Vowels control the breath, not vice versa

One recurrent theme that comes up over and over in many of the texts on singing from the 18th and 19th century is the importance of the vowel in singing, and the effect that a properly coordinated laryngeal musculature has on breath economy. Concurrent with this assertion is the scant information on breathing techniques. Garcia’s Treatise only contains 2-3 pages on respiration. I think this is a rather important omission on his part: there were other vocal matters at hand.

20th and 21st Century pedagogies assert that breathing is the very basis upon which a solid vocal technique is to be built. Problems of intonation, tonal steadiness, nasality, throaty singing and tonal beauty are all said to be an effect of a proper breathing technique according to these ideologies. But studies by Sir Charles Bell (for whom Bell’s Palsy is named) stated that function of the voice regulates breath expenditure and NOT vice versa.

So we have two contrasting theories here.

It’s important to delineate two concepts relating to breath: The first is the use of breath as a conveyor of oxygen to the body which is a chemical reaction that results in a vitalizing source of energy.  The second is breath COMPRESSION which is energy POTENTIAL, or stored energy that is available as a physical source of power.

No system of breathing (clavicular, abdominal, back, costal, thoracic) affect the ratio of tension between the muscle systems (arytenoids, cricothyroids) that adjust the vocal cords and maintain their vibratility.  Many singers who breathe beautifully sing poorly, and some singers breathe terribly and sing beautifully.  Breath management and control obviously does not contain the power of transformation with which it is given credit.

The breathing muscles themselves have NO neuromuscular connection, either with the intrinsic muscles of the larynx OR the suspensory muscles that stabilize the position of the larynx.

When vocal muscles are WELL-COORDINATED however, there is a MINIMAL loss of energy. This energy is CONSERVED when muscles are well-coordinated, and the demand upon oxygen is also MINIMAL. This often gives the singer the ILLUSORY IMPRESSION that they have improved their breath control, when in fact, they have actually strengthened the relationship of the muscular balance BETWEEN these two systems. It’s easier to sing with efficient neuromuscular responses than bad ones.

OVERT and aggressive physical activity use a GREATER amount of oxygen than is needed when muscles are simply called into action. From this it would appear that systems that encourage active control of the breathing mechanism would actually be ROBBING the voice of the oxygen energy that it needs to carry out functional needs elsewhere in the singing ‘complex’. If the vocal folds are correctly approximated, through work in such exercises as the coup de glotte, the air that is compressed in the lungs will generate enough energy itself to render useless any other pressured breathing techniques.

This concept was described rather well in Eleanor McLellan’s book “Voice Education” published in 1920.

In singing and speaking, the supply of breath is gaged by the control of the vowel and consonant – that is, if you sing a loud tone, a heavy vowel is muscularly made. As a consequence, more breath would naturally be used than in singing a softer tone, where a lesser degree of vowel would be made, but the control is always entirely from the standpoint of how much or how little the vowel is made. This is a very wonderful point, and when explained minutely and definitely, so that the proper technique is acquired, by hearing and feeling one can easily make the most perfect crescendo and diminuendo in singing – as graded as perfect and any mechanical instrument can produce. It also gives one much added power as to control, because when the method is correct the vowel and breath work together as one entity, never separately, as many suppose. In fact, the vowel and consonant always control the output of the breath. Developed to any degree of perfection this relieves the throat force, stiffness, and tightness, which we usually hear in the majority of singers when they wish to make an increase of tone. Usually a greater amount of breath is muscularly forced into the tone, while the dynamic weight of vowel remains the same. This is very wrong and does not make a larger tone at all, only a very bad strain.

McLellan, Eleanor. Voice Education. Harper & Brothers, 1920

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