As singers we all experience challenges with our voice. Some are minor and temporary. Others act as a brick wall to our progress. But over the 25+ years I’ve been observing voices I’ve come to realize that most difficulties with the voice are related to this one critical component:
THE SIMPLE ACT OF EXHALING THE BREATH WHILE SINGING.
Yes, simply by letting the breath out while singing we create most of our problems. The multiple elements of this issue can be confusing. Not to mention the fact that many of us have been taught to do it.
Now, I imagine plenty of people are thinking right about now, “wait a minute. The breath has to go out while we sing!”
Well, let me clarify. Yes, the breath does go out while we sing. But the mistake is in how much and in what manner. It must not go out as breath. It must go out as rapid puffs of sound vibration. A tricky thing about this is it happens at such a small dimension that we don’t feel it as a release of breath. We just feel it as a continuous vibration.
This is the purpose of the old instructions to control the breath. or remain in the gesture of inhalation The misunderstanding of what was meant by “control the breath” has caused modern pedagogues to throw away this valuable advice.
“Breath control is the first and most important thing in singing. Without good breath control nobody can sing well, no more than a violinist can play well with poor bowing.”
– “How to Sing” David Björling (Jussi Björling’s Father and Voice Teacher)
Today we hear the instruction to manage the breath. This comes from a reaction against the word “control”. There is a feeling among modern pedagogues that using the word “control” in relation to the breath causes singers to create interfering tensions.
Perhaps that is true. But it results in a sort of “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” situation. There is an implication in every directive statement. And instructing a singer to “control” the breath does imply a holding of some kind.
But the instruction to “manage” the breath implies an outflow that needs to be “rationed”. Now, that could possibly still represent the type of coordination I will describe. But generally this term is used in relation to the concept of breath flow. And as I stated above, a balanced release of the breath as a vibration feels like no breath at all.
In fact, this concept of breath flow has become so common that the majority of voice teachers describe their approach to voice production as Flow Phonation.
This goes completely counter to the older tradition of breath control. There actually is a sort of “holding” as the term implies. It is a specific kind of holding and requires a development of coordination and skill to perform effectively to avoid creating unwanted tensions.
But singing is a highly coordinated skill. And we shouldn’t deem something wrong just because it takes skill to perform correctly. In good coordination there is a holding of the breath. The critical distinction that must be made is we hold the breath with the respiratory system and not with the throat.
That in a nutshell is the meaning behind “remain in the gesture of inhalation.” When we inhale the air-way is open, so remaining in that gesture is a positive condition for the resonator. But the more important aspect is by keeping the inhaling muscles active we are able to hold the breath in a flexible, dynamic state. It is even more accurate to say the breath is “suspended.”
The proper control of the breath was considered the most important aspect of singing, not because we need a constant outflow of breath to keep the voice going. It was considered important because a lack of control will cause the breath to release through the glottis, destroying the balance of the vibration.
“It is not breath, but pent-up pneumatic energy that feeds initial vibration of the singing tone. To be able to accumulate this confined power and control its release, to feed the pulsation of the glottis, is an absolute necessity for every singer.
“Escaping breath acts as an entering wedge ‘splitting’ the vibration. To counteract this, the singer muscularly tightens his throat, and guttural tones result. ‘There are two ways of singing badly – breathily or gutturally.’ (Lamperti) A focussed, dark-light tone is a sign of healthy relationship between initial vibration and compressed breath.
“Such a tone can be ‘played on’ – made loud, soft, dark, light, somber, gay – without disrupting the connection between vibration and breath. The initial vibration must never be diluted with escaping, unvocalized breath, nor crushed with muscular effort to prevent the same.”
– “Vocal Wisdom, maxims of G.B. Lamperti” William Earl Brown
So, how does this problem start?
First, we need to understand the nature of our body and nervous system in relation to breathing and vocal production. There is an automatic relationship hard-wired into our nervous system between our respiratory cycle and the glottis. (The glottis is the opening between the vocal folds)
When we breath there is a four-part cycle that includes inhalation and exhalation, with a short suspension period between each. So after we inhale there is a moment of suspension and then after we exhale there is a moment of suspension.
