When I teach voice, I start with the breath. Intermediate and advanced singers generally have an understanding of breath support, but beginner singers, before they even sing a note, first need to understand how the breath “works,” and how it is applied in singing. It’s easy to say, or think, “just breathe and sing,” but there is a little more involved:
It Starts with the Chest
When we learn to speak as babies, we do so by imitation and instinct. It just happens. Our vocal cords are two little membranes which work involuntarily to produce sound. Air passing through the trachea stimulates the vocal cords, and sound is produced. The process is simple, but sustaining the voice in a larger-than-life way is not so simple. While you cannot control our voice, you can control our breath. Think about how you breathe. You either take air through your nose or your mouth, and you take in breath. The breath goes into and back out of the lungs. When you take breath in, your chest expands. I remember as a kid watching an opera singer on TV. She wore a dress with a scoop neckline which exposed the top of her chest. When she took a breath, her upper chest blew up like a balloon. As she sang, the chest remained expanded. The moment she stopped singing, her chest deflated, and then, she took another breath, puffing out her chest again. I had never seen anything quite like it, and it would be many years until I understood the mechanics of what I had just witnessed. While we voice teachers love to lecture about “deep” breath, remember that breath starts in the lungs, and chest expansion and support is invaluable to a singer.
Going Deeper into the Abdomen
The first time I felt like a “real singer” was the first time I sang a recital using my whole body for support and dynamic control. After a few years of solid technical work and muscle training, my body began to respond to my demands and became a kind of foundation to my sound. The results were amazing. My voice was buoyant and lush, I could decrescendo and crescendo at will, and I could hold any note for what felt like hours without feeling tired. Every time I took a breath, I felt like I was twice my own size, and my body was blowing up like a blowfish. It was a strange but incredibly free feeling. So, which parts of my body was I using? (Besides all of it…) I was keeping my chest and my rib cage expanded, while using my intercostal muscles to support my sound, or, more specifically, to compress the air and keep tension away from my throat, neck and jaw. Please note that you should keep your body expanded even as you are running out of air. Never let your body collapse, as long as you are singing!
How does one breathe so deep, or send air to below the ribcage and diaphragm? There is much visualization in singing. Because you are your instrument, and everything is essentially happening inside your body, you must imagine where the air is going. One helpful exercise for feeling a deep air support is a humming exercise. Sit down in a chair, at the edge of the seat. Choose a pitch, and start a nice, easy hum. Keeping the hum, open your mouth (you are still humming, but with an open mouth). Then, with the back of your tongue, make a “ng” sound, like from the word “sung.” This aural release should sound almost like a church bell inside your head. The “ng” will cause you to stretch the back of your throat/neck, as well as push your bottom down into the chair as you achieve that stretch and air support. This exercise is good for getting in touch with the column of air up your back and over the top of your head. I still use this vocal exercise frequently as a warm-up as well as to center or ground myself.
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