It’s fun to hear kids sing – and I’ve heard quite a lot, both in my Marin County voice lessons studio and out in the schools. Most children have not taken singing lessons and they sing quite naturally. They breathe whenever they run out of breath – at a comma, between words, even in the middle of a word! I wish I could say that only children do this, but adults aren’t immune. Well, you say, if you run out of breath, you gotta take another one! Yes, but how we breathe contributes to 90 percent of the quality of our voice, so how you take that breath is essential, as is establishing proper breathing habits..
I like to clearly distinguish between taking a breath (open vocal cords) and supporting the onset of sound (closed vocal cords). The first happens reflexively – thank goodness, can you imagine if we needed to “make” ourselves breathe to live? As you let air enter your mouth and nose, open your throat and relax your belly, there you have it – the breath for singing. Try this: Let all your breath out, down to the last dregs (not really, as there is always “residual air” in the lungs), then open your mouth, throat and relax your belly. If you’re not holding your abdominals, the air should rush in, filling the vacuum in your lungs. I believe that the ease with which this reflexive breath occurs provides the groundwork for more conscious, perhaps quicker breathing.
Not everyone breathes freely. The ability to breathe deeply and freely has a lot to do with your spinal alignment, physical balance and overall flexibility. I remember feeling locked in my ribs for most of my teens, ‘20s and ‘30s, much of it because of poor posture and generalized anxiety. It wasn’t until I experienced Feldenkrais and then ultimately learned the Alexander Technique that I could truly free my spine and ribs and therefore sing longer phrases.
I find the expression “breath control” misleading. I believe controlling the breath directly makes us hold back our breath and blocks our singing energy. The voice needs breath energy to surf on. By consciously holding back the exhalation, we rob the voice of its luster. Rather, if you are supporting properly – support being when the diaphragm and other breathing muscles serve as an opposing tension to the vocal folds and they adduct cleanly – the cords mete out just the right amount of breath for a lovely phrase. I always give the example of the proverbial hose. The water comes out of the hose at a certain pressure but put your finger to partially close the mouth of the hose and the pressure changes. The cords sort of act like that finger.
Therefore, much of our work as singers is to breathe deeply and freely – no gasping or raising the shoulders as in high, clavicular breathing – and then learn how to properly support the sound (indirectly with the diaphragm, perhaps more directly with the ribs and abdominals) so the cords come together neatly, with just enough pressure to get us through the phrase easily. A full breath is simply to the expansion of the lower ribs. You don’t need to tank up all the way to your clavicles. Finding the right tension, “good tension” between the cords and the support muscles takes time but will solve lots of technical problems down the line, especially in the resonators (tongue, jaw, etc.)
Most trained singers know that you don’t “just breathe whenever.” We mark our breaths on the music and then practice them. We ask, how would I speak this phrase? Would I speak it with a breath at the comma or continue the thought? Sometimes there’s a rest in the music and we can breathe there. At other times that doesn’t make sense from the point of view of the text. In the latter case, we can stop the sound but not necessarily take a breath. (I like to think that the breath keeps moving through the rests.) At first, planning your breaths feels weird but then it becomes coordinated and automatic. The more connected to your natural breath the intentional breath is, the more effective.
At first, when you are building your breathing capacity, you might get halfway through the phrase and then run out of breath. No worries. In this case, don’t sing to the point where you are “squeezing out” the end of the breath. If you do, you are teaching your body to press and be tense. Take your time. Pick a slow ballad and sing a phrase, then stop and let the inhale replace reflexively before moving on to the next phrase. The quality of the inhale is greatly based on the length of your exhale. You will find that after singing a few long phrases and then releasing into the reflexive inhale, you will eventually take deeper breaths. Everyone has a natural tempo for inhaling and exhaling. Get to know yours. I tend to be somewhat of a hummingbird – quick in and out – especially if I’m nervous. I know that rhythm very well, which helps when I must negotiate more difficult catch breaths or complex lengths of phrases in my music.
In my singing lessons for kids and adults, I try to emphasize the importance of pausing between phrases during practice. Never let anyone rush you. Remember that the time it takes to inhale and start the sound is part of the rhythm. Figure out how long it takes you at this moment in your development to inhale, support and go. Start there. The coordination will get faster if you don’t get in the way of an easy inhale. Then add the “good tension” of support. When you finish your phrase, release the tension into the inhale and repeat.