This is a topic of discussion that always gets singers fired up with opinions and ideas being thrown here there and everywhere like an episode of question time. I’ve had many different teachers all with different approaches; all thinking their way is the ‘right’ way. What needs to be remembered is that there is no hard and fast rule that applies to all. We all have different physical make-ups and are different shapes and sizes. Think of the body as an instrument like any other- a violin will sound different to a double bass!
My first singing teacher used to have me stick out my stomach to breathe, filling up ‘like a balloon’. This caused tension and my breath control suffered. If we stick out our stomachs on the intake of breath then we disengage the support system and so singing for long phrases will be near impossible. We need to aim for a feeling of expansion from the back and on the intake of breath feel like we are birds opening our wings. That way we can engage the abdominal muscles, expand the ribcage and thus control the expel of air. A good exercise for this is sitting on a chair with your back firmly on the backrest, taking a breath that opens the back and so pushing the back of the chair and then breathing out on an audible ‘hiss’. The aim of the game is to keep the flow of air completely even. A good way to achieve this is to imagine colored smoke is coming out of your mouth and that you are trying to keep the line of smoke exactly even; we don’t want a gush of air or a juddery flow.
My next teacher had me holding my stomach in tightly like when doing a sit up. ‘It must always be firm and engaged!’ she said. So I was singing with a strained (and slightly constipated) look trying to not let my naturally squishy tummy stay squishy when I sang. This did not work for me as I was tense and could not relax the abdominals on the intake of breath. A good exercise to get the right feeling on the intake of breath is to breathe out every single piece of air in your body (impossible I know but work with me) then before you pass out (…) wait a few seconds holding your breath and just before you drop dead (not quite…) take a nice efficient breath in. You will feel your abdominals relax as they thank you for taking air in! This is the feeling we want. It’s not the sticking out of your stomach or anything like that; it’s the natural feeling of expansion that I will keep banging on about. My students know this too well!
My next teacher was always shouting at me to ‘use my diaphragm’…and to ‘get that diaphragm working!’…Actually it’s physically impossible to manipulate the diaphragm as it is an involuntary muscle…
Just like another very important involuntary muscle in our body (the heart) the diaphragm has an important job to do, but we cannot directly control it I’m afraid. Telling a student to “use your diaphragm!” is like telling an athlete to “pump your heart!”...which would go down as well as a cup of cold sick (sorry).
Teacher number 4 was really great and taught me everything I know today so I will name her in the blog-Helen Lawson. Complete legend and wise owl when it comes to well most things but what she taught me about technique was invaluable and has served me well to this day. She worked on me releasing the sound and making sure the ‘attack’ or ‘onset’ was very clean. Not that you can start a note dirtily…what she meant by this is that the closing of the vocal folds need to be simultaneous with the flow of air. To achieve what is called ‘coordinated onset’, the abdominal and intercostal muscles must be engaged just prior to singing so that there is sufficient breath support for the onset of sound. This onset method is normally preferred because it produces a clear, resonant sound. However, ‘glottal onset’, sometimes called a hard ‘attack’, involves inhaling, closing the vocal folds, and then beginning to sing. Glottal tension is abated just enough to cause the vocal folds to vibrate and so produce sound. Whereas ‘breathy’ onset occurs when singers inhale and then start to exhale while leaving the glottis open. Shortly thereafter, they close the glottis just enough to bring the vocal folds into vibration.
This is one of the main problems I find with young or inexperienced singers; they think that we need looaddds of air when singing. They do the ‘I’m singing now’ face and throw lots of air at the chords. It’s really not necessary (or helpful). I sometimes get my students to attempt not breathe before starting a phrase. This sounds odd but what they find is that they manage the breath (and musical phrase) better without tanking up on air.
Teacher number 5 was always telling me to smile and lift my cheeks when singing. This is helpful to a point but what is important is to not use this as a rule of thumb and sing with a crazed smile all the time. I see singers taught by this particular teacher smiling quite widely when they sing and so when it comes to French repertoire or certain vowels that need the rounding of the lips, the technique falls flat. I teach my students to keep the face relaxed (but alert) and as natural as possible. If the emotions of the piece needs a smile in the voice then I do encourage the lift of the cheeks like a smug teenager trying to be polite to a family member they hate: ‘So nice to see you Aunty Joan…loved the teapot you knitted for me…It’s what I’ve always wanted (3rd degree burns)’.
I do apologize for the image but he’s doing the smug smile so well!
Personally the most important thing is to master is a feeling of controlled freedom in the sound. An oxymoron it seems I know but when you get it right (I achieve this 2 times out of 10…) it’s an amazing feeling like you are riding a wave; you are in complete control but you are liberated and are holding nothing back. A lot of my students tend to hold the sound back due to nerves or fears of ‘getting it right’ and it can be quite tiring for the voice. I encourage my students to get it wrong and to ‘make an ugly sound’ that way they free themselves up and allow the voice to be released. A good exercise to get this feeling of release is to pick up objects and throw them when singing. Be careful where and what you throw though….not near the TV and please mind the cat.