Learn the three different ways all singers should develop support -says Tom Burke.
If you look in many voice training books under the chapter ‘Breath Support’ you will find exercises that may have nothing to do with breath at all. Exercises like ‘sitting against a wall’, ‘pulling up on these arm bands’ or ‘hold your ribs in a particular way’ each can dramatically affect the stability and power of the voice but may or may not be related to actual changes in lung volume, airflow etc. As a result, there should be a few sub topics in the ‘Support’ chapter.
When talking about support, I like to break concepts down to the lowest common denominator and split them up like this:
1. Address Underlying Skeletal Asymmetries
When working with new clients, I often say “You can’t sing if you can’t breathe. Right? Well, you can’t breathe well if your muscles are tight. And…your muscles may might be tight because of an underlying alignment issue. Finally, your alignment may be off due to an underlying asymmetry at the joint level.” For example, if you have tension in the right side of your lower back, it is you may have compensatory tension in left side of the neck or left shoulder. Tension has a tendency to creep everywhere and so unnecessary tension in your neck will undoubtedly have implications for your breath.
You can try as many breathing exercises as you’d like but you will still have the underlying tensions which are affecting your ability to access the full range of your breathing muscles. So first, get your skeleton in order. I advocate pursuing a balance of two different bodywork modalities to help fix any underlying asymmetries: passive bodywork (things someone does to you, like chiropractic or acupuncture) and active body work (things you do to yourself or as guided by a teacher, like Feldenkrais Alexander Technique, Functional Movement Training, Yoga, etc). You may wish to pursue passive bodywork first to help “break you down” and then proceed to active body work to help re-train you to use your body in a more efficient way.
2. Get Ready To Bear Weight
The end goal of support is to use the large systems or your body (i.e. skeleton and large muscles) to do the work before the little systems (i.e. little muscles like those found in and around your vocal folds). Once you’ve addressed underlying asymmetries, you are now ready to pursue the type of large system reinforcement strategies to help let the little guys work less.
I’ve found that the muscles (and the movements) that you need for functional movement and intense lifting (i.e. the push and pull / sit and stand muscles) are the same muscles you use for high intensity singing. For example, the stance you would use in preparation for a high loud note, often resembles the top part of a deadlift. So to help lay the foundation for “singer support” you can actually do exercises outside of the singing studio. Learning exercises and movements like planks, push ups, squats and deadlifts will be useful in teaching you to engage large muscle groups and “whole body movement strategies”. Back inside the studio, you can then engage these same muscle groups to decrease vocal effort during high intensity singing.
3. Then We Can Finally Talk About Breath
When talking about breath, I divide this category of concepts into 2 sub categories: lung volume and maintenance of that lung volume. They are 2 separate things.
Some may think that preparing for a high note or a loud note always means taking a big breath. But it doesn’t necessarily. If you’re singing a high note in a particular quality where the larynx is high and the pharynx is small, that quality may be less tolerant of large lung volumes and increased subglottic pressure. In this case, you may actually need a smaller breath. Now, that doesn’t mean you just let that small volume of air out all at once. You may have to engage your respiratory muscles to strategically slow down the rate of exhalation so you don’t run out of air.
Breathing is very task specific. Sometimes it feels like holding the breath back, sometimes it feels like a gentle lean. I agree with a phrase coined by Jo Estill that “the breath reacts to what it meets on the way out.” There are many ways to breathe: big breath or little breath; little breath with a long exhale or big breath with a short exhale. So when asking yourself “how do I breathe for this phrase?” take into account how much breath is needed vs. what you need to do to maintain that target amount of breath.
Tom Burke is a speech-pathologist and voice coach for Broadway, Film, TV and Google. He developed the world’s first online vocal conservatory, Broadway VoiceBox with members in over 19 countries and growing fast. Find out more about his work here: