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Breath Control - or is it?

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Much is written and talked about breath control for classical singing, and the related tension it can lead to in the abdomen, the jaw and the tongue. I have many enquiries and new students who talk about learning the control required for singing. They seem surprised when I start by getting them to release and de-control. They can be scared of it at first, but many go on to find it an exhilirating experience. So, where does this idea of control come from? Surely it must be all of those old texts, translated from Italian, that seem to hold no place for singing in the modern world? Well, here are a couple of snippets from Giovanni Battista Lamperti (of course translated into English) that may not be what many expect.

The degree of loudness of tone depends on the quantity of breath released by letting go muscularly.

There is no attack, no mouth position, no tongue control, no voice placing,no fixed chest, no relaxing this or that muscle, no stiffening any part of the body, in fact, nothing that would not spring from instinctive utterance.

And, from Mathilde Marchesi on the concept of Coup de Glotte It should be understood that the Coup de Glotte is a natural movement of the vocal organs, and that the pupil has only to bring under the control of the will this spontaneous action which has been developing since the first cry at the moment of birth. It is, in fact, the possession of this same natural faculty that enables us to form unconsciously all the vowels in speaking.

So, there is mention of release, of instinctiveness, and of relating singing to being as easy as talking. So, maybe the concept of control came with the well intentioned introduction of science into vocal teaching. Well, Oren L Brown, teacher for 19 years at the Juilliard School in New York, was always held up as being someone who kept up with the latest research into voice science. His book Discover Your Voice contains chapters on resonance, overtones, vocal registers, laryngeal anatomy, and perhaps most interestingly Neurology and the Brain. Because, after all, we may sing with our bodies, but the impulses to do so come from our mind. When it comes to teaching how to sing, rather than what is happening in the body, what does Brown instruct us to do. The opening of the chapter on program thoughts reads Your voice knows how to sing. it knows how to sing better than you do. Think the music and your voice will sing it for you. Elsewhere he states that an efficient and natural supply of air is needed for voice production. I would emphasize natural  here, because the fact is that we all breathe. We all need to breathe, and we breathe without thinking about it. From the moment we let out our first cry after birth, our diaphragms descended to draw in breath, and then relaxed to let it out. It will continue doing the same until we breathe our last, and it is mostly unconscious precisely so that we don't need to keep thinking about it. So, why would we want to artificially control that which nature has provided for so well? It seems that much of it surrounds trust, and vulnerability. Our breathing is bound up in our emotions, and by freeing our breath we often free emotions that many of us would prefer remain hidden. However, it is those very emotions that move audiences, and so by freeing our breath we will increase our communication with the audience. By controlling the breath we put an artifical barrier between ourselves and the audience.

Finding the connection between our voices and our emotions is not always an easy journey. Some are more comfortable than others in laying their emotions bare for all to see. However, it is this connection that many great singers display. Pavarotti had it, Callas too, and Ponselle, Flagstad, and many others. Their singing grabbed our guts and had us on the edge of our seats. It's not just classical singers either. Sinatra could excite and sway, as could Billie Holiday, reaching directly into our emotions and pulling at them. In order to do this, they had to let their voices and breath be guided by their bodies and emotions, rather than imposing control upon them. I'll leave a last couple of thoughts to my late teacher Howard Milner.

Joining is what singing does for us. It joins us with the audience, with each other and inside ourselves. The diaphragm, breathing, works beyond volition, doing what the body feels rather than what the mind thinks.

The only thing you can consciously do to breathing is to mess it up. The only way to make it better is to let go of it more, to de-control it, to agree to let it take its course. This is the principal of allowing. It is about setting free the unconscious movement that enables us to sing. Your job is to find where and what it is and connect with it.


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