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Vocal Coach's Corner - Breathing for Singing: Second Semester

  • Published Jan 31, 2000
Vocal Coach's Corner - Breathing for Singing: Second Semester
by Roger Beale, courtesy of {{Christian Musician}}

Welcome back to Breathing 102. I hope that my previous article helped you to understand that breathing for singing is a simple process. Many teachers of singing tend to complicate breathing technique. This creates an environment for information that is often misunderstood. Let us work diligently to avoid this obvious pitfall. In this article, we will discuss breath support and breath control as well as present some drills that will teach you to do these processes correctly. Let the learning begin!

Breath support is a relationship between the muscles of inhalation and the muscles of exhalation. The purpose of the exhalation muscles is to apply breath pressure to the vocal folds, which allows the singer to have pitch and volume. An exercise to feel the sensation of breath support would be to fill the lungs with air (breath in), and hold the breath. The feeling you have in your upper abdomen can be described as this relationship between the breathing in muscles and the breathing out muscles. Many singers describe it as a feeling of expansion around the middle of their torso, a bloated feeling, or that their insides (viscera) are moving downward and outward. One singer has even told me that they felt like they were going to explode. As you can see, the descriptions are many and varied. The description that I pass on to my voice students is "breath support is being full of air." It's that simple.

Let me suggest that you talk to other singers and ask them for their definition of breath support. You will find their answers to be uninformative, confusing, and down right comical. Be kind to the singers when you do this. It will terrify them that you asked this type of question because it will expose their own feelings of insecurity and inadequacy. Many singers just don't know what breath support is and it is embarrassing!

Now let's get back to class. The terms breath support and breath control are many times used for the same thing. This is incorrect. They are not synonymous. Breath support comes mainly from the abdominal and intercostal muscles. On the other hand, breath control function is accomplished by the vocal cords themselves.

The process of breath control is about controlling the amount of air released between the vocal cords and applying breath pressure to the vocal cords. As an example of this process, consider an inflated balloon. If you were to hold this balloon between your fingers, your fingers would represent the vocal cords and the balloon your lungs. If you were to apply finger pressure correctly, the air would escape evenly. If you suddenly let go with your fingers (no breath pressure), the balloon would empty very quickly. This is very similar to the process of singing. Breath control is about two things: controlling the air and supporting the air. To further understand the different physical sensations of breath control and breath support, try this exercise:

1. Take a breath then blow the breath out through a wide-open mouth. As you couldn't help but notice, the air was expelled quickly. There was no control of the air.

2. Now take a deep breath, then say the words "ton, ton, ton" several times while exhaling. The vocal cords are in control of your breath. This is the process that is used in speaking and singing. This is breath control, a function of the vocal cords.

To summarize these thoughts on breathing for singing (air in/air out), breath support, and breath control, keep in mind that we separate these subjects to learn muscle coordination. We learn how the process feels and how to do it. Unfortunately many singers are unable to fully coordinate their singing skills, because they are totally unaware of the different parts. For example, they may think that breath support is all they need to know and they don't even realize that breath control exists. However, we as singers must never think of these techniques separately. The respiratory and phonation process is to be understood as a whole, not in parts. A little understanding of vocal technique and human physiology goes along way to developing serious artistry.

I hope the simplicity of this article has kept the subject of breath control and breath support understandable. If you practice the above-mentioned drills, the body will feel the sensations that you need to feel when singing. Learning about singing is about feeling the right things, and hearing the right things, time and time again. Now go to the practice room and rehearse (re-hear) what is right and correct.

Vocal Health Tip

Be aware that throat clearing is not good for the health of your vocal cords. Most people clear their throats out of habit. This habit can be replaced or eliminated.

Try these four things:

1. Just don't do it!

2. Replace throat clearing with a slight cough.

3. Use an aspirated "H", as in saying the word "hey" in a breathy voice.

4. When all else fails, keep the throat clearing very light and easy.

These hints may not completely eliminate this habit, but they will go a long way to lowering the number of times you clear your throat. Try these hints, your vocal cords will love you for it!

Roger Beale is one of Atlanta's foremost vocal coaches. He presently works with professional singers in all areas of musical performance. His teaching and coaching facility, The Voice House, is involved in the management and care of the professional voice. Many of his students have won vocal competitions, scholarships, and are well known artists in the Christian music industry. Roger can be contacted at: The Voice House, 1675 Virginia Ave., Suite 103, College Park, GA 30337, (404) 766-0526, e-mail:, web site: .