Sometime ago, I promised my students and facebook friends that I would have written a post about the topic of breathing for singing... and there we are as I've finally found the time.
Techniques of breathing abound, right and wrong, and confusion too. ...At times, is not only the confusion the issue, but an incomplete, superficial knowledge, both theoretical and of one's own coordination.
The subject is actually so complex that it's complicated to start it.
You hear the advice to push in and the opposite one, to push out.
You hear the term support, invoked as one-for-all cure of any vocal ailments, but few can explain it. And few are those who get it right in doing so. You see, the fact that it seems to make sense in one's explanation doesn't mean that it's right. You come across another word, appoggio, Italian term devised to evoke and convoy a certain feeling that is experienced when the right coordination takes place, but which, again, often is misunderstood or not completely understood.
(Patience! As I said, the matter is complicated, but I will explain what that is: bear with me!)
We'll start by analysing some of the most common mistakes inexperienced singers make (actually, the majority of singers, in cases even those working professionally).
So, the singer start by taking an intake of air and... you hear the noise. Many things are wrong with it: incompletely open glottis and tension in the abdomen (there could be other unfavourable conditions to singing present when this happen, but this are always the case and enough by themselves to affect the tone and the performance.
Then the singer starts to sing and... you see the abdomen contract and the side of the ribcage being squeezed in (the chest collapse quite quickly, too). What does that imply? Too much pressure in the lungs for a start, which translates in too much sub-glottic pressure, which means the vocal folds can't meet properly to vibrate. How can you tell that? Look and listen: you'll notice either a breathy sound and a fast loss of air, or tension in the throat and rigid sound as the singer try to contract at laryngeal level to stop the air to escaping from his mouth. IN BOTH cases, vibrato is affected by being either less natural or too quick. Quality of sound? You can hear the effort, the forced nature of this voice, the impossibility to move fastly between notes in scale like phrases (agility) and the preclusion to diminish the sound to piano (dynamics, or messa di voce if you like).
Now the singer has to take a subsequent breath fairly early and snatches one, again audibly. You notice it seems strange that another one was needed so quickly. Time passing by, you see also the chest raising up and down with any cicle of breath, the shoulders slowly but steadily get involved in the process, the singer gets tired, the voice is badly affected. At the end of the performance, if it was a long one, he is knackered and hoarse.
Now: I know, probably you don't do any of this so blatantly.
Yet, something is not completely right or you wouldn't be here reading this article, is it?
So, let's delve into the matter and give you the insight you were looking for.
How do I take a breath for singing?
Rule number one.
Be still inside.
DO NOT tense your abdominal muscles, particularly the rectus.
(Why? Tensing the rectus tenses the intrinsic and extrinsic muscles of the larynx. Also, the resistance to the descent of your diaphragm - brought about by the contraction of the abdominal muscles which squash your organs inside of your belly - make so that the effort in inhaling is more than needed and chances are that the volume of air in not enough, but more importantly, that the recoil of the diaphragm is accelerated from the very onset. The breath will last less and there will be no possibility to control it with ease. At the opposite, loose viscera -the content of your abdomen - will weight on your diaphragm and counteract its ascent, thus saving you breath! This feeling is what we call appoggio, leaning upon something, passively... the concept of support ("support the sound", "support from below!") is, on the contrary, an active action foreign to the coordination and the feeling of appoggio: appoggio is relief in singing, support is one more thing to work on!)
Rule number two.
DO NOT inhale much. "Quality, not quantity". By the way mark this: the higher the notes you will be singing, the less breath you will need. Yes, you read it correctly. You don't need a big quantity of breath, even for the longest phrases. It's what you do with the breath, how you manage it - how quickly it is expelled by your lungs - that counts. This is the crucial point, the result of appoggio. THIS MAKES ALL THE DIFFERENCE.
Rule number three.
Don't tense in the larynx and throat at the onset. If you have inhaled in the conditions outlined above, there will be a sense of relax in the neck, throat and in the upper chest area. The intake of air will be silent. The larynx will feel out of the way, and recover with each new inhalation.
Rule number four.
On the onset, keep the sense of ease: don't contract the rectus abdominal muscle - the transversus and the oblique will do the work assisting the exhalatory activity, without you having much to think about it.. forgive me if I don't go SO MUCH in depth ;) . That will guarantee the right amount of airflow and will leave the larynx to work in an optimum condition. You will hear a focus in the voice and you will feel it in particular area of your skull (depending on vowel, pitch and volume you are singing in), with the impression of the sound floating on the breath, effortlessly (remember the old saying? sing ON the breath, not WITH the breath!).
Air will not escape quickly, the chest will remain comfortably high and apparently always in the inhalatory position reached upon adopting the so called noble posture. Vibrato will appear naturally at the correct rate, unaided. Quickly moving passages will be easy to accomplish, as it will playing with dynamics without affecting the quality of tone. Singing in high tessitura will not call for tension, in either holding or pushing anywhere in your body.
That's appoggio, or one way - pretty simple, yet subtly correct - to put it into words.
As usual, comments are welcomed!