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Theatre Voice: Techniques & Exercises

Instructor: Rachel Matz

Rachel teaches acting and voice. She has an MFA in Acting and an MBA in Business Administration.

Explore vocal techniques and exercises to train the voice for theatrical performance. Learn how the voice works and what is needed for a healthy, resonant, and clear voice.

Understanding and Using the Voice for Performance

We use our voices every day to communicate ideas, emotions, and needs. In theatre, the voice is imperative for both speaking and singing. With their voices, performers communicate the dramatic truths of the characters through the dialogue of a play or the songs of a musical or opera. Breathing, phonation, resonance, and articulation are the fundamentals of vocal production and technique.

Anatomy of the Voice

The vocal mechanism includes three subsystems: air pressure, vibratory, and resonating. The air pressure system produces vocal fold vibration by supplying and controlling the air pressure using the following organs: the diaphragm, lungs, ribs, and abdominal and chest muscles. The larynx (voice box) and the vocal folds (vocal chords) are the organs used in the vibratory system to create sound and pitch through vocal fold vibration, called phonation. The resonating system amplifies the sound with the throat (pharynx), oral cavity, and nasal passages, creating the identifiable voice. Proper use of the voice involves the breath, voiced sound, and resonance to sustain vocal health and prevent damage.

Elements of Vocal Production

Connection to the voice begins with breathing. The diaphragm is the primary muscle for breathing and has a dome-like shape. During the inhale, the diaphragm flattens down into the abdominal cavity, and while exhaling, the diaphragm floats back upward towards the lungs, resuming the dome shape. The breastbone should be lifted and still while the breath enters deeply and expands the lower belly; however, the chest and shoulders should not move during the breath.

Organs for Breathing
Organs for Breathing

Phonation is the creation of a vocal sound or vocalization. An actor uses the voice to build their character with these considerations: pitch, pace, tone, volume, emphasis, intonation, age, dialect, speech pattern, and personality. Vocalizing is an important part of a singer's training using scales, vowels sounds, and other exercises to solidify technique and also help warm up the voice. Warm-ups help to avoid damaging the vocal folds for performers.

Your body creates a natural loudspeaker called resonance. Resonance causes vibrations in the body. On lower pitches, the sound vibrates in the chest (chest resonance) and higher pitches resonate in the head (head resonance). Articulation is the capacity to make every word, sound, and consonant clear. Good articulation breeds good diction, which means pronunciation. Resonance and articulation allow the voice to travel loud and clear throughout a theater, with and without a microphone.

Articulators and Articulation Anatomy
Articulators and Places of Articulation

Warm-Up, Breathing, and Vocal Exercises

Warm-Up Exercises

The body should be relaxed before working on breathing and vocal technique. Here are a few warm-up exercises to prepare the body for practice and performance:

1. Tuck your chin into your chest, and roll down your spine starting at the top of the head. Your head should move towards the floor, but the key is to lower down one vertebra at a time with a relaxed head and neck. You can bend your knees, if needed, so long as your hips are released. When you are done, shake out your torso, arms, head, and neck. Then, roll back up slowly, stacking one vertebra at a time until your head is aligned on your neck. Repeat this exercise to release any remaining tension.

2. Roll your neck gently in circles clockwise and counter-clockwise.

3. Roll your shoulders in gentle circles forward and backward.

4. Yawn to open your throat and lift your soft palate. Smile while you yawn to increase the stretch. Try voicing the ah vowel on the yawn.

Breathing Exercises

After a warm-up, the performer is ready to work on breathing technique. The posture should be erect but without tension. The spine is straight, the feet are a hip's width apart, and the head is upright and parallel to the ceiling. Repeating the following breathing exercises will strengthen the muscles used to support the breath and voice in addition to changing old breathing habits:

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