Kashu-do (歌手道): Musings On Breath Support: An Often Changing Experience

The most self-serving aspect of vocal pedagogy is the constant posturing of those who claim they have the answer for this or for that.  Although any viable pedagogy must be based on a set of unalterable principles, it is important to know that the singer’s experience changes depending on their level of strength, flexibility, body type, level of experience etc…

Breathing coordination is a case and point:

The unalterable fact in breathing for singing is that the muscles of exhalation will provide a compression that drives the vibration of the folds and the sensation of flow that one should feel. Compression and flow cannot be separated.  Additionally, this compression/flow system is countered by the muscle of inhalation that prevent over-compression (over-pressurization).  Throughout the history of opera, teachers have utilized the voiceless fricatives “sh”, “s”, “f” etc, to help the singer feel the compression before it is put to voiced sounds.  The “sh” in particular gives a strong sense of compression/flow.  These fricatives, when sustained, give the singer a fair simulation of what it feels like when one is singing.  Both an outward (pushed out) sensation is felt (in the lower abdominal and pelvic areas) and an inward (pulled in) sensation is felt around the area of the epigastrium.  Furthermore the sensation of suspension (expansion) is felt in the ribcage.  This three-part sensation is more or less a complete sensory experience of what support feels like.  The suspension of the ribcage is active, because the natural occurrence when we exhale is that the ribcage collapses.  However in singing, we are attempting to counter a strong reaction (active only in so far as the brain decides what muscular action is necessary to produce the desired compression) from the muscles of exhalation to compress the air that drives the sound.

Therefore, there is 1) a necessary antagonism between muscles of inhalation and those of exhalation; 2) a paradoxical experience of simultaneous out/in in the exhalation experience–The out/in experience is automatic where there is enough resistance to the airstream, wether voiceless consonant or voiced consonants and vowels which require a glottal oscillation.

These principles are not truly debatable.  How one experiences them in the act of singing and indeed how two different people experience them is certainly up for conversation.  I teach a baritone who has a body like iron.  He breathes for speaking the way he does for singing.  His powerful singing voice is connected to the rugged make up of his body.  It would not have taken much to teach someone with that kind of muscular development to sing.  More than anything else, one would have to caution him against breathing too strongly.  His body is already used to compressing air properly for speaking, which transfers effortlessly to singing.
What then of the young lyric tenor, who comes from a polite culture and speaks gently?  How much more effort is it for him first of all to create an “operatic sound?” How much more viscerally must he inhale for singing?  And how much more does it cost him to compress air for singing?  How long does it take before his voice and breathing mechanism begin to spontaneously work the way the above baritone experiences?
The important conclusion is this?  
When you tell a singer they should not take in so much air as a rule, it may work for a singer who already exchanges air strongly and it may be the exact opposite that a more anemic singer needs to hear. 
 Pedagogy cannot happen in a vacuum.  The same technique applied to forte vs. piano feels differently!  Singing a voice consonant vs. a vowel feel differently even though the same technique is applied, because the nature of the resistance is different.  The voiced consonant requires stronger support because the trans-glottal flow must be maintained and additional compression must be provided to overcome the consonant’s obstruction at the articulation point.  From a voiceless consonant to a vowel, the articulation points are different.  Ideally the compression of the voiceless consonant should be equal to the compression for the tone that the vowel depends upon.  If I sing the italian word “fate” (fairies) as in Nanetta’s aria in Falstaff, the compression of [f] at the lower teeth-upper lip obstruction should match the production of the tone for [a] articulated at the level of the vocal folds and of [t] articulated by the tongue and hard palate, and of [e] articulated at the vocal fold level.
The experience of each phoneme is distinctly different from the others yet the compression that is needed for each is mechanistically identical.   
Successful pedagogy constantly reinvents itself while holding firmly to principles.  Singers change and the way they need to think about their singing changes depending on whether they are fit for singing or training to be fit.  It is also a different experience for the same singer in different parts of the range.  It takes a long time to train such that every note is equally strong.  Some great singers have to do more work to get the same quality sound in one part of the range vs. another.  All of these variables come into how the singer experiences support.  Some say it is harder to sing a well-supported piano than to sing forte.  Some others say the opposite.  It depends on what the sound expectations are and whether or not the specific note is in the singer’s easy range or difficult range.
The bigger question is:  What are the principles that should be kept and what are the pronouncements that work for a singer today and not so well 6 months from now?  Hopefully, as it pertains to support, a few answers may be found here on this post.
© 11/12/2013

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