Breathing and Resonance for Good Voice Production

Published: 11th March 2006
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Improving one's ability to communicate is a significant step towards improving an individual's sense of self esteem and self confidence. As a Teacher of Speech and Drama and a Voice Tutor, I am often called upon to train people in the most effective way to use voice and speech as a means of improving their general communication skills. The following article is based on material originally produced for a set of 2 CDs produced under the title "Effectively Speaking", which are available on my website: . Before you start any of the exercises, make sure you have to hand a glass of water at room temperature, as you need to keep your vocal tract moist. It will also help to have a cushion for your head during the floor exercises.

First of all, let's consider how it is that our lungs, which are encased in a bony cage known as the thorax, or ribcage, are able to expand and fill with air at all. If you poke yourself with a finger in the middle of your upper chest, you will find a solid central bone. This is the sternum, or breast bone. If you follow this down with your fingers to the point at which it comes to an end you will find, on either side of it, the bottom of your rib cage. Follow this round to left and right with the fingers of each hand. You will find that it goes all the way round to the back and eventually attaches to your spine. If you look at a diagram of the thorax, you will see that all the ribs have a front section of a different shade towards the front. These are the costal cartilages; elastic, stretchy tissue, allowing the expansion and contraction of the ribs during breathing. You will notice that the cartilages of the lower ribs are much larger than those of the upper ones and that the seventh to the tenth ribs are only attached to the sternum via the cartilage of the one above it. The eleventh and twelfth ribs are not attached at the front at all and are therefore called "floating ribs".

Between the ribs there are strong muscles known as the intercostal muscles. These are used to swing the ribs upward and outward to create sideways expansion of the thoracic cavity during breathing. At the same time there is downward movement of the diaphragm, the large dome-shaped muscle situated at the base of the thorax, separating the upper from the lower abdomen. You can visualise it as shaped like an upturned dinner plate. It has a very strong central tendon, which is what provides the downward movement, creating lengthwise expansion of the thoracic cavity. Once lengthwise and sideways expansion has been achieved, air rushes into the lungs in order to equalise the pressure and this is what we know as inspiration or breathing in. In addition to the movement of the ribs and the diaphragm, the lower abdominal muscles move outward during an in-breath. This is in order to shift the internal organs, in particular the liver, which takes up the largest amount of space in the chest cavity, out of the way of the descending diaphragm. When we breathe out, the intercostal muscles release, the diaphragm rises to its former position and the abdominal muscles move inwards.

You can feel these movements happening if you lie on the floor on your back with your head on a cushion and knees raised. First just lie there as relaxed as possible and breathe in and out gently as you would if you were asleep. Find the bottom of your rib cage and place your hands there as you breathe. You should be able to feel the outward swing of the ribs with each breath.

Then place your hands on your abdomen, over the navel, and feel the outward movement of your abdominal muscles.

To feel the action of your diaphragm, place a finger just underneath the bottom of your sternum and make a short, sharp "pssh, pssh" noise. You should be able to feel your diaphragm jump.

Follow the bottom of your ribcage round with your fingers to the sides and tuck your fingertips under the bottom ribs. Make the "pssh, pssh" noise again and feel the movement of the ribs.

Place your hands two fingers breadth above the pubic bone and repeat the same noise, noticing the movement of the abdominal muscles. Do not get up from the floor too quickly or you may feel dizzy. Turn onto your side first of all, then get up onto your knees and stand up slowly.


For the following exercises stand with your feet slightly apart in a straight line from your hips. Your chest should not be lifted or your shoulders pulled back, neither should you be slumped or pulled down. Think up through your spine, the top of your head leading upwards, eyes looking straight ahead. Imagine an invisible thread attached to the top of your head, towards the back, being gently pulled upwards by an unseen hand. It will help to check your posture in a full length mirror.

The vocal folds (formerly called "cords") are situated inside the larynx and stretch across the top of the windpipe, attached at the front and the back. For normal breathing they sit apart and the breath passes through the gap between them, known as the glottis. To speak, they come together and the action of the breath stream from below sets up vibrations which are passed on to the air stream. However, this sound is not yet a voice but a mere squeak. To become voice, it now has to be passed to the resonators, the main ones being the pharynx (throat), the nose and the mouth. The head and chest are "secondary" resonators, picking up the resonance from the main resonators..

Breath in on the ribs, place your hand on the top of your head, toward the front. Hum and feel the vibration in your skull. This is the head resonance.

Hum again holding the nose gently but firmly between the fingers to feel your nasal resonance.

Continue humming and place a finger lightly on your lips and feel the vibration there. This is your oral resonance.

Still humming, gently feel your throat with your finger tips either side of your throat, just below the jaw line. You should be able to feel your throat or pharyngeal resonance.

Finally, place the flat of your hand on your upper chest, just below the collar bones to feel the chest resonance.

If you have any difficulty finding resonance in any of these places check that your head is neither pushed forward or pulled back and that there is no tension in the shoulders, neck or throat. The following are good exercises for your resonators. Aim for as much resonance as possible, testing for resonance with your fingers:

Throat: intone ONG. Then put a consonant on the front - song, tong, bong, pong.
Nose: intone NOO, NAW, NAH, OON, AWN.
Mouth: intone, HUM, COME, HOME, ROOM.

Video Source: Youtube

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