Breathing and Singing (For Beginners)

Breathing and Singing (For Beginners)

Very often I hear beginning singers tell me that they heard some voice teacher tell them that singing is 90% breathing, and that if you can master your breathing you can master your voice. Yet, if it were all about breathing, then we would be able to recruit the best singers from the swim team and track team; every aerobics instructor could be a diva, and yogis from all over the world would reign supreme on the operatic stage. Obviously breath control is important for singing, but it is not the panacea it is often made out to be.

Breathing exercises are often a staple for beginners in modern vocal training methods. Yet, I have found that it is actually a hindrance for most beginning singers to attempt to increase their lung capacity, or to learn to “support” the tone with the rib cage and abdomen as a part of their early vocal training. What is important in the beginning is for a student to learn how to do the following two things:

1. The student must learn how to sing through the different parts of their vocal range while maintaining a relaxed laryngeal posture. The outer, or “extrinsic” laryngeal muscles are trained to not involve themselves during the pitch-making-process. These outer laryngeal muscles are responsible for things like swallowing, chewing and yawning, but their involvement in singing actually inhibits a free vocal tone.

2. The student must learn how to sing through the different parts of their range while maintaining a balanced ratio of air flow to vocal fold resistance.

These skills are developed by practicing specialized exercises at a medium volume under the supervision of a well-trained instructor. These skills enable the student to begin to free their voice and eliminate any breaks or registration events which often occur as a result of either an imbalance between air flow and cord adduction or the activation of the extrinsic laryngeal muscles.

If the student is instructed to focus on breath support before the inner muscles of the larynx have gained strength and coordination, he or she will invariably use more air than the vocal folds can resist comfortably and the tone will either become forced (which will often also result in outer muscle activity), or the cords will lose adduction (which will result in the voice breaking into a breathy production often called “falsetto”).

I’m not saying that teaching breath support is never appropriate; however I am saying that it is almost always inappropriate for a singer who has not learned the two skills I have outlined above. Using larger amounts of air pressure will be of immense importance to a singer who has gained a certain level of mastery in maintaining a speech-level posture and who has balanced their bridges from the the bottom of their range to the top, with no apparent breaks or sudden changes in vocal quality.

The metaphor I often use is this: Suppose you decided you wanted to build really big muscles. You found a personal trainer and showed up for your first session. The trainer then told you to lie down on the bench and immediately started to pile a bunch of plates on the bar and said, “OK, lift!” Would this seem prudent? Of course not. A good trainer would take the empty bar and have you go through the motions of the exercise with no plates at all in order to train you in proper form. Once your form was correct, they would add a little bit of weight onto each side of the bar. The minute your form faltered, they would know they had added too much weight. Of course a trainer might let an advanced lifter work with a lot of extra weight at times even if their form faltered in order to really start building some serious muscle, but only when they were absolutely certain that this advanced lifter could handle it.

The same principle applies to singing. Extra breath pressure and vocal fold resistance are added only after the student has demonstrated they can handle it properly.

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This blog is not owned or operated by Speech-Level-Singing International, it is owned and operated privately by Guy Babusek. The views expressed herein are strictly his own.

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