Singers need to know the ‘feel’ of proper breath support – says Vocal Coach Leontine Hass.
Support for vocalists can mean the releasing of air from the lungs in a controlled, slow and sustained way.
It is the management of breath and, importantly, it should be a flexible system; support is not about rigidity.
Whilst enough air has to pass through the vocal folds, too much air or a rush of air passing through the folds makes for a breathy tone; the voice can crack as the folds are literally blown apart by air, singing is difficult and long phrasing impossible.
So, support also means holding back air pressure from the vocal folds, to enable easy vocalising.
How it Works
A clear tone with good onset, able to be sustained efficiently, is the result of good support.
When you sing the vocal folds vibrate. The vocal folds sit horizontally in your larynx and there are hundreds of ‘closures’ a second.
The higher your pitch, the faster the vocal folds vibrate.
On a middle C there are around 262 closures a second. On a high C there are about 1,046 closures a second.
If you have a lot of sub-glottic pressure, or air sitting at the top of the lungs rushing against the vocal folds, then it is almost impossible for the tiny folds to vibrate at such a rapid rate.
In order to both support the production of a long, sustained airflow at the same time as holding back a rush of air, it is important to use the muscles in the pelvic floor, abdomen and back.
The Feel of Proper Breath Support
More important than medical theory is the knowledge of how it feels to properly use the vocal folds and the muscles that contribute to breathing.
If you imagine lengthening and widening your body, you are engaging your trapezius (large triangular muscles extending over the back of the neck and shoulders) and are half way there.
The way singers support also varies depending on their individual physiques.
Try singing through your range using a consonantal ‘V’ sound, going from the lowest pitch all the way to the top.
You will find that the higher you go in pitch, the stronger and higher your support has to be.
Singers who are not very fit, should feel as if someone is grabbing their stomach and slowly pulling it upwards, all the way from the groin.
The pelvic floor should be engaged as it would be in pilates, rather than heavy weight lifting.
To balance this action at the front of your body, you must also engage your lats (latisimus dorsi).
Imagine you are holding ski sticks and now push your elbows down.
You will now feel these muscles engage. After you have found your lats, try finding your quadratus lamborum.
These muscles sit slightly deeper than where your ‘love-handles’ might be.
If you lean forward and imitate a gorilla (undignified but it works!), you should find them sitting deeply in the sides of your back.
It is very important that support is a slow ‘bracing’ rather than a grip.
I find that many singers who also dance grip inwards and this forces air out rather than releasing it slowly.
It is important for all singers, and especially for dancers, to release their lower abdominal muscles completely before and during the in-breath.
Sometimes singers start to engage their support muscles before finishing the inspiratory cycle—this brings about constriction in the larynx.
Do not take in more air than you need—no ‘hoovering’. Otherwise you will have excess air pressure.
Breath Support for Different Styles
The way you support must vary for different voice qualities and pitches.
Over supporting whilst singing a low tone tends to cause too much vibrato in the tone.
Sing through your range, focus on your body and see how different pitches are best supported for an optimum sound.
If you are singing in head voice, good low breathing and support are essential.
However, supporting belt is quite different; in belt the vocal folds are short and fat and closed for about 60-70 % of the cycle.
If the vocal folds are almost shut, the air has nowhere to go.
Too much air pressure would blow the folds apart (when the voice cracks).
Therefore, belt requires only a very small amount of air. It almost feels as if you are coming off your air-flow, as you would be when holding a heavy object.
The support is felt much higher, the muscles come out right under your armpits, and your intake of breath is quick and high.
You will also find that opera requires a much stronger support than singing light musical theatre repertoire.
Finally, a note on the diaphragm.
Although the diaphragm does lots of important things, it is an involuntary muscle, rather like your heart.
You cannot control it; let it take care of itself!
Leontine Hass is one of London’s premier vocal coaches and Director of Associated Studios and The Word and Music Company. She has worked as a professional singer and actress and now specialises in teaching Musical Theatre/Rock/Pop/Jazz Singers and Recording Artists. She invites serious singers to audition for The Advanced Performers Studio, which offers many opportunities for professional development for singers, including weekly Singers’ Performance Workshops with eminent industry professionals from London’s West End and Broadway, as well as regular masterclasses and courses.
Feature Image – http://www.flickr.com/photos/lunadirimmel/1411913488/ by LunaDiRimmel