Breath Management as a Compensatory Tension

In singing, the body gets the message to ‘help out’ when the cords lose their adducting strength. This appears to be a physiological law and the body kicks in to secure a firmer relation between itself and the throat. In any case, if, when we try to sing, the response from the voice is weak, it would seem natural to try to use a greater quantity of breath, in order to press our cords into action. This would then pose the questions not whether the extra breath is acceptable so much as ‘how much breath?’ and ‘how do we control it?’

Breath control is talked about as though the breathing apparatus must be manipulated. This is why ‘special breathing for singing’ has generally become of great importance in the eyes of singers and teachers. Unlike our vocal folds, breathing is by and large something that we can both feel and see. If a weak larynx ‘calls for support’ from the body – from the breathing department – it seems logical that the more breath we have the better, especially to support the voice through phrase after long phrase. It seems logical too that the stronger the engagement between the breath and the larynx, the louder and higher we will be able to sing.

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The idea of ‘singing on the breath’ (as distinct from with the breath) possibly arose from the ease with which a voice in the ‘minimal breath’ condition flows, with its accompanying lack of pressure and absence of ‘fixing tension’. The implication is that the voice flows as the breath does, and while this may sometimes prove a helpful image, encouraging a more relaxed ‘delivery’, it does not necessarily bring about efficient vocalisation. A singer remains short of the mark so long as there is a real sensation that air is flowing. When the breathing apparatus is used wrongly we get the impression that breath is all-important, but when it plays its natural part without bidding, there is no such impression. The amount of air is infinitesimally small, as befits its delicate and highly specific task at the level of those tiny cords.

In singing it’s only when breath is evident, either in being dammed up or because it is ‘leaking’, that we should be concerned. To attempt to control the breath without the natural participation of the vocal folds is a folly, and the cause of much misplaced hard work, and damning struggle.

It would be convenient to be able to say that if breathing per se is ‘correct’ the voice will respond accordingly. Unfortunately, to function correctly in singing the breathing system needs the larynx and its extrinsic support system as much as the larynx needs the breathing system. ‘Breathing athletes’ with exemplary posture (such as yogis) may have their breathing very much under control but cannot sing.

Harrison, Peter T. The Human Nature of the Singing Voice: Exploring a sound basis for Teaching and Learning. Dunedin Academic Press Ltd. 2006.

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