The breath must be under perfect control.
The singer must acquire such control over the mechanism of the breath, that the mode of taking it will not interfere in the least with the mechanism of the voice.
The art of singing is the school of respiration.
The art of singing is looseness of the neck and the voice above the breath.
He who knows how to breathe, knows how to sing.
The skill of the singer is displayed scarcely less in intensifying a low note without losing control of the breath.
The singer must strive to be unconscious at the larynx. (I find a voluptuous Italian red facilitates here - I'm talking about wine of course - but it does compromise one's intonation a tad!)
When singing properly the voice passes instantaneously from one note to the other as the will directs. (Hah! I wish)
He who does not join his notes cannot sing. (So there!)
He who knows how to pronounce and control the breath knows well how to sing.
The above are some pompous but perhaps beneficial quotations from: The Art of Singing, by William Shakespeare (no, not that one!)
In my experience, whenever people are asked about singing they nearly always mention breathing. Even those who happily admit to knowing very little about singing, believe that breathing is important. Question people a little further on the subject however and folk will pontificate about breathing from the diaphragm - whilst pointing at their navel - and follow with a demonstration of huffing and puffing that whilst being admirable in its vigour, bears little in common with what is generally understood to be good technique. I have found that surprisingly few student singers really know what they are talking about or trying to do when it comes to breathing and yet breathing is considered to be one of the fundamentals of good singing. I know that many of the present readers do not fall into this category.
My brief was to write an article on breathing as it relates to singing.
It seems to me that the breath is the voice! The breath is modulated by the larynx, which creates sound waves. The opening and closing of the vocal folds produces waves in the flowing air like ripples in a pond. These waves consist of bands of air molecules that are compressed, followed by bands that are rarefied or thinned out. But it is the breath that activates the larynx, not vice versa. Breath first. The sound waves - which are simply modulated breath - bounce around the pharynx, oral and nasal cavities and are modulated again, creating harmonics/formants depending on the shape and position of the tongue, jaw, mouth etc, but still all we have is breath or air molecules in vibration. These waves of rarefaction and compression exit the mouth and continue through the outside air and impact the eardrums of the listener whose brain then interprets the signals.
What I think is so important about the above is the realisation that no work need go on at the larynx. The abdominal muscles initiate the movement of air. This moving air causes the larynx to vibrate; the larynx doesn't have to do anything other than be in the airflow, yet how we all love to strain away in the throat and start notes at the larynx, not realising that the breath is the initiator. We are shifting matter, the same matter that can support a jumbo jet. Why not let the strong muscles of the abdomen do this work - they enjoy it - and leave the fine muscles of the larynx free to do their finer activities.
I well remember a young woman whom I shall call Annabella. She contacted me in need of a few lessons (she was quite clear about what she wanted) and made an appointment to work on her breathing. She knocked on my door on a scorching afternoon in the early summer of '97. I still recall my first impression of a wonderfully pretty woman, quite slender in build with loose, light clothing, flowing hair and a sunny disposition shining through a somewhat troubled exterior. I welcomed her but before we had a chance to complete introductions she proclaimed in a central European accent 'I want you to examine my breaths' (no, she didn't have a lisp).
Annabella would frequently run out of air and she complained of a feeling of strangulation whilst singing. Not conducive to a romantic interpretation! It was plain to see that a lot of work was going on in the upper chest and throat and her abdomen appeared to be locked solid. She sang very much on the throat and she was not aware of any of this. I knew at once that my work with her would be gentle and painstaking. Over the following weeks we carefully worked at Annabella's awareness of her method of vocal production. It was a sensual moment when she first released her belly; I could almost see the years of constraint rise off her as a cloud and gradually diffuse into nothingness. We would sometimes pause so she could weep. Oftentimes I find that releasing the abdomen releases some emotional attachment and vice versa. As time went by she learned to initiate and control the air with her abdomen and not her larynx.
My student made good and steady progress. She lost her troubled exterior and her voice became that of a secure woman. I realised, as she became happier and more confident that her singing was less important to her than it had been. Some lessons, we would mostly talk about her hopes and dreams. With both of us leading irregular lives, she would always ring to arrange the next appointment. Gradually the intervals got longer until one day I received a call from a very excited Annabella. She rang to thank me and to tell me she was going off to travel to find herself and her future. Job done! I often wonder how she is and what she's doing.
