Wondering if you could help me with my understanding of how the breath works? In the last lesson when I had some vocal co-ordination success by thinking of replicating the feeling of playing sax with the mouthpiece being at the base of the neck, would it be right to say there was more breath compression and less ‘loose air’? How exactly does this compression work? If the body has the feeling of squeezing/being thinner/wearing a tight belt etc wouldn’t that shoot the breath out faster and ‘overpower’ the larynx? Because I feel like that ‘overpowering’ wasn’t happening, I feel confused about how the breath ‘support’ mechanism works. Part of my confusion I think is to do with some people saying push out, some push in, some push down, some say feel the expansion here or there, some say support is automatic if the sound is properly onset and that ‘connection’ maintained through the duration of that note. Any wisdom :) or analogies regarding this topic would be greatly appreciated.

You have hit on one of the biggest problems with singing. The confusion over differing opinions about the breath. There are several aspects we need to look at to understand this discrepancy.

First, you are correct to say you are experiencing breath compression instead of loose breath. One reference book states that, “we compress air by breathing out.” But this is only partially true. To better understand this it might help to look at normal respiration and compare that to what is needed when singing. When we breath normally the diaphragm contracts to descend and increase the volume of the chest cavity. This increase of volume reduces the internal pressure so air from outside is drawn into the lungs. The air in the lungs goes through a process where the body extracts the oxygen and deposits it into the blood. The blood has also carried waste back to the lungs which is released so it can be exhaled. The act of exhalation in normal breathing is largely a passive one. The diaphragm rises because the contraction is relaxed, decreasing the chest cavity volume expelling the air in the lungs.

When we sing the requirements of our breathing change. The act of inhalation is essentially the same, but our exhale is treated differently. Where exhalation was more of a passive release from a contraction in normal respiration, in singing we need to have a more active exhalation. This involves a steady pulling in of the abdomen which pushes the diaphragm up, shrinking the chest cavity and compressing the air. It should be noted that the active exhalation is performed below the lungs. In order to have a balanced phonation we need to feel like we are NOT exhaling above the lungs, at the top of the chest. If we exhale above the lungs we will have the result of shooting the breath out faster and overpowering the larynx. See, your sensations are attuned to the feeling of resistance that the mouthpiece provides with your saxophone. So you are unconsciously providing a similar resistance with your larynx, that we feel at the top of the chest, when you recreate that feeling.

As I have stated before, we must be careful not to try and have the same amount of compression as we feel with the wind instruments. This is because these other vibrating materials are larger and not as flexible, so they tend to need more pressure than the smaller, more flexible vocal folds to make them vibrate. The other thing to keep in mind is our purpose is to vibrate a balanced sound from the voice. So if we arbitrarily compress the breath with no care for the vibration we are liable to force the breath out, or add excess resistance with the root of the tongue, to the detriment of the vibration. This was the idea behind the Swedish/Italian School’s adage that the breath comes because we have something to say. If we are focused on what we are saying/singing, it will protect us from over working the voice with excess breath, as we might if we are just focused on the breath and trying to compress it.

Now the problem with all of the differing opinions of what to do with the breath. Push out, pull in, push down, pull up, expand you belly, expand your ribs, lift your chest, don’t lift your chest. There are advocates of just about every possible option. And they all have an element of truth to support them because we are dealing with the concept of balance. Everything that is stated is in opposition to each other. One person says one thing because it helped them, another says the opposite because that helped them. The reason different things helped each person was because that is what was needed to get closer to balance. That is why there are people who believe in each one. A thorough explanation of each possibility and why it works, or seems to work, for different people would be more time consuming than we have time for here. But what I always answer when people ask a “this or that” question is “both”. We are looking for balance and there is an element of both in what we do. The bottom line is we need some kind of air pressure to make the vocal folds vibrate. Even loose air has some degree of pressure. That is why people who sing with a flow of breath can make a tone, sometimes even a good sounding one. Next we need some degree of resistance to the air pressure by the vibrating material, in this case the vocal folds. This resistance can be adjusted many different ways giving us the range of possibilities we hear in different people. Then we need some kind of resonator to amplify the source vibration from the vocal folds. All of these basic elements can be coordinated in a near infinite number of ways. On top of this we all come to learn singing from different backgrounds of vocal habits. So making a certain adjustment may have an immediate improvement because it counters their bad habit. So they latch onto that and think everyone needs to do that. If they teach, that is what they end up teaching, and then wonder why it only helps half their students. This is what I call teaching from opinion. Opinion is the basis of the old statement “there are as many methods as there are teachers.” I feel that this should not be the case. If we have a clear understanding of the nature of the voice and how it is designed to function then opinion goes right out the window. In other words, you can believe whatever you want but until you see the truth you will be disappointed with your results. I don’t claim to hold the truth, nobody can say that. The truth of the voice is right in front of us to see. All we have to do is open our eyes and wipe away the blinders that we have on from all of the opinions and beliefs that we call technique.

As we go on we will continue to address the different elements involved, gradually getting more in-depth. Eventually I hope we can illustrate things clearly enough so what we are trying to do becomes obvious. I am not here to convince anyone to believe what I am saying because these concepts are not based on my beliefs. I am trying to describe the truth of the situation we are faced with when we sing so each person can see it for themselves.