Chaos Through Breath “Control”

There are several reasons why attempts at direct control disbalance the instrument and call for compensatory movements to regain equilibrium. One reason has to do with the fact that not all the musculatures involved in singing are subject to direct conscious control. Direct control of some muscles without direct control of their opposing –  or balancing –  muscles, particularly within a pressurized environment, leads to a chaotic disbalance of the system.

For example, in the area of the torso the breath is appropriately acquired and compressed by the inspiratory movement and reflex recoil of the lung activity in response to the perceived dynamics of the expressive intent. If the singer brings a conscious grip to any part of the torso to “control the breath” or to “support the tone,” what he actually achieves is an amount of drive that exceeds the resistance afforded by the intended glottal design of the larynx. This immediately disbalances the relationship between drive and resistance. Reflexively, musculatures at and above the larynx contract to resist the drive and restore the lost balance. The base of the tongue pushes backward and downward to close the throat and stabilize the larynx. Within the larynx itself musculatures contract to help close the glottis against the excessive drive. These movements alter the mass, length and degree of tension of the vibrating portion of the vocal folds, so that they become overly tense, and often overly massive for the intended tone. Consequently, a greater than normal amount of pressure is now required to initiate and sustain the tone. To meet this demand, the singer resorts to still more conscious “support,” a well-meaning but ultimately self-defeating directive. A vicious circle of heightened drive and equally heightened incorrect resistance ensues. Under these circumstances the singer must exert more and more effort, both to generate the sound and to provide resistance to the excessive drive.

This disbalance not only affects the vibrator, it creates pandemonium in the resonator and articulator as well. Because the tongue has had to move downward and backward to help provide resistance to the excess drive, it is no longer free to perform its proper task of resonator definition and word formation. The larynx is being forced to vibrate while struggling to maintain an operational balance. Because of the increased pressurization, the “flow” aspect of breath activation virtually disappears from the scene. Partial closure and distortion of the pharynx and mouth preclude a proper tuning of the fundamental pitch and the specific overtone frequencies that define the vowel. The ability of the tongue to perform its articulating responsibilities is impaired because of its reflex repositioning to help resist the excessive driving force. The character of all movement throughout the instrument now embodies and expresses effort–the effort to maintain operational balance while making a sound. This is not singing; it is just forcing sound, a sound either somewhere between a pinched whine and a strident screech, or somewhere between a choked murmur and a muffled roar. And all because the singer wanted to”control the breath” or “support the tone” by consciously gripping the musculature of his torso.

Direct control of the breathing musculature is impossible to accomplish because the principal muscle of inspiration, the diaphragm – being part of the autonomic nervous system – is not susceptible to direct conscious control; nor can its contraction be directly sensed, because it has no proprioceptive innervation. When the singer makes a conscious effort to control the breathing musculature, the inevitable result – regardless of the intention– is an overlay of interfering tension in the torso and a degree of driving force that exceeds both the needs of the tone and the natural resistance of the glottal design.

Both Sundberg and Titze cite the potential role of the diaphragm in helping to maintain balance between drive and resistance, particularly if the singer has inspired such a large quantity of breath that the subsequent lung cavity recoil creates more drive than the tone requires. They each observe that by keeping the diaphragm contracted into the expiratory phase of respiration, the degree of expiratory drive can be controlled and ameliorated. As a way of maintaining diaphragmatic contraction during singing, Titze (1994) suggests that the singer imagine “breathing in” while breathing out, or that he imagine “drinking in the tone” while singing (p.75). Sundberg (1987) recognizes that some singing teachers urge their students to practice the attitude of inhalation while singing, but he does not intimate any relation between this pedagogical directive and the possibility of its influence upon diaphragmatic contraction (p.121).

While both authors have devoted considerable research the questions of “breath control,” i.e., control of the acquisition, compression and action of the breath in initiating and sustaining tone, they report that conclusive answers to these questions are not yet available. Indeed, Sundberg (1987) regrets the inability to offer any verification for his speculations (p. 26), while Titze (1994), in describing two currently prevalent approaches to “breath support,” states that he must reserve judgment at present concerning the comparative merits of the two approaches, admitting that what is thought to happen may or may not actually be the case (p. 76).

Foster, Walter Charles. Singing redefined: a conceptual approach to singing that includes a study of the emotional process and the imaginative capacity, linguistic awareness and musical awareness, singing concepts based on the responsive nature of the instrument, and exercises designed to promote a technically correct, artistically expressive singing tone. Recital Pubns, 1998.


Sundberg, Johan (1987). The Science of the Singing Voice. Dekalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press.

Titze, Ingo (1994). Principles of Voice Production. Englewood, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc.

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