The important thing to recognize regarding the breath cycle is when we inhale and exhale there is an automatic, involuntary opening of the glottis to allow air to pass in and out of the lungs. Then during the moment of suspension the glottis closes, automatically.
The action of the glottis is below the level of our awareness. We can’t really feel when it closes as part of the breathing cycle. (If we think we can feel it we are likely actually feeling the larger valve muscles that more completely close the airway to protect the lungs.)
This is critical to understand because if we consider that for phonation the glottis should be in a closed position, we will see that the automatic opening of the glottis creates a problem.
What this means is, if we try to sing and exhale at the same time we will be trying to do opposing actions. And essentially, that is what singing on an outflow of breath is. The body attempts to close the glottis from the stimulus to phonate while at the same time being stimulated to open the glottis for breathing.
I would estimate that 95% of singers are taught to sing with an outflow of breath. I was when I was a student, and so has just about every singer I work with or observe. It is a frequent response from clients, “this is completely opposite to what I was taught.”
But they quickly start to experience the benefit of not releasing excess breath through the vibration. This is the fundamental difference between modern singers and the great singers of the past. The complete opposite behavior of the breath.
So if we try to sing, like many of us have been taught, by exhaling to “move the air” we basically are giving our body two, opposing instructions.
One to phonate, which stimulates the glottis to close.
The other to breath, which stimulates the glottis to open.
It’s not hard to see the conflicting commands being sent through the nervous system. It’s like trying to open your eyes and blink at the same time. It just doesn’t work very well and creates the tension that many were trying to avoid to begin with.
Obviously, when you try to do two opposing actions at the same time neither is performed very well at all. It results in an incomplete action. And that is a very accurate description of most of the singing I observe. Incomplete action.
When this condition exists from the singer trying to exhale while phonating, the most obvious result is a breathy tone. Or certainly a weakened tone. But this is not the only possible result. There are other results that are less obvious, and that can make it difficult to assess the real problem and how to solve it.
For example, a singer might be experiencing a closed throat and be instructed to use more breath to release it. (The “guttural tone” referred to in the Lamperti quote above.) This might seem like a logical thing to do, but what is not realized is under the surface of the closed throat is an open glottis because of a lack of breath control.
When dealing with the voice we tend to overlook the involuntary, reflex nature of the body. In the case of the singer with the closed throat, the body is involuntarily closing the throat to resist the outflow of breath. This is performed as a compensation for the lack of appropriate resistance of a closed glottis.
Because this is an involuntary reflex there will be little success trying to use more breath, since that is what the original cause was. Rather, what needs to be done is to go back to the original vocal gesture and make sure the glottis is allowed to close by controlling the breathing to not exhale.
I have been discussing concepts such as glottal closure and resistance. It is important to point out that these are NOT things we try to do, but conditions that are set up by proper coordination.
It is generally recognized that the larynx is a valve-like mechanism. But what is not as widely recognized is the larynx is really like a double-valve. One valve is small and consists of the true vocal folds that close the glottis for phonation and for protection of the air-way.
The second valve is a larger one above the true folds. This second valve is made up of the false folds, (or ventricular folds) and the sphincter-like musculature that surrounds the top of the larynx.
These larger muscles are active during swallowing. This is why they are often referred to as the “swallowing” muscles. They completely close off the air-way, as well as the larynx itself.
These muscles are also involved in heavy air-compression gestures like grunting, coughing and the Valsalva maneuver, like when lifting a very heavy object.
It has been correctly stated that the vocal folds can’t handle high levels of air pressure. Because of this, when there is too much breath, these larger muscles become involved as a means to compensate for the glottis being over-powered.
Usually when singers are first experimenting with the idea of glottal closure they inadvertently bring into play these larger muscles. I suspect this is because these muscles can be felt and are more noticeable.
They are also more familiar because of their common use in other natural functions. Combined with the fact that the true folds are not really able to be felt. So trying to close the glottis generally results in over-activity.
The fact that these larger muscles are more likely to be used, which creates a heavy production, is why approaching the voice with talk of the glottis has generally been dismissed by vocal pedagogues.
