Fringe Benefits part 2: Screaming, yelling… and surviving!

Here’s some tips to make sure your vocal chords don’t suffer. These can be applied to any actor, particularly if you’re touring on stage.

Is there screaming, shouting, and lots of vocal hullabaloo during your show (maybe even before and after?) Give your voice a break by treating it to a warm up AND a warm down.

Warm up before the show

Getting everything vocally switched on before the show allows you to be connected to the moment during the show, rather than thinking or worrying about your voice. These top warm up tips have been devised for vocally demanding shows such as The Crucible, but of course you can benefit from these exercises whatever show you’re doing. A warm up is always a good idea, and the more the voice is expected to do, the more thoroughly you should warm it up.

Firstly, it’s important to say that there’s a difference between a scene that demands a scream or a rant, and those moments when you simply end up pushing your performance and using inappropriate effort. The times where you are disconnected from the text or character and you assert too much mental effort on stage, you end up pushing mentally and physically. When this happens the support muscles are tight and you end up pushing and straining your voice. In these instances, pay attention to your warm up and go back to the text. Ask yourself, ‘what was I aiming to achieve?’ Remind yourself of your aims and objective within the scene. Go through the warm down to ease some of the strain.

How to prepare for the moments where the scene requires a scream or an intense shout

Do you ever shriek with laughter? Think of the freedom of laughing. Remember where you hurt when you laugh? That’s where all the muscular effort is focused; in your abdominal support system. The throat never hurts when you shriek with laughter. This can be a good way to think about screaming. Don’t let the negative emotion create physical tension. Remember the freedom of laughter and release your screaming or shouting impulse in the same way.

Step One: Stretching and releasing the instrument

Ensure the whole instrument is free from tension by stretching and releasing your pelvis, abdomen, spine, ribs, shoulders, neck, jaw, soft palate, tongue, cheeks and lips. Breathe through these stretches, to stretch and release the breath too.

Step Two: Centring and energising the breath

No matter how intense the emotion, an actor always benefits from allowing the centred swing of the breath to function at all times. If you do not have a centring exercise, try this one:

  • Lying down, or standing up in a neutral position, place a hand on your belly button.
  • Use an extended, gentle ‘Sssss…’ to release the air.
  • Let it go, like a slow motion swing, until you feel it naturally want to swing back.
  • Release all tension and allow the swing of breath to flow back in under your hand.
  • Feel it suspend like a swing, before sending it out on another ‘Sssss’.
  • Let it go, like a slow motion swing, until you feel it naturally want to swing back.
  • Release all tension and allow the breath back under your hand.
  • Repeat this 4 or 5 times.

Step Three: Connect spinal and abdominal breath support to the released instrument

  • Maintaining the swing established above, add stronger support from the abdomen and spine by using ‘Shhh’ and ‘Ffff’ in place of ‘Sssss’.
  • Stand up.
  • Place one foot forward and engaging your centre, push an imaginary weight (for example, a piano), using ‘Shhh’ or ‘Ffff’.
  • Keep the shoulders down, the neck and spine long, the jaw released and the throat open.

Step Four: Change the impulse to ‘sudden’

  • Picture a diamond extending from the bottom of your sternum to your pubic bone and across from each side of your waist.
  • Place your hands on this diamond.
  • Feel it contract as you say ‘Shhh’.
  • Imagine you are like a toothpaste tube with an open top, and a well-shaped neck, being squeezed up from the bottom.
  • Use the spine to support the inward and upward squeeze.
  • Lengthen the spine as the abdomen contracts.

Step Five: Warming the voice

Pitch glides and sirens really can’t be beaten to warm and free the whole voice. Until the voice is
warm it can help to use an ‘NG’, like on the end of the word sing, to anchor the tongue in a forward
position. Keeping the tongue forward and released is essential to healthy screaming!

Basic Siren

  • Stand with your feet hip-distance apart and your weight slightly forward.
  • Place the tongue in an ‘NG’ position with the jaw open and relaxed.
  • Let the breath swing in and use support to siren all the way up and down your range.
  • Let the breath swing back in and repeat, extending the range both ways each time.

Swing and Fling

  • Imagine a heavy bag of anything you want to be rid of, lying on the ground just behind you. You are going to reach back, drag it along the floor, lift it up, swing it over your head, and fling it into the distance, watching as it goes and lands. A bit like the Hammer in the Olympics!
  • Reach back for the bag as you breathe in.
  • Drag it along the floor, lift it and swing it around like a lasso over your head as you siren up
    through the notes on an ‘NG’.
  • As you release the bag, release the tongue and soft palate. Let the voice fly out as you siren
    down on an ‘Ahhh’.

Do the above exercise again, this time using the words, ‘Why’ and ‘Yes!’ instead of ‘Nnngahhh’. This will anchor your voice in the facial mask. The worst thing you can do when you scream is let the voice fall back into your throat!

  • Drag and lift the bag on the ‘Why’.
  • Swing on the ‘Y’.
  • Release on the ‘es’?

Warm down after the show

Just like an athlete who warms down after an event, it’s always good to do a voice warm down after a show. You can do this while you’re taking off your costume and getting dressed. You can be on the move; there’s no need to stand still and focus on your voice. Just taking five minutes or so to settle your voice box and throat back to their ‘starting positions’ will make a big difference.

  • Stretch out your tongue, lips and jaw.
  • Stretch out the back of your tongue. Flop your tongue out on to your bottom teeth and
    gently open your jaw. Do a big yawn with your tongue hanging out.
  • Rest the tongue tip behind the bottom teeth and roll the rest of the tongue forward and out of the mouth.
  • Your tongue is attached to the cricoid cartilage, which acts as a sling for your larynx/voice box. Stretching the tongue helps to reposition the voice box after it’s been doing some severe vocal gymnastics.
  • Do some gentle ‘horse blows’ on the lips without voice. If your breathing apparatus is too tense it’s often hard to get a horse blow out. Horse blows help to relax the breath.
  • Stretch out your jaw muscles. Things may have got a bit tight, and you may have been clenching your jaw through parts of your performance.
  • Hold your chin and gently ease your jaw down and back. Generally in a warm up and down, try to avoid moving your jaw from side to side too much. We don’t use that movement for speaking, only up and down.
  • Do some chewing, big and small.
  • Go back to gently easing the bottom jaw down and back again.

Now give your vocal chords a gentle stretch

  • Start on a low vocal creak and come onto a gentle low hum. Alternate between creak and hum. You’ll be coming on and off your voice.
  • Then on a low comfortable hum, gently siren up and down as far as you can go through your range.
  • Imagine you’re a little whining puppy, and get to as high a pitch as is comfortable. Then whine and pine away!
  • Imagine you’ve received a juicy piece of gossip, Frankie Howerd style: ’Ooooooh! ‘
  • Lastly, do some gentle sirening up and down through your range.

If your voice is feeling tired, or even sore, a steamer can be a really good way of soothing it. You’ll see them billowing steam into a lot of dressing rooms, including the Royal Opera House, Shakespeare’s Globe, The National Theatre and the RSC. You can buy a facial steamer from all sorts of outlets, or a bowl of hot water with a towel over your head will do the trick just as well. The steam helps to lubricate the areas that drinking water doesn’t reach. And it’ll make your skin look fab too!

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