The ins and outs of breathing for singing

Pupils studying the voice often have glazed eyes when the subject of breathing is raised. Meaningless phrases such as ‘support the voice’ and ‘sing from the diaphragm’ only result in bewildered expressions and feelings of inadequacy.

Voice teacher and author of Singing and the Actor, Gillyanne Kayes , describes this experience as the ‘holy grail of the breath’, where all singing woes will be resolved once a breathing utopia has been discovered. These ‘catch all’ pieces of advice are used when singing teachers and choral directors are unable to diagnose the real cause of the problem but feel the need to appear knowledgeable.

Singing terminology has evolved historically from a time when teachers had little understanding of anatomy and physiology. Consequently, scientifically inaccurate terminology such as ‘sing from the diaphragm’ became commonly used phrases. Given the invisible nature of the voice, it is hardly surprising that a limited range of expressions were used.

As the voice researcher Hixon recognises: “The phrase is burned into singing folklore…. No other muscle gets near the press that the diaphragm does when it comes to singing.”

Fortunately, we are now more enlightened and there has recently been a move away from establishing a rigid breathing methodology and many singing students are more appropriately advised. Perhaps it is more important to teach why the old terminology is no longer useful so that confusions can be avoided and old ghosts can be laid to rest. There is also merit in identifying the perils of teaching a ‘one size fits all’ breathing methodology. These reasons will now be explored.

‘Although the diaphragm helps to regulate the air flow, it does not support the tone’

We are not able to sense our diaphragm and therefore there is little point in teaching anyone to sing from it. What people are sensing is the movement of their abdominal wall rather than the diaphragm. Although the diaphragm helps to regulate the air flow, it does not support the tone.

Excessive focus on breathing techniques can cause a singer to over-breathe.

Over breathing occurs when breathing becomes unnecessarily effortful. Taking in more air than is necessary can cause unnecessary tension in the throat muscles which can then lead to other problems in the long term.

Research by Wyke also shows that over-breathing leads to a build-up of carbon dioxide in the lungs which then further stimulates the need to breathe giving the impression of breathlessness even though the lungs are full. Conversely, singers who always exhaust the airstream completely before taking another breath become fatigued and singing can then become arduous and effortful which in itself has vocal implications.

Voice researcher Jo Estill believed that it was important to allow the breath to respond to what it meets on the way out. This phrase refers to the complex, dynamic relationship that exists between the vocal folds and the breath during phonation. The vocal folds are a multi-layered structure which are capable of a myriad of different configurations. This impacts on the amount of breath required during singing and renders it futile to adopt only one method of breathing.

For example, some singers sing with only fleeting vocal fold contact and therefore they require more air. This is sometimes referred to as falsetto and many pop and jazz singers will adopt it as a vocal colour to vary the dynamics of a song. This will mean that more air is required at those points. Voice scientists Thomasson and Sundberg conducted a comparison between classical and country singers and unsurprisingly found the breathing patterns of country singers to be very similar to the breathing patterns adopted during natural speech. They initiated inhalation at only 55 per cent of their total lung volume. This differed from classical singers who used 70 per cent of their lung volume with each inhalation. As classical singers sing elongated legato phrases, they engage in highly athletic breathing and train for years to do so.

Sophisticated, skilled singers will adopt several distinct vocal qualities all of which require differing degrees of breath. This is particularly true of pop and musical theatre and to some extent, jazz. A belter will take tiny sips of breath because too much breath will simply blow the vocal folds apart at a time when full vocal fold closure is paramount to a clear, safe belt. Even the finest belters will only treat the audience to the white knuckle ride for a couple of bars of a song before moving into a vocal quality that will require different breathing strategies to be used.

“…scientific research has failed to find any common breathing strategy adopted by classical singers ”

It is generally held that classical singing requires a low, abdominal breath but scientific research has failed to find any common breathing strategy adopted by classical singers. Instead it seems to point to a great variation in breathing methods and we are therefore none the wiser. Respiratory expert Hixon divides the breathing position into two extremes; the belly in method where the abdominal wall adopts an inward position in contrast to the chest wall which adopts an outward position. This position, when taken to an extreme, resembles an inverted pear. This can be contrasted with the belly out method where the position of the rib cage is inward and the position of the abdominal wall is outward. When this position is taken to an extreme it resembles a pear. The reality is that singers adopt configurations between the two extremes. That said, the research that has been done has received criticism in terms of its validity, as it was conducted on a smaller number of subjects and did not necessarily take into account the skill and training level of the singers.

This contrasts sharply to recent research undertaken by Ron Morris on the use of the accent method of breathing. Developed by Danish speech therapist Svend Smith, the accent method focuses on lower abdominal breathing. This was emphasised by Thyme Frojkaer: “During the breathing cycle, contraction of the diaphragm alternates with the contraction of the abdominal muscles.” Ron Morris argues that the muscles that surround the ribcage can cause tension and have a negative impact on vocal quality. In contrast, the abdominal muscles can be recruited during expiration to work like a brake, enabling a steady breath flow to be released through sung phrases.

The only issue that scientists seem to agree on is that an ideal breathing strategy does not exist and it is probably wise to err on the side of caution and allow the breath to respond accordingly.

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