Breathing and speaking come so naturally that most people don't think about them in their daily routine.
But for broadcasters, speaking is part of a product that is being sold to an audience and, therefore, needs attention and development. Singers train for hours each day to use their voices effectively, and they take special care of their vocal cords, which they often refer to as an "instrument." Actors also train their voices and, just like athletes, go through special warm-ups before a performance. The need to train the voice and prepare before a performance applies to broadcasters as well. Pleasant vocal quality is fundamental to a broadcaster's presentation. It requires work, but anyone can make improvements to voice quality.
The most basic requirement for good voice quality is proper breathing. As odd as it sounds, many people don't breathe correctly. Good voice quality depends on full breath support, which is controlled by the large muscle partition between the chest and the abdomen, called the diaphragm (see Exhibit Right). Inhaling deeply should draw air down below the chest and into the abdomen, so that the diaphragm expands and pushes the stomach out. As the air is exhaled, the abdominal muscles contract and control the air as it is released. If you watch a trained singer, you can actually see the stomach protrude when air is drawn in and watch it slowly contract as the air is exhaled. Singers invest many, many hours in training these abdominal muscles, just as an athlete develops specific muscle groups. Broadcasters can also benefit from improving their breathing technique.
To find out whether you are breathing correctly, take in a deep breath. Where does the air go? If the air goes very deep into your abdomen and stomach expands, you are breathing correctly. Put your thumbs around your sides, pointing toward your back, and let your fingers rest across the front of your stomach. When you breathe, your stomach should push your fingers outward. If you take a deep breath and the upper chest expands, the air is going to the wrong place and won't provide the necessary support for good vocal quality.
Try breathing into your chest and speaking, then breathing into your abdomen and speaking. You should be able to hear a noticeable difference in the vocal quality. If it is difficult to hear the difference in yourself, ask someone else to try it, and see if you can hear the difference when the person speaks.
Drawing breath into the chest, or shallow breathing, is the most common breathing problem. A foolproof way to feel where the breath should go is to lie on your back with a book on your abdomen and breathe in deeply. The book should move up and down. In a prone position, it is impossible to breathe shallowly, into the chest area. While in this position, breathe deeply and count slowly as you exhale. The higher you can count while slowly contracting the abdominal muscles, the better vocal control you will be able to exercise. Repeating this exercise while standing or sitting and counting to higher numbers is a way to improve breath control. Learning to draw in larger amounts of air and to control the exhaled breath for longer periods of time can improve the sound of your voice.
The purpose of good breath control is to cause the vocal cords to vibrate fully in a relaxed manner. The vocal cords are membranes at the top of the trachea, or windpipe, that vibrate to produce sound, as shown in Exhibit (Left).
To visualize the way the vocal cords work, think of a rubber band. If you hold the band taut between two fingers and pluck it, it vibrates and makes a sound. The stronger the pluck, the fuller the vibration. In our voices, the breath equates to the force of plucking the rubber band. The breath causes the vocal cords to vibrate—and the fuller the breath, the more complete the vibration. A weak pull on the rubber band does not allow much vibration. Thin breath support does not produce the fullest vibration or the best performance from the vocal cords. Broadcasters who want to get the best performance from their voices develop the ability to provide full, controlled breath support for their vocal cords.
Avoiding Nasal Sounds
After learning to provide the fullest possible breath support, the broadcaster must learn to direct the air properly. There are two ways for the breath to leave the body—through the nose or through the mouth. If the air exits primarily through the nose, the vibration will be mostly in the nose rather than in the vocal cords, producing an irritating nasal sound. Releasing the air fully and primarily across the vocal cords through the throat and mouth produces better sound quality. Some nasal resonation accompanies the vibration of the vocal cords and can enhance the sound, but the amount of air that is pushed out through the nasal cavity should be limited. A simple exercise illustrates the difference: Breathe in deeply, count to 10, and then try to push all the air out through your nose. In contrast, breathe in deeply, count to 10 and release all the air through your throat. The most comfortable and natural sound results from releasing most of the air through the throat and mouth and allowing some slight resonation in the nasal cavities. (It is possible to force the air too much, resulting in a tight, harsh sound.)
Deep and fully supported breath with full vibration of the vocal cords goes a long way in producing a rich, pleasant sound, but the position of the mouth also plays a role in vocal quality. If the mouth or throat is tight, the air and sound may be restricted. The more open and rounded the throat and mouth, the fuller the sound will be. The position of the jaw, tongue and lips shapes the air and controls the formation of words. Again, think about singers. If you watch opera singers or even some popular singers, you will notice that they open their mouths very wide. An opera singer can produce an enormous amount of sound with the mouth wide open and lots of trained breath support. Popular singers don't attempt to produce as much sound, but they do relax and open their mouths and jaws to guide lots of air. Broadcasters should also produce a full, rounded sound, which is assisted by an open, relaxed mouth and jaw muscles. In summary, the muscles related to breathing combine with those in the throat and mouth to determine the quality of the voice. To relax the muscles of the mouth and jaw, broadcasters warm up prior to making a presentation.
Like the athlete warming up muscles before a game, the broadcaster wants to make sure that the necessary muscles are warm and relaxed. The audience would surely not appreciate hearing news anchors deliver the news sounding like they do when they first wake up in the morning, before the vocal cords are warm and the air passages are clear. Anchors and reporters want to go far beyond getting rid of the clogged-up morning sound and may choose to do breathing and vocal exercises before a newscast. Those who want the fullest, most relaxed sound possible will employ some simple warm-up exercises, such as humming or breathing deeply and holding an ahhhh or hmmmmmmmm sound. Loosening the mouth, tongue and jaw muscles can be accomplished by repeating sounds that include vowels: lalalalalalalala, mememememememe and sosososososososo. The lips can be warmed up with the sound people often make when they are cold: bbbbbrrrrrrr. All of these exercises should involve full, deep, abdominal breath support. Combined with relaxation exercises, these vocal exercises will ensure pre-newscast preparation.