Once upon a time, in a kingdom far away there lived a lovely little princess named Snow White. Her vain and wicked Stepmother the Queen, was terribly jealous of Snow White’s natural and youthful vocal beauty. So she dressed the little princess in rags and forced her to work as a scullery maid cleaning her voice studio.
When Snow White was ready to learn to sing, her vain and wicked Stepmother told her, “Snow White, Support your voice from your diaphragm!” The poor little princess did as she was told, and worked so diligently to obey the Queen’s command. When the Queen grew dissatisfied with the sound of Snow White’s voice, she finally urged her Huntsman to take her far into the forest, where no one could hear the troublesome tones issuing from the poor princess’s throat.
The Huntsman took Snow White deep into the forest, where he took pity on her. “Snow White, I was forced to bring you into the woods and leave you, because the Queen didn’t want to listen to your singing anymore. I know that you have a beautiful voice; RUN into the forest and hide, and never return to her vocal studio.”
Snow White did as she was told and ran deep into the forest, finding a quaint little cottage where dwelt seven little voice teachers. How fortunate for Snow White! When they returned from their long day at the studio she met each one by name: Down-and-Outie, In-and-Uppie, Squeeze-the-Dime-y, Inflate-the-tubey, Pinch-the-Tushie, A. Poggiaree, and Flare-the-Flankies.
Snow White worked with each voice teacher in turn, but her poor voice grew more and more tight and uncomfortable. All the beauty and naturalism of her voice was fading quickly. She didn’t know what to do to restore her voice, knowing that the issue with her singing was in how her throat felt: tight and squeezed.
Who could help the poor princess?
One day, a handsome Prince came to the village, and told Snow White,
“Dear little princess, assume a comfortable tall posture.” Snow White did as she was told, and found that she was able to breathe quite easily, without intensely contracting muscles in her belly or sides. Then the handsome Prince told her, “Open your mouth naturally, without a care for HOW the breath is inspired.” Snow White took an easy, and natural breath. She felt an overwhelming sense of ease and physical pleasure in the simplicity of this direction. “Now, think the vowel and this simple 5-tone pattern, and ALLOW the tone to emerge.” Snow White did so, and the tone, while not as strong, was free, and a shimmer of a lovely vibrato decorated each note. Snow White could feel a sense of release and balanced ease, and decided right there to go with the Prince to his magical vocal castle on the hill, where the locals say you can hear the free, and clear singing echoing through the hills. All of Snow White’s dreams came true!
Did you know that the beautiful Snow White now has a 3 octave range, can sustain the highest notes with ease, can sing for a long period of time, and has the ability to sing fast, slow, and with dynamic contrast?
Both Snow White and her handsome Prince lived happily ever after in the Land of Reason and Logic.
This story illustrates in a fanciful way what a student might still encounter in a vocal studio in the 21st century. Much confusion in voice studios comes from the role assigned to the diaphragm itself. The diaphragm lacks significant receptors to proprioception, and cannot be locally controlled. Most of the directives that have been assigned to it in voice studios are entirely subjective, and not performable or controllable.
Electromyographic examination has CONFIRMED that the diaphragm is electrically silent in phonation. It also sits higher in the torso that is often erroneously believed as well, starting at the fifth rib or so (for a physical landmark – the top of your diaphragm is right behind your nipples).
One of the things that I have learned in teaching is to make the distinction between DIRECT and INDIRECT control of the voice, coupled with CAUSE and EFFECT. A voice teacher’s job is to FREE the system of interfering tensions and mechanical imbalances to allow the singer in front of them the widest and most encompassing choices when it comes to their singing. When I instruct a student to feel a certain thing, or to DO a certain thing, I have no guarantee that they are actually doing it. When I hear masterclasses with teachers who direct students to “Support the voice,” what I IMMEDIATELY hear is an increase in energy, an increase in thoracic pressure and a squeezed laryngeal mechanism. All of the above contribute to a louder and sometimes brighter sound. The difference to the listener is DRAMATIC, and the master teacher is applauded for their cunning and ability by those ears that haven’t been tuned to hear a voice functionally. My ears detect a now-squeezed and compromised instrument that has lost all of it’s flexibility and suppleness in the interest of ‘support’.
The power of the body is always stronger than that of the laryngeal muscles. For singers that ‘support’ in this way, it’s a bit like trying to park a Hummer in a compact’s parking space. The vocal cords have to work DOUBLY hard to resist the onslaught of breath pressure being hurled at them. So as a result the voice hardens, the cords thicken, and all attempts at balanced registration and passage from chest to head, agility, flexibility, and dynamic contrast are IMPOSSIBLE. Therein the singer believes “I’m a dramatic voice; I can’t sing coloratura or messa di voce.” And somewhere the great Teachers of the bel canto roll over in their collective graves.
Teachers should avail themselves of the latest research and studies, as well as commit themselves to understanding the vast pedagogical knowledge that is available to them in an unprecedented way with the advent of the internet. If these ways of working are NEW to you, I definitely suggest that you explore these ideas in greater depth. Writers like Richard Miller, William Vennard, Scott McCoy, Ingo Titze, Cornelius Reid, W. Stephen Smith, Manuel Garcia, Tosi, and Mancini are pretty good places to begin and have covered breathing for singing rather succinctly. You owe it to those students standing before you to give them the best and truest information you can. To continue to teach students to “Support the voice from the diaphragm” is to continue to tell them Fairy Tales.