Reading Aloud 7: Breathing

This entry is part 7 of 17 in the series Reading Aloud

In puppetry we say that breathe carries the emotion. The only time a person notices another person breathing is when it’s important, when it’s carrying information. The simplest example is what happens when you look at someone lying down. You automatically notice if they are breathing, to make certain they aren’t dead.

But there are other things that breath comunicates. If you see someone, whose chest is heaving then you know that he’s just exherted himself. Laughter is a form of breath. And how many characters do you know who have gasped in surprise. The quality of breath indicates how someone feels.

When you are performing a character this is good to remember, but it’s also important to remember when you are speaking as yourself or as the narrator. If your breath comes rapidly, you will convey an unconcious sense of panic to the audience. So let’s talk about how to breathe while speaking.

This is a fairly mechanical way to remember, but it is where I breathe and will help your reading in general. Breathe after every period. If it’s just a quick catch breath, then you’ll convey a sense of urgency so think about whether that’s appropriate. Besides improving the flow of oxygen, it will force you to pause after periods which is generally a good idea.

Really, what I’m asking you to do is to inhale before beginning your next sentence. It’s something you do naturally when you speak or act, because your brain a) stops to gather its thoughts or b) knows how much air you need for the next sentence so it catches it.

The period acts as a stop sign. While you are in that tiny space between sentences, read ahead quickly with your eyes. You’re cueing your brain on how big of a breath it needs to take.

You are also setting the emotional tone for your piece. A thoughtful passage might have longer pauses, while a shorter one will be more clipped with less space for breath. You know when you’re writing an action sequence and reach for the shorter sentence? In part you are doing that because it gives the impression of faster breaths. Allow me to demonstrate. I’ll read the same passage with even breaths and then again with faster ones. Naturally, this affects pacing in general.

Normal:
[audio:dullcomputer.mp3]

Frantic:
[audio:franticcomputer.mp3]

See how much the tone changes by picking up the tempo?

So, unless your fiction is full of spine-tingling thrills, remember to breathe. In some ways, you can think of that space between sentences as the space for thought. The more the thought changes between sentences, the more space you’ll want to allow for it.

And really pause for a couple of nice good breaths at section breaks. Not only do you deserve the oxygen, you also are cueing the listeners that things are changing.

Of course, in an ideal world, this would only be for cold readings. You will have practised this at home and will have built the breaths in. In fact, when you are preparing your manuscript for reading, you can use the singer’s mark for breath. Put an oversize apostrophe anywhere you know that you really need to take a breath for the emotional content of the piece.

And deep breath before you go on stage, just to get rid of the tension.

Now. Here’s a special treat, just for Jason. One more way that breath can change a reading.
[audio:sexycomputer.mp3]

Series Navigation<< Reading Aloud 6: Recording tricksReading Aloud 8: Vocal fatigue >>
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12 Responses

  1. Mary Robinette Kowal

    I’m glad you’re enjoying it. I’m going to go back and add audio to the first pieces of the series. I’ll let you know when it’s up.

    And someone needs to ask a question soon, ’cause I’m running out of material.

  2. Jason Erik Lundberg

    I really dig these lessons as well, Mary, and the audio examples help quite a bit. (And you can count me as another Jason who likes the breathy reading. 🙂 )

    Okay, a question from me: On my own podcast (shameless plug), I occasionally read pieces that go over a half-hour, and I notice that my voice at the end is higher than it was at the beginning, presumably from exertion. What techniques might you use to build up endurance and ensure consistence for longer performances?

  3. Maggie

    I have two questions:

    We want to hear your young fairy voice (I believe) that you were practicing for Sesame Street.

    What do you do when you make a mistake, or cough, or have to clear your throat, or take a drink of water?

    I know that a person can take a break when recording a reading, and one can take a drink then. I also recall readers for the talking books for the blind making mistakes and just saying something like, “Excuse me,” and moving on. But would you re-record the mistake?

  4. Mary Robinette Kowal

    Jason, you are so in luck. The piece I’ve got planned for next week is on vocal fatigue.

    Maggie…. Well, okay. I can’t remember exactly what I did for that, but what you really want to hear is how stickily cute I can be. I’ve just recorded Lesson 2 on Character Voices, and you can hear me being four-years old there.

    Personally, I would re-record the mistake. Unless you are recording on tape it is really easy to stop, back up to the beginning of the sentence and start again. May I recommend Audacity as an excellent and free audio editor program? I’ll do a piece on live performance though to cover how to handle the things that can go wrong, and there are more than you would think.

  5. Amal

    So I started listening to the “special treat,” got about five seconds in, blushed, looked around, and turned it off. Not office safe, madame! ; ) Certainly not in the UAE, anyway.

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