You take a breath, you sing. Concern sets in? Long phrase? Start again, this time with a bigger breath….
Singers spend a fair amount of time considering their breathing, as well they should. Very often, particularly in young or amateur singers, this takes the form of thinking exclusively about their inhale (“Did I take a big enough breath?!”). More astute or advanced singers spend time thinking about the coordination of their exhale with their vocalism. Even so, there is a great variety of advice to be found on the subject of “the breath” and what to do with it from different teachers and coaches. Some advocate versions of outward abdominal movement, while others advocate some version of abdominal tuck. Myriad other diametrically opposed viewpoints can be found among the legion of vocal professionals dispensing advice, but they all typically fall under the category of what is termed breath control. Emphasis on “control”.
In the last year I have become increasingly aware of an unspoken element to the whole breathing issue. First becoming conscious of it, I began to notice it playing out in many people, in many ways, myself included. It is a rarely verbalized, subconscious aspect that informs much of our approach to “attack” and phrasing. Most singers who spend any time thinking about this will, I have confidence, upon reflection find it to be true-
If we consider the breath as having a beginning, middle, and tail end; it is very often the case that most of us try, in one form or another, to linger in the beginning, or early, part of the exhale. Something in us has the sense that the first 1/3(?) of our exhale is the strongest. It is where we have the most air to play with, and it is therefore the optimal part of our breath, where we feel most of our singing should happen.
This is not something that many people would say, or may have ever actually thought to themselves. But ask yourself if you have perhaps ever acted upon this subconsciously. Do you not find that you have the most confidence in your tone, or your general sense of physical strength and command when you feel like you have fuller lungs? Have you not ever considered that, even though you made it through the phrase just fine, you’d like to take a larger breath next time, just so that you feel a little more confident, and that you aren’t running so near the end of your breath?
If one plans to take 1/3 of a pie as their portion, then 1/3 of a larger pie is a correspondingly bigger portion. This is very much a part of our response to long phrases, to simply take a larger breath. Not just that we will have sufficient breath to carry us through the phrase, but that we might linger in that optimal part of the breath for even longer, and thereby have some extra measure of control. And yet, this ignores the reality that the whole of the pie is at our disposal, and we neglect the other 2/3 of the pie to our detriment.
I propose that this is actually a very strong instinct that drives us whether we realize it or not. Certainly, there are perfectly normal biological inclinations that come along with the intake and expelling of air. Survival instincts. We feel them sometimes while swimming. However, there are two aspects of this that can interfere with the sung phrase-
Firstly, this attempt to linger in only the first part of the breath leaves the middle and ends of the breath/phrase unexercised. The realities of singing are that some phrases are long and will require ascent, agility, or other such challenges near the ends of phrases. A singer does themself a serious disservice by not exercising the middle and ends of the phrases.
Secondly, the desire to always remain in the early part of the exhale can cause a person to take larger breaths than necessary, and also to withhold air, creating undue tensions around the breathing muscles, even as high as the clavicular areas and neck around the vocal mechanism. In some cases, this very tension, caused by fear of weakness in the middle and end of the breath span can result in unevenness in the early part of the breath, causing precisely the problem the singer sought to avoid.
Additionally, in seeming support of this observation, it is an interesting thing that I have encountered that, by far and away, the vast majority of people who speak of breath control are usually speaking more in terms of meting out breath, or rationing it in whatever measure they deem appropriate. Some sense pervades that an exhale, not kept in check, will spill out uncontrolled. And though I cannot say this categorically, in the vast majority of cases, if you are experiencing a loss of air, it is not the air that is the problem. One should check their phonation. There is a very good chance that one is simply not making complete or consistent contact of the vocal folds and air is simply leaking out. Generally speaking, the mere fact of your full voice being in the pathway of your air will be sufficient resistance to prevent air from eeking out, unused. Suffice to say that, in all but extreme cases, if you are phonating completely, you should not need to try to retain or withhold air. There is a reason we take a new breath at the ends of phrases…… cause we are out.