Many tend to misidentify these larger muscles as the actual vocal folds. As a result they either end up with a heavy production, or they recognize the undesirable condition and conclude that closing the glottis is a bad approach.
But we absolutely do not want to be using these muscles. We only want to use the much smaller muscles that close the true glottis. These are not really felt and are not directly manipulated like the larger “coughing” muscles. They are more “unconscious” compared to the larger more conscious muscles.
The glottis must be closed through mental concept and coordination of the respiration. Not through direct muscular control. It requires a deeper level of sensitivity to accomplish. But we must learn to recognize the difference.
This is accomplished through the reflexive nature of the intrinsic vocal musculature. It is part of the same system that adjusts the muscles to automatically tune pitch.
When we breath slowly and smoothly, the larger unwanted muscles stay inactive. This is the condition desired for singing. I suspect this is where the practice of breath flow phonation came from – an attempt to sing with these muscles released by replicating the breathing condition.
After reading the above description, though, I hope it is more obvious why this technique is not ideal.
The trick is to retain the hollowness of calm, smooth breathing without actually breathing out while phonating. Again, this requires developed skill. Later I will describe what the breath should be doing while we sing.
Another aspect to consider regarding why we tend to exhale the breath when we sing relates to the nature of tone and how we perceive it. Both as a listener and as the singer.
If we were to attempt to define what tone is, a possible definition could be “vibrating air set in motion sympathetically by a vibrating material.”
Examples would be the air inside of an acoustic guitar vibrating sympathetically with the vibration of the strings. The same situation exists with a violin. Or the air inside a trumpet set in motion by the vibrating of the lips.
This holds true for the voice as well. The air inside the vocal tract vibrates sympathetically to the vibration of the vocal folds.
This is also the definition of resonance, which is how tone originates. Tonal energy then radiates outward from the resonance into the surrounding space where a listener can hear the tone and it is registered in the brain.
The thing that can trip us up is the fact that tone is essentially air. So when we hear a free voice we perceive there to be nothing but air. But the only air we can really experience as the singer is our breath. I suspect that is another big part of why we tend to use the expulsion of our breath to sing.
We have to understand what the purpose of the breath is so we can recognize when we use it improperly. The role of the breath is to provide energy to the vocal folds through air pressure to cause them (combined with the inherent qualities of the folds themselves) to vibrate.
This is accomplished from below the larynx, providing a seeming firm cushion for the larynx to rest on. This is the nature of “support” through compressed breath as was recommended by the older Italian School.
“The moment you have energy of breath sufficient for a phrase, re-adjustable for all details and all pitches in the phrase, yet continuous from start to finish, you can sing. Loose, pushed out breath is useless even injurious, though you have lungs full, for it causes local efforts, irregular vibration and disrupted energies.
“Compressed breath comes through co-ordination. It has only to be guided, and restrained. Its inherent power feeds all the effects made by the vocal-cords. It does not upset the pose of the voice. It permits the throat to act naturally, ‘open’, as in talking, It does away with both breathy and pinched tones. It does not demand one quality of resonance only but commands all colors, from the darkest to the lightest and all pitches, from highest to lowest…
“In fact, stereotyped singing is impossible, when breath is compressed. There is no ‘attack’ no ‘mouth position,’ no ‘tongue control,’ no ‘voice placing,’ no ‘fixed chest,’ no relaxing this or that muscle, no stiffening any part of the body, in fact, nothing that would not spring from instinctive utterance.”
-“Vocal Wisdom, maxims of G.B. Lamperti” William Earl Brown
If we recognize that the breath interacts with the larynx from below, and that it is for the purpose of feeding the vibration, we should also recognize that the breath serves no purpose above the larynx. So any breath that is released as breath beyond the larynx is wasted energy.
This is an important point to keep in mind as we investigate our coordination. Because there is a lot of misunderstanding regarding this point.
We hear statements like “keep the breath moving,” “use more breath,” “get the breath out,” “send the breath to the back of the hall.” These statements reveal a confusion between the breath and the tone.
As I said earlier, the tone is basically air. And obviously the breath is also air. But they are not the same thing. They are very different manifestations of air.
