inappropriate tension that is actually the cause of such issues. We hold on too tight and forget to properly use that wonderful thing that keeps us alive – our breath! So what we need to do is to unpick the bad habits and learn new ones.
Are you inappropriately tense?
We all tend to notice the tension in our shoulders after a day at the computer – the dull ache, the stiffness is our neck. These are easy to recognise. But how often do you think about tension in your voice or that you hold your breath in certain situations. I have had women complain of a rising pitch when they get angry or emotional – this is tension that may start in the torso and affect the shoulders then the pharynx and squeeze the life out of our voices!
I have also talked about the fashion of ‘creak’ today in many casual speakers. The word ‘epidemic’ could in fact be used here. I was recently in a train carriage and the creak in the voice of the woman opposite had reached such a level she was at once heard by everyone and terribly hard to listen to. Her voice had the same effect as a finger nail scraping a blackboard. Creak is the result of lazy phonation; no vocal energy, not enough breath.
We do take our voices for granted until something goes wrong or someone steps in to give us feedback. Our body is often given second place to our brain function. The muscular activity we do in a day goes unnoticed until we try some ‘extreme’ version. We can walk for hours but only notice our leg muscles when we have to run. We will eat at a table, on the hoof, snack or have our three daily meals and these fuel us comfortingly until we get indigestion. So, whilst I appreciate what I should be doing when breathing and speaking what I am achieving from a technical point of view can be remarkably different.
To get good results from our voices and therefore, for many, our best means of communication we have to know we can change them. We have to hear our own and other peoples voices and have a vocabulary to describe what we hear. We have to become vocal analysts.
Learning how to breathe in relation to how I speak in different situations is something that I have chosen to study over many years. Training in The Accent Method really brought this home to me once more.