Breathing for singers....

Why is it so difficult to learn (or to teach)?

by Shirlee Emmons

            There is a definition for breathing that is accepted by vocal researchers: fluid flow in respiratory airways. Its spare language goes a long way toward simplifying the process for singers and teachers. If it is true that “air must be transported en masse through various constrictions along the respiratory tract for the purpose of generating sound,” then we must study the “transport properties of air through the tubes and ducts of our breathing spaces” and the laws of fluid mechanics, remembering that “the prime mover of any fluid through a confined region is pressure.”

            For the purposes of this article, the following remarks about the difficulties to be found in understanding breathing for singers will be confined to generalities in order to establish an accurate scientific basis for more personal recommendations (to follow in the next article published on this website).

Why is so much of singers’ and teachers’ attention lavished on breathing?


            First, it is literally true that, if control of breath for singing is well established, almost any technical feat can be achieved. Second, the abdomen and chest can easily be examined visually and easily manipulated by teacher and/or singer, whereas problems of the larynx defy any hands-on approach because the larynx is hidden from view. In addition, the risk of injury to the singer while examining the parts of the breathing mechanism is relatively low compared to the risk involved in examining the larynx..


What are the basic principles of breathing for singing?


                      Sufficient air must pass through the larynx to maintain sound.

                                    How much is sufficient? Can there be too much?

                                                In a breathy voice there is too much air.

                                                In a pressed voice there is not enough air.

Too much or too little limit the acoustical power of the singing tone.


                      Aerodynamic energy must be converted into acoustic energy with maximum efficiency. Those vibrations felt by the singer in the trachea, near the sternum, or in the face, are a proof that the aerodynamic power has converted to acoustic power.


                      The natural vibration of the vocal cords must have minimum interference.

                                    This is done by adjusting the air flow.

The sensation of easy airflow means that the cords are free from interference.


Some basic scientific facts to keep in mind

              (The following helpful material is extrapolated from Ingo R. Titze’s splendid volume,

                                                                                                 Principles of Voice Production)



                      Pressure in the lungs can be maintained at pressures as high as 6kPa, which is like shouting for help in a life-threatening position.


                      Pressure in the trachea is nearly the same as pressure in the lungs.


                      Pressure above the glottis, which is the major constriction of the airway, is nearly zero until air escapes through the nasal port.


                      The larynx normally offers a gentle resistance to the airflow, which is kept constant by varying the glottis closure, an action done autonomically by the nervous system.


                      Lung volume at a low level activity is only 10-15% of the vital capacity. For strenuous activity it can go up to 50%. Singing long phrases may take all the reserve volume of the lungs.


                      When the vocal folds are adducted for singing or speaking, there is greater resistance to the airflow. Then more lung pressure is necessary to expel the air in a reasonable amount of time.


                      As the pitch goes up, the cords become stiffer and require more lung pressure to maintain the same amplitude. To do this the back and chest muscles must be invoked.


                      For a catch breath, a very short inhalation time is necessary. This means there should be no major constrictions in the vocal tract. Take the air through the nose and mouth.


                      In inhalation the abdominals and intercostals must relax quickly.


                      The outward bulge of the stomach region means that the diaphragm is lowering.


                      To achieve constant lung pressure, which means a constant air flow, is not a simple motor task. When a specific musical pattern such as crescendo is demanded, it is even more difficult. Different body postures also affect the balance of muscular activity.

Why teach or learn breathing at all?


            The baby takes his first breath with no tutoring; humans breathe for life needs with no particular or conscious effort. We inhale when the brain says that the body needs oxygen. The system prefers to work automatically and needs no conscious controls. Even speech therapists debate the wisdom of intervening in the breathing process of their patients, not knowing whether it will help or cause more problems.

            Why then all the furor? Because breathing for singing is another matter. Conscious control diminishes the spontaneity with which you breathe, but it must be learned. On the other hand, the effects of various theories about breathing are difficult to test, because interactions between the thoracic and abdominal muscles are complex. We can never be sure that what we perceive to be happening is indeed happening. Not only that, but what is efficient breathing for one singer may be less efficient for another.

