“We don’t take breath – we accept breath.”
Breathing technique is a simple but very wide subject. Here are some thoughts which I hope will be of use.
We must breathe to sustain life and to sustain the vocal line. This is not a failure of technique or something to hide – the breath is the fuel of the voice. But we do want to breathe in an elegant fashion, so that our breaths don’t disturb the line or become inappropriate to the meaning of the words.
Sometimes singers feel that if they didn’t absolutely have to breathe, they wouldn’t. As it is, our practice is to manage ourselves so that it appears sometimes as if we haven’t breathed. If you breathe well and elegantly, and in a hall with some echo, it can sometimes appear as if you haven’t taken breath at all. People often ask me after performances, “Don’t you ever breathe?” which delights me no end, because I certainly breathe at every opportunity.
The other side of this issue is that (frequently choral) singers actually try NOT to breathe. But there’s no virtue in holding out as long as possible before taking a breath. The results are a tense and ugly tone, ragged and weak cadences, and late entrances. Not to mention the horrible gasping noise produced when the singer finally does breathe. Choral singers also sometimes try to save up breath, in the vain hope that they will have enough to finish the phrase. This causes the same negative results as waiting too long to breathe.
I tell them that breath is not like money – the more you save, the more you have. Breath is like love – the more you give away, the more you have. Yes, I know – sentimental, but effective.
Solo singers must breathe wherever it is sensible to do so – that is, when the syntax of the text allows it or the musical phrase demands it. And also at EVERY rest. It’s amazing that we all don’t do this – as my teacher said, what else are you going to do during a rest? Tighten up and hold your breath? Disastrous.
Choral singers have a slightly easier time than solo singers. You should breathe as often as you need to, or even more often. Breathe where you are obliged to by the conductor, and don’t breathe where it is forbidden. Otherwise you may breathe where you like, as long as it is not at the same time as your neighbour (this is called “staggered breathing”).
Breath should be taken frequently, quietly, in a relaxed manner, and also during every rest, so that you come to the end of each phrase fully and in good condition. Then you can take another relaxed breath and enter the next phrase on time.
The Singing Body
I find that, in singing, there’s not much point in being overly clinical about parts of the body. We seem to feel the presence of another – a “singing” – body, which is a bit different from the actual anatomical body. For instance, when we speak of breathing low, or breathing into the stomach, it’s complete nonsense, really. Air never goes into the abdomen; it is confined to the lungs. Nevertheless, if we didn’t know that fact, we would swear that we take air into the abdomen when we feel the pelvic girdle expand and the pelvic floor go down – we can even feel the small of the back, also a part of the pelvic girdle, relax and expand. The lovely warm air fills the lower torso. That is our singing body; it’s a very useful picture.
Here is a description of what we feel actually takes place in the “singing” body, as opposed to the “real” body, as we breathe:
We open the mouth, relaxing at the same time the pelvic floor and the pelvic girdle. Air falls into the empty tank of our torso, all the way to the bottom, to the pelvic floor.
This is, of course, anatomical nonsense. In the “real” body the air flows only into the lungs, which are in the upper torso, with the diaphragm beneath. In reality we don’t breathe air into our lower torso, or pelvis, although when we breathe correctly it feels exactly as if we do. It’s important to realize that the actions of relaxing the pelvic floor and also the pelvic girdle are real, and necessary to both interpretations of “breathing”. When we breathe really well in singing we don’t feel the air enter the lungs. We feel it expand our lower abdomen. This can be a very odd and, to some, a very vulnerable feeling, but it is the best way to accept a free, relaxed and open complete breath.
Since I mentioned relaxation twice in the previous paragraph, one might have the impression that it is important. Indeed, it’s the most important part of good breathing technique.
This kind of relaxation is much more specific than simply trying to shake off a bit of tension in the body. In fact, that kind of flopping about is just more muscle work in other directions, and a waste of energy. We must be able to let go of the tension in specific muscles, on command, instantly. You can learn to do this. There are three places that are very important to train in this respect: the muscles of the buttocks; the pelvic girdle front, back and sides; and the sphincter muscles under the body. These last are the muscles that one tightens, not only when a toilet visit is imminent, but in all moments of stress.
Stand still or sit, close your eyes and tighten the sphincter muscles, and also the muscles of the buttocks. Then open your mouth (check that you’re not holding the back of the mouth closed by raising the back of the tongue to the palate) and let all the tightened muscles suddenly fall loose. Let the air fall inside you, all the way down to the bottom of your body – to the pelvic floor. It is very important to open your mouth so that the air has an unobstructed passageway into the body. You may think of yourself as a large open tank on two legs.
It is important that we locate the action of breathing as far away as possible from the throat. The air should go down in the body, reaching the pelvic floor. When we breathe “up”, into the chest, the muscles of the thorax and throat are tightened. The throat is made tighter, exactly the opposite action from what is most effective for singing.
