Q&A: The Process of Breathing
I found your article about compression and breathing into the back very interesting. I’ve had a heck of a time trying to get my head around proper breathing – ‘working’ techniques seem to come and go with varying success, though vocal fatigue is usually inevitable whatever I try.
I’ve got a great singing teacher who’s a highly qualified professional singer and is big on breath support and bel canto technique. I’m still confused as to the process of breathing and I wonder if it would be useful to lay out your breathing technique in a step-by-step way for those of us who are confused.
For months I thought the ‘support’ was the slight tucking in and up of the abdomen, followed by a ‘low’ breath. I was then corrected and told to breathe low FIRST and then tuck in and up. Recently I’ve had best results by breathing ‘into the back’, feeling a distinct bulge in the small of the back which allowed a fuller sound and better pitch, though the tuck in and up didn’t seem to help this.
Now your article suggests that the sensation of this abdomen tuck is felt when I fully exhale, which felt right immediately, especially the way it forced the lower breath into the back – so do I let this ‘tuck’ happen naturally by exhalation at the end of phrases, or do I learn what the abdomen feels like in this position and then draw into it AFTER taking the breath? Or do I just keep it in this tucked position at all times? Or should I just give up? (That last one was a joke – I’ve got a huge gig coming up as lead singer of my band so it’s not an option anyway.)
It is good you have been exploring this to find what works. The thing of it is, I wouldn’t recommend trying to do any of those things. We must first set up the body in an elastic, upward stretched condition. Part of that is the in-and-up of the low abdomen. So posture comes first.
The position of the lower abdomen is a support for the spine and internal organs. Without it the abdominal contents sag out and pull on the spine. This distortment of the torso causes muscular imbalances and tension that interfere with the automatic behavior of the breath compression muscles.
Because it is part of the postural condition the lower abdomen should always be in-and-up. It is a common belief (though mistaken) that the abdomen needs to be released out in order to breath freely. (I’ve even observed singers unbuckle and loosen their pants ala Thanksgiving to allow for more distension of the abdomen.) This is not actually true. We can breath perfectly fine with it in. It can still move in and out, it just doesn’t need to be released out. An easy way to find this position is by exhaling first.
It sounds to me that you are so focused on doing things with your breathing that you are over-riding the natural, instinctive behavior of our breathing. Our natural behavior of the body is always the most effective. So by trying to control things you are basically trying too hard, causing imbalance and fatigue.
The best option I have found is to just breath, not try to breath in a certain way. It can very hard to not do things and allow the body to behave naturally. As I said before, the abdomen should be gently drawn in as a postural constant along with a long feeling in the torso. Then we just breath. I like to visualize the lungs doing the inhalation, elastically expanding, and then exhaling through the natural recoil of that elasticity.
The thing I have found with this approach is since the lungs have no muscular ability of their own, by thinking of them doing the work the involuntary muscles of the respiratory system are stimulated to act with no conscious interference. We should feel the lungs inflate, while at the same time the flexible ribs expand, the diaphragm descends and the upper abdomen comes out some after starting in. But we don’t “do” those things, they happen reflexively.
The feeling in the back is a part of the whole. There is some expansion back as well. It exists because the diaphragm connects to the back ribs and the back ribs connect to the pelvis with the back muscles. The problem with trying to emphasize any part of the breathing complex is it exaggerates that part so the whole is distorted.
The other issue is when we breath deliberately we disconnect the breathing from the larynx. And if we are going to get instinctive function of the larynx we can’t afford to do that. Conscious breathing generally will immediately exhale or require tension to restrict.
There is a recommendation from G.B. Lamperti that applies – “Breath a little bit over a large area rather than a lot in a small area.” When we breath a lot in a small area, like just the abdomen or the back, we distort the system. A distorted system is less efficient and loses the automatic quality.
We tend to forget that breathing is an involuntary system that we make voluntary. The best option is to try and behave as naturally as we can, which is the involuntary behavior. We should allow the automatic functions of the body to take care of as much as we can. We don’t determine or control it, just maybe guide it to make sure it is behaving correctly.
You also mentioned support. This is a concept that has become very confused with all of the differing opinions. The simplest place to start is to understand that support is a condition, not an action.
Any attempt to actively support is a deliberate use of the breath. No matter if the act is pushing, pulling, squeezing, exhaling or any other possibility. Any deliberate use of the breath will separate it from the vibration of the vocal folds. Which will cause it to overpower the vibration and force the voice bigger than is appropriate. This is how we get out of balance.
Another quote from Lamperti applies here,”Let the voice take the breath it needs.” When we sing the vibration needs to start first, then it takes the breath it needs to feed it and keep it going. If we use our breath by giving it to the voice faster and in greater quantity than it is ready to use, we force it to expel the breath out through the vibration causing imbalance. This happens whether we deliberately support or we unknowingly relax and exhale while we sing.
So the procedure is: First set up the body with a feeling of stretch through the torso. Breath by quietly filling the lungs without expanding much in any one place. Feel the elastic quality of the expanded lungs and strive to retain it. Don’t let the inhale position drop until you are done singing. Initiate the vibration by simply saying what you are going to sing freely with the larynx.
While singing the phrase there will be some natural deflating of the lungs as puffs of air escape with the vibration, but we never want to relax and let them collapse. That is what the old timers called “la lotta vocale” – “the vocal struggle/contest”.
We are trying to not let the exhalation come by continuing to try and inhale. Singing on the “Gesture of Inhalation”. Then the breath supports the voice naturally rather than overpowering it. The breath should support the voice like a good spouse or parent should support us. Just by being there for us to lean on when necessary, but not pushing us or doing the work for us.