I was wondering if I could obtain your opinion on a matter of breath management. Lamperti emphasizes the importance of compressed breath (which I gather, is from the correct amount of contraction in all muscles between the waist and pelvis) and a well positioned thoracic cage where air is drawn with good posture and a feeling of intercostal expansion.
This seems to be very helpful. However, I was wondering what Lamperti, and mostly everyone, means when they say to use “more breath energy” as one ascends the scale?
What do people (who know what they are doing!) mean when they ask for more breath energy?
I also wanted to ask if perhaps you could also explain the incorporation of the quadratus lumborum in the breathing mechanism (the ‘small of the back’). It seems that a lot of teachers argue for its incorporation during the breath, but I don’t seem to feel it. Do you have any suggestions on how to ‘awaken’ that muscle group?
(The reason I ask this is that it seems to be related to my prior question. A lot of teachers call for ‘lower breath’ and more ‘expansion’ in the lumbar region.)
These are very good questions. And important ones to understand correctly if we are to have things working effectively. The first thing to understand about the concept of compressed breath is that it is both an action and a condition. What you have described is the action of compressing the breath. The contraction of the breathing muscles in the abdomen which in a sense “squeeze” the chest cavity and compress the air in the lungs.
The condition of compressed breath is also an important one. This happens when the respiratory system gets sealed off from the outside air pressure by the closing of the glottis. When the glottis closes it creates a condition where the air inside of the lungs is under compression. When this happens there is more potential energy to feed the pulsation of the glottis than if the air is in a normal state.
Learning to utilize this condition can make the act of singing much more automatic and less effortful, as well as stronger. In fact, it can make the act of “more breath energy” an automatic response.
This concept of more breath energy is one of the biggest traps for singers. The common interpretation of this is to actually use (expel) more breath. That is not what is meant. We need more energy which comes from the compression of the breath. But it is not the breath itself.
So we want to start with the breath in a compressed state, which requires the glottis to be closed. This allows for a perfectly clean vibration of the vocal folds. Then as we are singing, if we desire to intensify the tone, sing a high note, connect more, we can “use more breath energy” as part of the coordination to accomplish this.
We do that by then increasing the squeezing action of the breathing muscles of the abdomen. This happens to some degree automatically in response to our desire to sing higher, more intensely, or whatever. But it will only happen if we are thinking along the same lines as the body. If we have the idea that we should have our abdomen pushed out this automatic response will not happen.
If we don’t start with the glottis closed and the breath in a compressed state we will leak breath as we phonate. This leak will increase as we try to “use more breath energy” and we will end up using more breath and not getting the energy we need.
Regarding the lower back in the breathing. There are muscles that run down the back and sides that are connected to the diaphragm, ribs and pelvis. These work together with the muscles in the abdomen to coordinate everything the respiratory system does. Inhalation, suspension and compression of the breath.
Usually, in normal respiration the muscles of the back are not called into action. At least not to the degree that we will notice them. An exercise that was used to help develop the desired coordination was to lay face down on the floor with the hands folded to allow the face to lay on them.
In this position the abdomen is against the immovable floor. With the abdomen unable to expand because of the floor, the back muscles would then take over the act of contracting the diaphragm. Through repetition this will become familiar.
To transfer this to a standing position we need to make sure the abdomen is in a stable position of slightly in and up. This is effectively accomplished by exhaling first so the abdomen is drawn well in. Then by resisting the expansion of the abdomen as we inhale we can feel the muscles of the back take over.
This will put us in a state of compression so we are prepared to sing on the energy that comes from compressed breath. But I must point out that the abdomen must not be allowed to expand freely. It will expand some, but it is always against the resistance of the inward abdominal muscles. And breathing while keeping the abdomen mostly in does not have to cause us to take a high, lifting breath with the chest. It should feel like we are breathing all over between the middle of the chest to the middle of the abdomen.
Too often, because of the avoidance of the undesirable high breath, we have singers being encouraged to breath low to the point that they are collapsing their chest in order to feel the expansion in the lower abdomen. This is completely unnatural and destroys the potential for coordinated use of the respiratory system to feed the voice.
So remember that the direction to “breath low” means control the breath low in the body. It does not mean try to feel like the breath actually is low in the body. You can’t make your lungs be in your abdomen. And the diaphragm is basically in the middle of your chest. So when it descends it reaches the bottom of the ribs. This only makes right under the notch of the sternum bulge. It doesn’t make the lower abdomen bulge.
This is why the lower ribs must be allowed to expand on the inhale. The diaphragm is connected to the lower ribs. And their opening is an important part of the descent of the diaphragm. This all takes place around the middle of the torso. This is another way to interpret the “breath low” directive. This is lower than the upper chest, where we want to avoid the high breath.
So don’t fall into the trap of trying to breath too low. It actually causes the breath to be almost as shallow as breathing at the top of the chest.