Breath Support: “Back Asswards!”

Singers spend so much of their times “learning to support!” If your friend is about to walk in front of a bus, you would yell: “Watch out!” Your body would go into automatic compression to emit a sound that would get the attention of the friend in danger!

What makes us think it is different for singing?

It is not only the support system that cannot respond for singing, it is the clarity of our imagination that is underdeveloped. Indeed the body can be too weak to support our desired vocal expression adequately,

but is it not also that we are unclear as to the sound we should be producing?

The true voice, in most cases, is discovered. Most singers do not have a clear idea as to the natural quality of their fully developed voice. Few opera singers have fully developed voices at the onset. Italians, African-Americans with Gospel singing backgrounds, Koreans and Black South Africans have proven very consistent in the winning of career-making competitions. It would be logical to conclude that a certain amount of cultural conditioning prepares some of the singers from those cultures relative to the desired operatic product. Eastern Europeans and Germans have very strong operatic traditions and those mechanisms may produce aural expectations that help developing singers along.

By and large however, young opera singers count on recordings of the singers who inspired them for a vocal aesthetic. Those models are not always evocative of appropriate reaction in the breath support system.

The central problem may be found in the definition of “self-sustained oscillation of the vocal folds.”

A primary prerequisite for self-sustained oscillation of the vocal folds is that the net transfer of energy from the airflow to the tissue be sufficient to overcome friction forces (Ishizaka and Matsudaira, 1972; Stevens, 1977; Broad 1979; Titze 1988).

The word “friction” is key to the definition. There is little discrimination these days relative to a viable operatic sound. As long as the singer is successful, it is assumed s/he is producing a viable operatic sound. This issue of friction speaks directly to the Italian concept of morbidezza (or flexibility).

Is it not possible that the singer’s personal sound aesthetic requires greater glottal resistance (friction) than necessary?

Hence, is it not possible that in many cases, it is not greater breath pressure (breath support) that needs to be developed but rather a tone concept that requires a normal amount of pressure?

In a balanced system relative to breath pressure and glottal resistance, the issue of development would be one of increasing the time that a singer can maintain a sustained oscillation as opposed to the increase of sub-glottal pressure to accommodate excessive friction at the glottal source.

Therefore I will list some causes of excessive glottal friction:

  1. Faulty Fold Morphology: The vocal folds must have a certain specific shape relative to F0 (pitch in layman’s terms) and vowel. This includes appropriate fold thickness (superior to inferior axis), the length of the folds (anterior to posterior axis) and acoustic/vocal-tract adjustment (vowel formation) as related to beneficial supra-glottal inertia that would reduce glottal friction. Faulty set up in this regard would cause compensatory tensions that would yield greater friction and require increased sub-glottal pressure.
  2. Medial pressure: How tightly the folds approximate (right-left axis) is the primary mechanism of glottal resistance. Should the folds approximate so firmly as to trap the oscillating mucosal layer (fold cover) against the TA muscle (fold body), the vibrating tissue would become considerably greater and stiffer, which would require increased levels of sub-glottal pressure.
  3. Fold Viscosity: When the folds are too viscous (less movable) because of disease, ranging from inflammation due to allergies, GERD or dehydration, the resulting stiffness requires A) firmer closure for a clear tone and B) therefore greater sub-glottal pressure to compensate for the combination of stiffer folds and greater closure.

These problems occur to some degree for most singers. Some are aware of the glottal problem and work patiently to find solutions that do not require excessive activity in the breathing mechanism.

Others will simply work to increase sub-glottal pressure (enhanced breathing techniques) to combat the un-natural glottal frictions.

All of these problems could lead the singer to have an unhealthy sound expectation that requires greater breath compression than normal. In the case of Item 2, medial pressure, the pre-phonatory (before onset) posture may be largely influenced, not by disease as in Item 3, but by inadequate (i.e. excessive friction) timbre (sound quality) expectations relative to the nature of the native vocal fold anatomy.

Relative to the final point, singers often begin with a desired sound quality as opposed to discovering their most efficient production relative to their native anatomy.

Since the glottal posture cannot be considered without the breath, a faulty tone concept yields compensation in the breath management. It can be surmised that barring disease, tension in the voice begins with faulty fold posture, leading to inefficient breath management.

© 22 April 2020

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