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Breath Support: How Does It Work Mechanically?

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I know how to apply breath support and I generally believe in its usefulness. I can feel the sensation of release when doing more intense singing and it seems like there is a change in resonance according to how I'm applying it. At the very least, I feel more confident when my voice is supported so there is a psychological benefit.

But what is actually occurring in the body mechanically that produces these effects? How does breath support appear to reduce tension and alter resonance. What are the mechanics? Does air inhale lower into the lungs and does this create a different kind of vacuum for the air to exist? Is it based on the chamber being altered in shape? Is it based on there being alterations in muscular tension which would alternate how the air would be flowing through the chamber (harder surfaces reflect air differently than softer ones). If you could hook up a device that could use air particles to visually measure air flowing, inside the chamber all the way from the lungs, out through the larynx, what would be different vs not supporting?

When reading about Estill, I noticed it seemed to dodge breath support and claimed as long as the rest of the tract is operating correctly it is not needed. Now that was a very scientific endeavor. She hooked up sensory devices to musculature to figure out as objectively as possible anatomically how each component of the tract functions, and perhaps visualizing airflow in a complex chamber was beyond the scope of what they could do.

Does anyone  have any insight or harder evidence of what is actually occurring, vs our subjective sensations that it seems helpful? Has there been any significant research to measure the various muscles traditionally involved with support or the chamber itself and how it relates to the voice usage, compression of the air, the types of stress the vocal tract might be under, and how resonance might be changing, or are we kind of in all in the same boat that I'm in, where it seems helpful, it's traditionally seemed to help a lot of people, so we do it without a really concrete explanation?

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Excellent question and I have no answers, at least scientific or study-based answers.

What I do know is that over this past year, I have finally started to develope what some call breath support and what I would call breath management. And what it involves is metering the air. By letting resonance bring the volume and not "try" to sing so loud, I still have usable volume. By not letting all the air rush out, the phrases last longer, yes, but also, middle and upper parts of the range are more accessible and not as tiring. Because the object is not to break glass with the voice but have it be fluid and nimble where it is needed.

As Dr. Thomas Fillebrown said, "singers are professional breathers."

And all the times that Bob would emphasize the support or management of breath, it is more recently that I value that concentration, even though others may get the wrong mental image of "support," he is not saying to blow your voice out. What he is saying that is it is a muscular coordination that you can achieve. And that, yes, there is more to it than being completely at rest or even just in normal conversation.

And, believe it or not, Foreigner songs are great for testing one's breath management. You cannot sing Lou's line without managing the breath.

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I think what Estill is actually saying is that: If the vocal tract setup has everything in place without unneccessary tension you don't need to concentrate ACTIVELY on support, your body will do what is neccessary.

Actually, this is also my personal experience. I think in many programs there is too much weight about the ACTIVE control of the breathing mechanism. The main problem is really that people create unneccessary tension within their breathing mechanism which will increase the load on the breathing muscles and make everything harder and inefficient.

The interesting thing here is, that at least for me personally, thinking about support in an active way increases the tendency to use tension in places where it is not needed or a higher amount of tension than what is needed for singing the note. I strongly have that impression when listening to Ken Tamplin for example (the impression of more support than what is actually needed).

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There is research, both on singing and speaking.

In a simple manner, support is keeping the pressure and flow adequate to what you are doing.

Even to speak you need it, and you actually do it, even without training. When we inhale to speak, just the elastic recoil of the breathing system would produce excessive pressure, so we delay the relaxation of the diaphragm, which results in a longer release. As the air is released, the recoil pressure decreases, and at a certain point it will be adequate. After that, the recoil pressure is not enough, and you need to assist the exhale in order to keep speaking.

The result of support being appropriate or not on a SAME kind of phonation, would be on the effort you need to produce the note, not so much on the flow. However, since usually improper support also alters the phonation, making it more pressed or breathy, the flow would be either reduced or excessive.

There are complications on singing however. One of them is that we need a much higher dynamic range, so the strategy we use change. Appoggio solves this by creating a strong exhalation pressure and keeping it in check. There are other forms of support also, more adequate for one or another kind of singing. Appoggio is usually instructed because it produces the pressure that is required on contemporary material, and gives a good deal of freedom. However, if you are going to sing choir quality stuff, or belting all the time, there may be other forms of support that are more adequate, for example, expanded abdominal wall (which allows more air capacity and less pressure), or a strongly contracted abdominal wall and small inhaling, which allows higher pressure and less flow.

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The problem is with the word, "support." Support has an image, to me, of force required to hold something up. I keep saying that people should think of the term management but so far, I have been talking into the wind.

I also like the term "breath management", however it's not only the management of breath. The stabilizing of the musculature is also important.

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I can't speak of the science behind it. I can just offer a "street explanation."

