Academic journal article Journal of Singing

On Breathing and Support

Academic journal article Journal of Singing

On Breathing and Support

Article excerpt

"One who knows how to breathe, knows how to sing." (Pellegrini-Celoni, 1810)1

HOW MANY OF YOU AGREE WITH this statement, which dates from over 200 years ago? Based on countless articles, books, jury and audition comments, master classes and clinics, and personal conversations, I must conclude that this is a pervasive, if not ubiquitous belief. Of course, this statement predates what often is considered to be the "Golden Age" of singing-an era in which misconceptions about voice production were abundant. Many singers and teachers from that period also believed the chest cavity was the most important resonator (the bigger the drum, the bigger the sound), that vowels were created low in the throat, obviating the need to move the tongue or jaw, and that the palate should be lifted up and forward, blocking the entrance to the nose, but allowing a passageway to remain open into the head to access resonance in the true mask.

"If singers would learn to breathe correctly, all of the many possible vocal problems will be avoided." (Caruso, 1909)2

Really? This statement reminds me of a conversation I had with a teaching colleague. This person had sung with many of the most important professional companies in the world, was well educated in contemporary voice science, and had become a consistently successful teacher. At issue was a young tenor who was singing his higher pitches with a chronically elevated larynx and a lowered palate, problems he believed could be fixed by better breath support. Sundberg demonstrated that a large, low breath can indeed induce a lower laryngeal position through the phenomenon of tracheal pull.3 But something else was going on with this student; his lower pitches were sung with a low larynx and high palate-only the high notes were altered. (Perhaps a firmer stream of air would blow his palate upward, causing it to seal against his pharynx?)

My diagnosis was that laryngeal elevation and nasality both were being used to track formants in a manner that allowed the singer to avoid his passaggio. By keeping the first formant (F1) above the pitch of the second harmonic (2F^sub 0^), he was able to sing his open vowels on an ascending scale without needing to cover or to access his upper extension. The sound he produced was a nasally yell-not attractive, but somewhat reliable. But he was a light lyric tenor who could not sing above A^sub 5^. My solution would be to ensure optimal vowel tuning that permits the voice to turn over through the passaggio by allowing F1 to drop below 2F^sub 0^.

Which of us had the better teaching strategy? Alas, we'll never know, as the student was working with someone else. I suspect, however, that there was some truth in both of our approaches.

I think it is reasonable to say that singers and singing teachers often fixate on breathing. This occurs in response to the fact that breath is the power source of our instrument, just as it is for a trumpet, flute, or clarinet. And as with other instruments, additional parts are involved in the creation of musical sounds. Along with our power source, we have a vibrator (vocal folds), a resonator (vocal tract), and a means of articulation. Most other instruments accomplish this final task almost exclusively through modifications to the power source; singers are unique in the layering of language on top of music, which requires us to make the most of our articulatory gestures through modifications to our resonator.

These four elements-power source, vibrator, resonator, and articulator-must work in synchronicity, mutually reinforcing each other to produce our best sound. How is it, then, that problems with the vibrator or resonator can be corrected by altering the power source? Let's pause for an analogy, this time combining two of my favorite subjects: automobiles and singing. Your car requires the same four elements as your voice. It requires a power source, which in this case is the fuel, whether gasoline, diesel, or electricity. …

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