Sul fiato/Singing On the Breath - What is it and how has it been misinterpreted?
A client of mine was discussing some of the concepts we work on with a former teacher/professor of hers. He agreed with the things she said and told her they were much the same as he taught.
One of the statements he made was that he always taught “sul fiato”. Since she had studied with him she knew that he did not teach the same things we work on. So she asked me what is the concept of sul fiato and is it the same as what we are after?
Sul fiato is a concept of the old Italian school of singing. It means “on the breath”. Many more are probably familiar with the English version of the concept of singing on the breath. The problem is it has been misinterpreted by modern pedagogues to fit the popular “breath flow” model of phonation.
To understand the true meaning of “sul fiato” we must also include the concept that always went along with it, “col fiato”. Which means “with the breath”.
When we include both concepts we can see that what people are talking about now is actually col fiato, but they are calling it sul fiato. And it doesn’t matter what language you use, there are plenty of people talking about singing on the breath but based on their demonstrations they mean with the breath.
It seems to me the problem of misinterpretation comes from a misunderstanding of what is meant to actually be on the breath. The typical statement is the voice on the breath. So what do we mean when we say “voice”?
This is why I developed my basic premise of talking about the voice as being the physical mechanism of the voice, the larynx. Because what many people mean when they say the voice is actually the sound of the voice.
So if the sound is what is meant when they say the voice, then if they think of the voice on the breath they are actually going to be trying to blow the sound with the breath. Which will end up causing a severe imbalance in the larynx.
This is one way to create the #1 mistake singers make that I talk about in my article available to free members of the VocalWisdom.com community. (Sign-up on the Home page) Because in order to feel like the tone is on the breath we need to exhale loose breath through the larynx.
And if we do that there is no way for the larynx to be stable or for there to be a pure vibration. And lacking these conditions is the fundamental reason for most of the problems singers experience.
So as I said before, if the breath is flowing out that is actually singing with the breath. It feels as if the sound and the breath are flowing together. Which I believe is what confuses people.
I believe this confusion of the breath and the tone stems from the fact that they are both air. I have discussed this before, but a quick review might be worthwhile.
Both breath and tone are air, but they are different manifestations of air. Breath is the more obvious to understand. We breath air into the lungs and we exhale air. But tone is air that has sound energy passing through it. The sound is actually the energy and the air is just the medium for transmitting it.
The air of the breath is compressed into air pressure which causes the vocal folds to vibrate. That vibration creates disturbances in the air like a rock dropped into a pond disturbs the water. The ripples in the air is actually sound energy that travels like the waves we see in the water.
The air of the tone, like the water example, is more effective for transmitting the sound waves the more still it is. Which is why we don’t want the breath to flow out during the producing of the sound. (Beside the obvious fact that doing so distorts the vibration of the vocal folds because we breath through the opening of the glottis.) Because flowing breath will cause the air of the resonance to move, diminishing its effectiveness as a transmitter of sound.
You can imagine the difference between dropping a rock into a still pond versus dropping into a flowing stream. The waves in the pond will be nice, regular undulations. In the flowing stream the waves will be dissipated quickly by the moving water.
Now, the correct interpretation of the concept of “on the breath” relates not to the sound but to the actual mechanism of the voice – the larynx.
When we phonate reflexively and completely so the vibration of the vocal folds is not leaking unvocalised breath we can feel that the voice is on top of the breath. It is much like how a boat is on top of the water.
It is buoyant, but also feels quite solid. A feeling of stability can also be noticed. This is actually a very critical condition for the balance of the instrument.
The relationship between the voice and the breath is the basis of a healthy functioning instrument. They need to behave as partners in the vocal act.
It could be described that they lean into each other for balance. Most people are familiar with the idea of the breath going up. I would describe it as the breath leaning up against the larynx.
Many may not be familiar with the idea of the voice (larynx) leaning down into the breath. This is an element of “appoggio” that many don’t recognize. Most think of appoggio as simply “support”.
Unfortunately support is a concept that is not clearly defined for many that use it. A good illustration of how the breath supports the voice is the boat on water image I mentioned. The boat rests on the water and the water supports it.
It is actually a two-way relationship. We tend to only think in one direction at a time. This is why the concept of support tends to cause imbalance, because when we support we only do the breath up but we don’t think of the other direction of the larynx stabilizing down.
But this lack of stability of the larynx is the root of many vocal problems and especially vocal injuries.
This is represented by the fact that the client that asked this question was diagnosed with nodes before she came to me. And it is obvious that they were caused by this imbalance between the voice and the breath.
She had been taught to sing with a great deal of airflow, and to increase it as she sang higher. This only caused her discomfort, and then ultimately her voice started giving out. I will be including a series of blog posts detailing her circumstances and recovery in the future.
I have another client that suffered from the same imbalance, though fortunately she did not develop any physical injury. But she did lose her ability to sing any high notes.
It was a perfect example of singing with the breath. And she was not a beginner. Even with the imbalance she was still able to accomplish some impressive things toward her goal of being a career-oriented singer.
But we don’t need to suffer from vocal dysfunction to experience negative consequences of this mistaken condition.
Most difficulties that people experience with the voice can be traced to an imbalance in this relationship between the larynx and the breath.
The good thing is it is not a very difficult thing to learn to balance the relationship and experience quick improvement.
When you experience balance for the first time it almost seems like a miracle. But it is just simply the natural result of finding an appropriate balance between these fundamental components of the vocal instrument.
Please leave any questions or comments below. And if you have been experiencing difficulties with your voice let me know and we can start to address them. I feel everyone deserves to experience the enjoyment of a free, balanced voice.