Air compression is essential for achieving a consistent, legitimate singing voice, and it should never be confused with tension or pushing air. How does one sing at all if air is not flowing freely through our vocal cords and, ultimately, our mouth? Air is flowing, because there is sound, but the air is being expelled so efficiently, so little, as if through a teeny, tiny little straw. If you read my article on breath support on this site, you will see how I talk about keeping the body expanded, even when you’re coming to the end of your air. This is air compression. Keeping that air pushed out may seem counterintuitive, but trust me, you do not want to sing while your body is collapsing underneath you. On the other hand, you are not “holding” air. As a beginner singer, I had a habit of gulping in a lot of air and then singing, without letting the air flow through the sound. I was holding my breath to a certain degree, creating tension. It’s a delicate balance, because you don’t want too breathy a sound, but you also don’t want a held or tense sound. I have found that the best way to learn compression without tension and holding is by practicing this exercise (which I learned in acting school, not in voice lessons!): Take in a full breath of air. With your teeth together but lips open, like a big smile, let the air come out very slowly with a “ts” sound, as if only letting the air out through the tiny gap between your front two teeth. Do this as long as you can until you completely run out of breath. Even when you are coming to the end of your breath supply, though, concentrate on keeping your chest and ribs expanded. Do not let them collapse! When you finally run out of air, then you can let your body completely relax before starting again.
Once you can successfully do this exercise, try simply taking a full breath of air, and then start talking continuously, all the while keeping your body expanded. Eventually, you will run out of air, but try to sustain your talking as long as possible, and, most importantly, stay expanded. This will force you to use your air very efficiently. What if you have four challenging measures of music to get through before the music allows you to take a breath? You have to learn to pace yourself! Once you are finished talking, allow your body to rest before taking in another breath of air. Like I say, “When you feel like a balloon, you’re doing it right!”
Appoggio di petto
This Italian term is translated as, “leaning on the chest.” A bel canto technique, it is a way of compressing the air inside one’s chest to create chest support. Have you ever heard the term “chest voice?” This is the part of the voice, typically in the lower register, that uses mostly chest support to achieve sound. What I have learned in operatic training is how chest support is essential throughout the voice, from the very top note to the very bottom of my range. Therefore, just a little bit of “chest voice” is needed, even if I’m singing mostly in “head voice.” If I have no chest support in my stratospheric high notes, they will be thin, or airy, or possibly not on pitch. The appoggio technique makes this concept of chest support more concrete. While you should be keeping your chest expanded as you sing, this expansion alone is not enough to give your voice the core and “lean” that it needs, especially when singing opera. Imagine a balloon (again with the balloon imagery!) directly behind your sternum, filling up with air and pressing against your sternum from the inside. This is a difficult concept to grasp at first, but some exercises may help. Consonants are great for feeling air compression, including the appoggio. One vocalise that I like is singing “gee” on a 1-3-5 scale. Please note that this is a hard “g.” Use the g consonant to fully compress inside your chest before going to the “ee” vowel. On each note, allow your voice to “break off” at the end; in other words: no sliding down the scale on “ee” or collapsing. Just G-EE- and stop the sound.
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