Again, tone is air that is vibrating sympathetically with a sound source. Breath is air that is drawn into and out of the lungs. A key distinction between the two is breath is moving air. Tone is actually energy passing through the air.
So ideally for tone the air will be stationary so the energy can travel through it with regularity. When we breath we actually move the air itself. It is a simple acoustic principle that sound travels most efficiently through still air. Much like waves from a dropped pebble are most regular in still water.
If the water is moving, the waves from the pebble will be absorbed almost immediately. If we move the air in the vocal tract by breathing out while we phonate we will not only diminish the efficiency of the vibration by splitting the glottis open. But we will diminish the efficiency of that air to vibrate sympathetically and create tone.
Hopefully you can already start to see the implications this has on what we conceptualize when we think about what we are doing when we sing.
Another aspect to lend support to this is the difference of speed between the two. It is easy to observe the great difference between the speed of the breath and the speed of the sound.
We must recognize that the sound of the voice travels through the air but it is not carried by the breath. The breath only provides pressure to feed the vibration of the vocal folds.
So the key thing we all need to remember is that the breath is not the tone.
This should be pretty obvious when we hear it said out loud. But if we look at the way many singers act, it is clear that they behave as if the breath is the tone. This is a major reason for unsatisfactory results.
It is very interesting to me that there is so much emphasis on the breath in modern pedagogy with statements such as “the breath is everything” and “it’s all the breath”, yet the great majority of singers have terrible breath coordination and lack real strength in their breathing.
This weakness in the breathing is because of these misconceptions about the nature of the breath and how it is designed to participate in the vocal instrument. When the singer acts as if the breath is the tone they are preoccupied with getting the breath “out there”, where they desire the tone to be.
As a result of expelling the breath the efficiency and effectiveness of the larynx as a sound producer is greatly diminished, as well as that of the vocal tract as a resonator. So there is an ironic twist that the desired outcome is made impossible by the very actions taken to accomplish that outcome.
So we have identified the common mistake that is at the root of most of the difficulties we experience as singers. How should we instead do things to avoid this mistake?
As I have stated repeatedly in all of my writing, we always need to start with the structure of our instrument – our body. Having a flexible, living instrument has many benefits. But it also has the challenge of not always being automatically structured correctly like other instruments.
So the first thing we need to always make sure of is that our body is well structured before we try to make any sounds. One big reason that directly applies to this discussion is the fact that a well structured body will reduce the chance of collapse, which results in exhaling the breath.
I have gone into detail on body structure and posture in other articles. But the main thing to do is feel a good stretch in all directions. The body should express the emotional states of inspiration, joy and desire to express. A similar state commonly used is a joyful surprise.
If this physical condition is effectively created the body will almost inhale and suspend the breath automatically as part of the posture. The singer just needs to keep that gesture going to sustain it through the duration of singing.
The emotional state that sets up the body and the inspiration should include the face, mouth and throat. The face should have life and lift under the eyes. Behind the face should feel open through the nasal passages. The mouth should open up like when laughing. The throat behind the mouth should be open, hollow and not constricted.
These conditions all feel like flexible stretching as well. The stretching of the parts of the body has a positive influence on the condition of the larynx making it more stretched. This results in a more effective vibrator.
From this stretched and suspended state, we start the tone not by releasing the breath, but by saying the vowel at the bottom of the throat, with the larynx, without moving. It is like a self-producing action. We don’t move the breath and we don’t squeeze the throat.
This coordination is challenging because we have no assistance from the kick of the muscular attack or the aspirate of the breath. This is the skill of the perfect start of the voice.
Part of what makes this hard is the fact that we don’t feel much of anything to guide us. The throat feels hollow and there is no sensation of the larynx. It is hard to use something that is not there. But gradually we can develop a sort of sixth sense for it and learn to trust what we can’t feel.
This coordination of suspending the breath and thinking with the larynx to stimulate the glottis to be closed provides a more efficient phonation that, combined with the hollow throat, results in a complete, balanced, colorful tone. One that fulfills the desires of ease and expression, with clarity of words and richness of tone.