When I first started taking voice lessons, no one brought up the subject of breathing. Which maybe in my case wasn’t absolutely necessary, to be fair. I was a saxophone player, and I knew how to move air. Over time I learned how inefficient breathing (while singing) can create a host of symptoms at the level of the larynx and above. And often, if I can help a singer learn to use airflow and air pressure in new ways they naturally relax their head, neck and jaw areas. Breathing is a core skill and practical issue for efficient singing, and I now believe it is often one of the most overlooked issues in commercial singing instruction. (I’ll discuss the different ways sound is produced, and why good air flow will save your voice in a future post.)
I get it, y’all. Breathing and support in singing is a highly complex bodily function, and we don’t want to mess with it if it’s working well. I don’t want to reinvent the wheel when working with a singer who’s instrument is highly functional. I am not teaching people to sing most of the time, just giving them some technique to under-gird what already works well. Teaching breath control and support can really screw someone up if you don’t know what you’re doing. Maybe that’s why a lot of teachers shy away from the subject. I just want to offer some ideas about how to begin broaching the subject of “support.” How and what you teach after that is something we need to keep discussing over and over and over in professional voice pedagogy circles.
There are probably hundreds of ways to breathe. I’m hopeful that I’ll read another blog tomorrow that will give me new insight about breathing techniques for singing. In the meantime, I’ll go on addressing breath and breathing with my clients by first creating awareness of a few things inside their own bodies. This is a solid to place to start, and a great method for getting people in tune with their own anatomy. (punny, punny girl.)
It’s really important to start any voice conversation by neutralizing the emotional playing field, because trust me when I say that a student or client might believe a few hundred, active reasons their voice is bad or wrong, and a few negative feelings about themselves to boot. This kind of mental negativity does not create fertile soil for beautiful new singing habits, so it has to go. Bye, bye you silly, non-productive thoughts, catch you on the flip side.
I usually start with talking about all the things that are going well with breathing, and there are a lot. Let’s begin with the obvious: your body will breathe with or without your conscious help. Good! If you pass out, guess what, you’re body will still breathe for you. That’s really good news, and we can do a little happy dance for breathing. And, if a singer is getting any kind of sound out at all, then something is working well. Also good, and we celebrate some more.
The next thing I do is help a singer notice some of the moving parts of their chest and abdomen. By putting the hands on the top of the chest and heaving air in and out, a student can see and feel the bulk of the rib cage in action. By putting the hands at the bottom of the rib cage and having the singer breathe so the ribs move out, or press into their hands, they can begin to have control of their rib cage where it attaches to the diaphragm. Getting students into a lower breath often starts with having them put their hands on the belly and having them expand or make themselves “big” while inhaling, and “small” while exhaling. Conversely, I have them bring the belly in while inhaling to demonstrate how the body can do that little trick too. (Tell them to think about getting into a cold pool, and they will take in air and suck that belly in as well. Remembering to keep it neutral, there is no good or bad here, we are just noticing all the stuff we can do.) From just noticing these movements, a student has new awareness about breathing. And I create entry points into a discussion about what makes for good airflow while singing, and how to do it.
The power of observation without judgement is one very darn powerful tool. Just by having students notice the different ways they can already control inhalation and exhilation, they often begin to make impressive improvements in their singing coordination. The trick is that as a guide in the singing process, I have to help keep the student’s mind neutral. They are not allowed to judge how they are breathing, they are not allowed to feel bad about it. They simply need to notice what’s happening. From that vantage point (the neutral one, where you feel like you’re observing yourself from high up in the sky) a student can begin learning new habits without being bogged down by right, wrong, guilt, shame, etc. They can literally just breathe, which is oh-so-good for the constitution let alone efficient singing.