The muscles of the throat operate, like all muscles, in an active phase and a passive phase. When the muscles are active they move inward. When the muscles relax, in the passive phase, the throat relaxes outward.
We can only “open the throat” (it is useless to try to open the throat) by relaxing, and one of the ways we can relax is to accept a proper breath. In general, where the air ends up – in the mouth, throat or chest – that is where you will feel you must sing from. We want to be open all the way down to the pelvic floor – the bottom of the tank.
The unobstructed passageway
The air shouldn’t have to struggle to get inside you. Remember the unobstructed passageway. It is most effective to breathe through an open mouth.
Nose breaths are not wrong, but normally are not generous enough or quick enough for the general singer. It is difficult to relax while taking breath through the nose; one of the purposes of our very open way of getting air is to help the singer relax. Another ineffectual, damaging and very common way of taking a breath is through the half-opened mouth, quickly, into the chest. This usually raises everything up, shoulders, chest, even head, tightens the throat and makes a sucking noise. It often sounds like hiccupping.
It is also useful to part the lips when waiting to begin singing. When the mouth is closed the tongue is likely to be cloven to the palates. This is not a relaxed position for the tongue and encourages it to maintain a position that is too high in the mouth for relaxed pronunciation. A tense tongue leads to registration and positioning problems, causing trouble as the notes rise. Also the high tongue blocks access to the pharynx, obstructing the passage of the breath, and limiting the space in the oropharynx which gives a shallow vowel colour.
Perform this in front of a mirror. Stand straight, one hand on the chest, and one hand on the lowest set of muscles of the abdomen. After having breathed (as best you can), count to eight. As you count, the air will go out as you pull in the muscles of the abdomen (under your hand) straight back toward the spine. When you’ve got to “eight”, immediately open the mouth and relax the muscles of the abdomen (and the sphincter muscles and the muscles of the buttocks, as before), and let the air come in your open mouth and fall down into the bottom of the tank, to meet the pelvic floor. Check the lower back. If it has become tight, you must relax that as well.
It is very helpful to practice in front of a mirror. See that as the air goes in, the stomach goes out, and vice versa. Make sure that there is no heaving of the chest and that the shoulders and the diaphragm stay relaxed. Sometimes the student finds it difficult to completely relax the bottom of the body on command and the breath gets about half-way in. Keep practicing until the relaxation and therefore the transit of the air is complete. Remember, however, that this is a gentle action – no shoving of the pelvic girdle is allowed!
The act of breathing is all bound up with the concept of support. The body reacts to every phrase that we sing the same way it reacts when we lift something heavy, or when the body does other unpleasant but natural things, such as screaming, or vomiting. The body interprets the act of singing as burdensome, as needing support, as a weight to be carried. Every phrase we sing has an intrinsic weight – some are heavier than others – and the body sees this as an opportunity to apply some support.
The muscles of support unfortunately include the muscles of the throat. When the throat muscles are engaged, in their active phase, the throat tightens, making good singing difficult, if not impossible. Our job is to keep this big muscular effort away from the throat, applying all our support as low as possible in the body. Fortunately, the function of the pelvic floor is to support the contents of the pelvis during physical stress, so that it is already programmed to help us.
When these muscles – the pelvic floor and pelvic girdle – are not engaged, as often happens with students of singing, other muscles in other parts of the body will react to support the action. This is why many singers have so much trouble with tension, tying themselves into knots and making their singing lives such a misery. The throat becomes tight and closes (this is why weight-lifters have such distinguishable speaking voices). The shoulders rise, the jaw sticks out, the head juts forward on the neck, the diaphragm tightens and pulls in. Tension is the single most common problem in singing.
Our job is to use the muscles that support the voice with the least amount of interference with phonation, and these are the pelvic floor and the pelvic girdle, the lowest muscles you can find inside the torso, above the legs. The job of the pelvic floor is to support the contents of the pelvis. In the actual body, the contents of the pelvis are the intestines, the spleen, the appendix (or not, as the case may be), etc. In the “singing” body, the content of the pelvis is air.
Other useful muscles of support
The intercostal muscles, on the sides of the chest and the back, between the ribs, can be used to support the breath. We engage these by pushing outwards a bit at the sides of the chest. However, this movement must be used with the open and relaxed and above all, low, motion of the air, reaching all the way to the bottom of the body and the pelvic floor. Without this low, relaxed breathing the chest will rise and the throat will tighten. The intercostal muscles are actually a good stabilizing agent of support.
Another good muscle for added support is the lowest abdominal muscle, just above the pubic bone, lower than the pelvic girdle. But it is only useable when the other supporting muscles of the lower body – the pelvic floor, the pelvic girdle, the buttocks and the sphincter muscles – are still relaxed and flexible. It can be pulled in, toward the spine, quite low, and is a very helpful in stabilizing the body, especially if the muscles are inclined to be weak, or, indeed, as we get older.