Weekly Teaching Tip – Oct. 3, 2016
by Tricia Grey
Breathing is one of the most controversial and hotly debated topics in vocal pedagogy, second only to the debate about chest voice and belting. When we interview students and ask them what they think they need to improve most about their singing they often list breathing as their most important challenge. While breathing is not the alpha and omega of singing, it definitely is the alpha. In other words, becoming a great breather will not make someone a great singer, however a foundation of correct breathing will make all the other steps of vocal development easier.
There are two incorrect teaching methodologies regarding breathing; one proclaims correct breathing happens naturally and you shouldn’t teach it at all, and the second over-emphasizes breathing exercises breathing exercises but neglects or defers the other important elements of vocal production.
Remember that the voice is a system, with many components that must all work together. Breathing is only one part (albeit an important part) of the system.
Good singing is a balance of air and muscle; the emphasis here is on balance. In order to sing louder we must increase air pressure and we must also increase glottal closure and closed quotient to balance the increased air pressure. This requires great skill, developed over time with vocal training.
While it is true that once in awhile we encounter a student who is naturally coordinated, sails through the primo passaggio with no problems and breathes correctly with no instruction, this is extremely rare. Most regular humans will need instruction on correct posture and low breath. They will need lots of reminders during lessons since breathing for singing is somewhat different from what most of us do in daily life.
Breath management instruction must take into account where the student is coming from. Most beginning students will need to increase breath pressure to some degree. They sing too softly, breathily and passively, with no connection to the lower body. However, other singers usually overdo abdominal muscle engagement. These singers are usually athletic and energetic. They will need to relax abdominal wall engagement and lower breath pressure by singing at a more moderate volume.
It’s all about balance. If air pressure and glottal closure are too high (hyper-adduction) the resulting sound is overdriven and raspy. If air pressure and vocal fold adduction are too low (hypo-adduction) the sound will be anemic and breathy. If the balance of air pressure and glottal closure are just right the sound is clear and strong but not forced. Each voice is different in terms of what “strong” sounds like; children, of course, will not have the same volume as adults.
In a perfect world we could say that the requirements of the vocal folds should naturally call forth just the right response from the body with no need for conscious effort on the singers’ part. Over time, with effective training, this optimal state will develop.
Breath management is vitally important in order to:
Create adequate breath pressure for higher and dynamically intense pitches
Sing long phrases
Avoid squeezing extrinsic muscles to increase volume
Create an even vibrato