Stop, and take a breath—about breathing.

The inspiration for my weekly blog comes from my study of singing and my takeaways from lessons with students. This week, notions about breathing warranted some discussion and clarification.

Based on my experiences as a teacher, I can tell you that the role of the breath in the act of singing is widely misunderstood. I find this curious given its simplicity. Phonation is the result of the breath leaving the lungs, passing through the trachea and between the vocal folds causing them to vibrate. The exhaled breath is the power for phonation. We experience this organized sequence of events every time we speak, and rarely do we give it a second thought.

At its simplest level, singing is sustained speech. The same anatomical parts function to produce both the speaking voice and singing voice. So why, when the singing begins, do singers often look for a “new way” to breathe?

I credit the confusion to the discipline of voice teaching which has fixated on breathing technique and all its subcategories: management, control, support. This fixation has falsely credited the breath as having excessive sway over one’s voice. Breathing is often seen as the source of all problems and the seat of all solutions. This has lead singers to feel clueless and powerless. The natural act of inhalation and exhalation should never have been deconstructed to the point that singers begin to distrust the respiratory function. This has caused more harm than good.

Now, in case it appears I am swinging the pendulum too far the other way, I want to state the following so as not to be seen as a heretic. I recognize that singing, because of its sustained nature, requires an increased level of awareness of the overall breathing process. I affirm that the quality of one’s inhalations and exhalations—influenced by the way one engages the body with the breath—dramatically determines the quality of the sound. But I would argue that this overall breath awareness must take its cues from the familiar, natural respiratory process.

I argue this because I am struck by the number of students who reveal that they think they must manipulate the breath to achieve certain results, ex., pitch and volume. NOTE: There is no scientific evidence that the breath is the control center for pitch and volume. That being said, too little or too much breath can tarnish the frequency or dynamic level desired. But that is totally different from believing that a singer controls pitch and volume with the breath. Such a notion leads to vocal frustration and potential abuse.

If you would like to know more about breathing and singing, please contact me.

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