What a physical thing singing is! All muscles and sinews and huffing and puffing and perspiring, but what a delicate thing, affected by the slightest thought feeling or whim, and how easy to get all tangled up and lost. In all, what a wholesome thing, The Sing Thing!
THE EXOTERIC: The training of the subconscious mind; the formation of improved muscular responses and habits.
THE ESOTERIC:The unfolding of yourself unto yourself. In your struggle with the physical, you will be able to witness and participate in inner matters. The former is of value to you as a singer, the latter is of value to you as a person who sings.
COURAGE: You must be prepared to accept your voice and your singing as it is at present. You will not be able to work on areas if you are reluctant to accept (to yourself and to your teacher) that they require work in the first place. Be gentle and optimistic with yourself in this process.
PATIENCE: If you choose to master this work, you may find the path to be long and more than a little uphill. There will be periods when scant progress is made; be content in your waiting. There will be times when things move very quickly and you may miss opportunities, so in your contentment remain alert.
URGE: Discover the source of your enthusiasm within you and nurture it.
KNOWLEDGE: Locate the areas in which to apply this enthusiasm, learn from others whose work you admire. Seek the counsel of a knowledgeable teacher.
APPLICATION: Be as disciplined as you can be without losing your happiness. Every now and then maybe sacrifice your happiness to achieve something worthwhile.
ATTITUDE: Make the effort to learn how and when to push yourself, learn when to rest, treat yourself in your work with respect. As you improve and master certain areas, others emerge to be worked on, old ones that you thought you were finished with will reappear. As far as I can tell this is unending. Make a point of recognising and being joyful at every improvement. Accept failures, gather your courage and enthusiasm and try again. If you find repeated failure in some areas is getting to you, leave them, work on other areas, come back to them later. Success in these matters often requires time and growth, not just effort.
I believe that the singing teacher's task is in many ways more complex than that of an instrument teacher. When teaching an instrument, the tutor can actually see many of the student's errors, maybe in fingering or bowing action. The tutor can usually play the pupil's instrument in order to determine whether a cause lays with the instrument itself, or with the pupil's technique. The teacher of singing is partly denied the visual check and wholly denied the ability to play the instrument. S/He has to rely on the sound and the sensations that the sound gives him/her in his/her own body, and what little s/he can see of the singing action. S/He is at pains to ascertain whether the student has reached the full potential of his instrument - his/her body - or if continued work will yield a better result.
The teaching of popular singing:
There has evolved a system or systems of vocal training that can be traced back through the years. Most are based on a technique that had to support an un-amplified voice above an orchestra. Certain ideals have evolved as to what constitutes good singing. An important point here is that many successful popular singers, - the people many students emulate - would be dismissed out of hand if judged by the parameters of the Bel Canto and similar schools One could argue that because the popular singer rarely if ever sings without amplification then surely the bulk of classical technique is redundant.
I feel that all the traditional technical parameters still apply to some extent, but that the emphasis is different with popular music. The goal it seems to me is to find a means of sensibly judging what is good and what is bad popular singing, and to be able to explain convincingly to the student why this is so. When this is understood the teacher can more realistically expect concentrated hours to be put in on the rather more tedious exercises. The established areas for attention are as follows:
Posture / Alignment, balance, dynamism.
Breathing. Inspiration - diaphragm, intercostal muscles, muscles of the back. Expiration - abdominal muscles, intercostal muscles.
Subglottic Pressure. Support.
Phonation. Attack, pitch, range, vibrato.
Resonation. Pharynx, larynx, soft palate, vowel formation.
Articulation. Consonants, tongue, lips, jaw.
The technical application of the above will not be the same for a singer of operatic music as for the singer of popular music. Beautiful big ringing vowels that carry well may be de rigeur for the former, but scarcely even considered by the heavy metal vocalist with an SM58 and a 10 kilowatt rig! I feel therefore that it behoves a vocal teacher to be conversant with the various styles and to consider the aspects that make for a good performance in each field. S/He will then be able to discern which exercises and disciplines from traditional teaching will be helpful. New exercises may be created to suit the student and the style of singing.
