Most breath-control problems stem from a lack of understanding of phrasing, especially from overlooking pauses that offer the opportunity to take in a breath. Others are caused by simply delivering at too high a volume or not staying relaxed. Anxiety is the mortal enemy of breath control.
Pauses give us obvious openings to breathe and, if the pause is a long one, a chance to grab a big breath. Most long sentences can be broken up into several shorter phrases or clauses that can stand alone and can therefore offer many breathing opportunities. Mark them when prepping your script.
A word about loud delivery: stage actors, as well as amateurs who are new to voice over often project the message as they would on stage. This is a surefire way to run out of breath. Delivering at a comfortable, relaxed, conversational level will conserve your breath in a way that may surprise you.
You should breathe in, not on the end of a phrase, but in preparation for the next phrase. There should always be some follow-through at the end of every phrase that immediately precedes a pause.
Keep your breathing relaxed and try not to overdo the intake. Don’t rush it, either. I have heard many broadcasters (mostly from reading too fast) take short, quick gasps for breath that are frequently quite audible. The use of electronic compression often exacerbates this phenomenon. Easy does it. Try to pitch the breath as low as you can by making the opening in the back of your throat as wide as comfortably possible.
One way that you can build up your breathing stamina is to take a script—any script—and read it in an easy, relaxed, but expressive manner, all while eliminating every pause. The idea is to take a comfortable breath in the beginning and go as far into the script as you can without taking another breath. Try using the same script for a few days for this exercise. Each time you read it aloud, mark how far into the script you ran out of breath. The next time you do it, try to go a word or two or three further. Over time, you will be amazed at how far you can go without a breath. When I first started this myself, I could only do two to two and a half lines. After working on it for several months, I was able to do fourteen to sixteen lines. Many of my students have achieved similar results.
Here is another exercise that will increase your breathing capacity, as well as relax you:
Take a quick deep breath and let the air out immediately, using no resistance. In—one, two. Out—three, four. Do this a few times with thirty to sixty relaxed seconds in between so that you don’t hyperventilate.
Then take a quick deep breath in as before, with your body relaxed, and instead of letting out the air on a count of two, immediately after you breathe in, purse your lips as if you were going to whistle a very high note. This will immediately create resistance to the air expelling outward, allowing it to escape very gradually. It is very important that your body stay relaxed, so the only resistance to the expelling air is your pursed lips, not your diaphragm. Let the air out and continue to push it out until you can’t stand it any longer. Then breathe in normally to relieve the discomfort. This drives endorphins right to the brain, and it will relax you. (Don’t do it repeatedly, or you may hyperventilate and faint.)
Doing one of these just before you do a take is a great way to ward off anxiety. Do the exercise once as just described. Then do another, but this time, instead of breathing normally after pushing the breath out, make the next breath intake the preparatory intake for the first line of the script you’re delivering. You can also use this in the previous exercise that eliminates all the pauses.
What you are doing here is substituting the resistance of your pursed lips with the resistance created by your vibrating vocal cords. Keep your body relaxed. Let it operate as a bellows. The air is sucked in quickly and let out very slowly. How slowly will determine how many lines you are able to deliver without running out of breath.
If you do enough of these exercises and do them as part of your practice regimen, you will be pleasantly surprised at how efficient your breathing will become. Be sure to make the intake as quiet as possible. Keep your throat open.