            Most of the requirements for singing air do not apply to air used for day to day living. There is no particular need for an ordinary person to have a “long” breath; he or she will simply breathe again if the air runs out. There is no particular need for an ordinary person to have great pressure behind his air for speaking; if he or she must shout for any reason, the abdominals will kick in automatically. There is no particular need for an ordinary person to time the inhalation; he or she will simply breathe when it is time to talk.

            The singer is required to inhale when the text or the music dictates, thus creating a need for differing amounts of air. In order to inhale in the most efficient manner (sometimes in a very small period of time), the abdominals need to be trained to relax quickly so that the diaphragm will descend as swiftly and as low as possible.

            The body possesses a motor program designed to give life support in emergencies. This built-in program results in a problem for the singer: he/she must be able to manage the subglottal pressure that will be too high at the beginning of long phrases. Help is given to some by the mental image of continuing to inhale after the onset of the phrase (“drink in your air while singing”). Until the level of exertion demands assistance from the mouth, inhaling through the nose is normal. It filters, warms, and adds moisture to the incoming air. But breathing through the nose must also slow down the inhalation, thus limiting the amount of air that can be inhaled in a hurry.

            The singer must find an air supply sufficient to last until the end of the phrase as it is conceived by the composer. Remembering that “the prime mover of any liquid through a confined region is pressure,” it is an important study in itself for the singer to balance the amount of air that is flowing against the pressure under which that air is moving.

            Most important, the singer is charged with a responsibility of maintaining a constant beauty of tone, while inflecting that tone with colors appropriate to the text. In the Western hemisphere, the tone regarded as “beautiful” is a supported tone. This means muscular control of the air supply and the pressure. “Vocal color,” too, depends upon a supported tone.

How do you “support”?


            There are two basic methods:

                         the “up and in” method (keep the rib cage high and stable),  

                         the “down and out” method (maintain a stable abdominal pressure).

There are many reasons for a singer preferring one over the other. It could be body type; it could be personal comfort. The late Dr. Wilbur Gould, the eminent otolaryngologist who first headed the Voice Foundation, used to tell humorous tales about how, by 1964, he had collected 226 breathing methods from his professional singer patients. Clearly there could not be that many methods. What explains the fact that 226 singers described 226 different methods? Because they were reporting what they perceived themselves to be doing. In any case, there is no guarantee that what the singer thinks is happening physiologically does actually happen. But does that matter? If the way you are breathing lets you take a breath as fast as you must and allows you the capacity to sing as long as you must and produces a dependable range of dynamic levels and produces a tone that you like, then by all means keep doing it that way. But if you are dissatisfied with the results of your breathing method, get some help. Or you could check in to the next article on breathing, "Breath Management," which will give some specific personal recommendations.

Is there any point to using images about breathing?

            Images are especially useful to voice teachers and singers because most of what a singer does is invisible to the naked eye. There may be subtle indications of the singing process given by the face and body or by the sound, but for all practical purposes, images usually make learning vocal technical skills easier and faster than scientific explanations. For this reason, almost all voice teachers use them.

            But first of all we must face the fact that any of the images proposed by voice teachers do not take on special meaning until the singer has experienced more than once the sensation described by the imagery. That is, you cannot imitate an image until you have have personal knowledge of it. Any psychologist will tell you that the time for settling on an image is after you have managed to execute the skill you are trying to achieve. The teacher, by whatever means necessary, gets the singer to execute the skill correctly. Right then and there the singer settles on a three-part image for what he/she just did. It will combine three images: (1) the feed-back muscular sensations from the larynx, pharynx, or mouth, also from ribs, back, abdomen, etc., (2) a visual image of what is actually taking place, (3) an auditory image of the sound produced by that procedure. The singer must use words of his own that describe the way the skill feels, sounds, and looks. It need not be anatomically accurate to be effective. One of the flaws in the ordinary use of imagery in the vocal studio is that the teacher will insist on using his/her words (which resonate to the teacher personally but perhaps not to the student) to describe the technical experience. Hence the possibility of misunderstandings and lack of progress.

©Shirlee Emmons

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