Bearing the above in mind, it is very important that the teacher and student are clear in what they hope to achieve, so that the student will get nearer to producing the sound s/he would like, providing it allows a technique that will support him/her and his/her voice through the rigours of a professional career. That is, providing it is sustainable.
What I hope to offer in this area is a foundation in universal basic singing technique that will protect the singer from vocal fatigue, muscle strain, nodules, etc. Summed up by good posture, efficient and controlled breathing, looseness of the neck and jaw, resulting in minimum stress in production. The reduction of flaws - if they be judged so - maybe nasality or excess breathiness, the strengthening of the production of the extremes of range and the development of agility and accuracy with ease, In short, sustainable singing.
Beyond the physical matter of making a sound:
There is obviously much more to singing than simply making a technically satisfactory sound. The popular singer employs other instruments, the use and function of which can make or break a performance. The microphone and associated equipment, the recording studio, television cameras, stage presence, body language and facial expressions. All the above need to be considered if excellence is the aim.
Most singers sing songs of some description. Familiarity with scales (from which melodies are wrought) time signatures, developing a well-trained musical ear, an ability to ad-lib or improvise, basic sight reading and notation skills, all these and more are the tools of the professional. Competence, versatility, reliability and a way with people are important keys to a long and successful career.
Performance and Artistry
With much contemporary music, the singer is free to phrase and interpret as s/he wishes this plays a significant part in the audience's perception of his/her style. I hope to encourage singers to push their boundaries and discover their uniqueness in this area. Talking of art is not easy, we all have our different ideas and experiences. I believe that all of us have an artist within and that we can discover and express that artist To greater and greater extents through artistry. The singer can be supplied with the tools of his/her craft - which will improve his/her body's ability to express what is in his/her imagination - and taught how to use them. When students are familiar with the tools, we can then ask, "Now what are you going to do with them, what do you hope to achieve?" Here we can only really make suggestions and expose the student to the work of others. We can be a mirror and say "This was the effect your performance had on me, is that what you intended?" all the time encouraging the singer to seek his/her purpose. It is important then to establish a relationship and an atmosphere whereby the student feels free and confident to stretch out and experiment and of course make mistakes without undue embarrassment. They must come to trust the teacher.
A professional singer's desire is to sing to an audience and he/she prepares him/herself for this, but no amount of preparation can equip the singer for every eventuality In public performance, experience is his/her best ally. The teacher is in a position to pass on experience and knowledge to the student and hopefully instill a sense of confidence that will lead to a successful l start to gigging and recording. Below are some of the areas that will be covered to this end:
Foundation technique, musical notation, improvisation, microphones and technique, ear training, repertoire, chords and chord charts, transposition, public address, Recording, harmony singing, sight reading.
Beyond physical matter:
It has been my experience that the phrase soul destroying is an accurate way of describing a condition that one may be susceptible to when it comes to earning a living from something that you love. To ask where is the wellspring of music or any art goes beyond the bounds of what I'm doing here. To try and fathom why we desire to sing and make music in the first place is likewise inappropriate. I know however that people become very passionate about their art and will sacrifice much for It. Consider the countless artists and musicians through the ages whose life stories have been miserable. Look among the present and recent popular musicians who have battled with drug abuse eating disorders etc. many of our heroes effectively killing themselves. Earning a living from something you love can be a fantastic blessing, if handled unwisely it can become a curse to end all curses. I consider it proper for the singing teacher to be aware of the above and to give subtle guidance whilst very much bearing in mind his/her own limitations in this elusive and delicate yet fundamentally important business.
The classes consist of singers and would-be singers of varying standards and offer unique opportunities over individual lessons. I like to use the groups to develop performance confidence and to stretch students to their limits, encouraging them to take calculated and maybe un-calculated musical risks in front of others. It provides an opportunity to work together and exchange musical ideas, styles and experiences. I incorporate exercises and 'games' in the class that draw on the kinds of things that happen in professional life.
It is my goal to develop a friendly atmosphere where students are keen to try new and unfamiliar techniques and styles. I hope to coax singers through their initial embarrassment into new areas. No one is forced to do anything, it is my desire to encourage them to want to.