Support is actually for me a tension diverter. And other times it's like a clutch. Ron is right about the need for support in the Foreigner tunes.  You can really feel the requirement in tunes like Urgent and Head Games (if you want to sing it really punchy and thick).  Urgent just has you clutching and kicking all through that tune. When you want a lot of dynamic contrast - crescendo/decrescendo, really big spikes in power, bigger- than-you-think-you-can-sound resonance it's indespensible. 

But again, if support is done wrong, it will tense you and lock you all up instead of freeing you up. It took me a real long time and a lot of practice to get to that intentional disengagement point where the lower core is where the work is and the laryngeal area is freed up.  A beginner will very likely lock the two together. It's a mental and physical detachment.

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I know how to apply breath support and I generally believe in its usefulness. I can feel the sensation of release when doing more intense singing and it seems like there is a change in resonance according to how I'm applying it. At the very least, I feel more confident when my voice is supported so there is a psychological benefit.

But what is actually occurring in the body mechanically that produces these effects? How does breath support appear to reduce tension and alter resonance. What are the mechanics? Does air inhale lower into the lungs and does this create a different kind of vacuum for the air to exist? Is it based on the chamber being altered in shape? Is it based on there being alterations in muscular tension which would alternate how the air would be flowing through the chamber (harder surfaces reflect air differently than softer ones). If you could hook up a device that could use air particles to visually measure air flowing, inside the chamber all the way from the lungs, out through the larynx, what would be different vs not supporting?

When reading about Estill, I noticed it seemed to dodge breath support and claimed as long as the rest of the tract is operating correctly it is not needed. Now that was a very scientific endeavor. She hooked up sensory devices to musculature to figure out as objectively as possible anatomically how each component of the tract functions, and perhaps visualizing airflow in a complex chamber was beyond the scope of what they could do.

Does anyone  have any insight or harder evidence of what is actually occurring, vs our subjective sensations that it seems helpful? Has there been any significant research to measure the various muscles traditionally involved with support or the chamber itself and how it relates to the voice usage, compression of the air, the types of stress the vocal tract might be under, and how resonance might be changing, or are we kind of in all in the same boat that I'm in, where it seems helpful, it's traditionally seemed to help a lot of people, so we do it without a really concrete explanation?

     I do not think any one even tried to answer the question. Some people think that just the amount of cord closure itself would be enough to Support (release enough air to make the folds vibrate efficiently) the tone.

     The act of expanding the rib cage and stretching the diaphragm, holding it in place with the solar plexus, Back and side muscles while leaving the lower abdominals free creates a self adjusting vacuum  of sorts (?) ...... Anyway....Moving on..... The vocal folds end up being something like a release valve. You can adjust the pressure from the action of the lower stomach.......the amount of pressure and cord closure(position) determines the amount of Bernoulli effect.       OK maybe I have no clue.....But it makes sense to me.

And I tried to actually answer the question.

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I can't speak of the science behind it. I can just offer a "street explanation."

Support is actually for me a tension diverter. And other times it's like a clutch. Ron is right about the need for support in the Foreigner tunes.  You can really feel the requirement in tunes like Urgent and Head Games (if you want to sing it really punchy and thick).  Urgent just has you clutching and kicking all through that tune. When you want a lot of dynamic contrast - crescendo/decrescendo, really big spikes in power, bigger- than-you-think-you-can-sound resonance it's indespensible. 

But again, if support is done wrong, it will tense you and lock you all up instead of freeing you up. It took me a real long time and a lot of practice to get to that intentional disengagement point where the lower core is where the work is and the laryngeal area is freed up.  A beginner will very likely lock the two together. It's a mental and physical detachment.

This ^

And to let your voice work instead of pushing to overcome the volume of something else. I am not talking about not straining or creating the sound of strain. I am talking about tone. A mistake I often made and I am sure others have made is trying to create too much volume with the voice. Instead, use the mic and an amp or whatever system you are using.

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There is research, both on singing and speaking.

In a simple manner, support is keeping the pressure and flow adequate to what you are doing.

Even to speak you need it, and you actually do it, even without training. When we inhale to speak, just the elastic recoil of the breathing system would produce excessive pressure, so we delay the relaxation of the diaphragm, which results in a longer release. As the air is released, the recoil pressure decreases, and at a certain point it will be adequate. After that, the recoil pressure is not enough, and you need to assist the exhale in order to keep speaking.

The result of support being appropriate or not on a SAME kind of phonation, would be on the effort you need to produce the note, not so much on the flow. However, since usually improper support also alters the phonation, making it more pressed or breathy, the flow would be either reduced or excessive.

There are complications on singing however. One of them is that we need a much higher dynamic range, so the strategy we use change. Appoggio solves this by creating a strong exhalation pressure and keeping it in check. There are other forms of support also, more adequate for one or another kind of singing. Appoggio is usually instructed because it produces the pressure that is required on contemporary material, and gives a good deal of freedom. However, if you are going to sing choir quality stuff, or belting all the time, there may be other forms of support that are more adequate, for example, expanded abdominal wall (which allows more air capacity and less pressure), or a strongly contracted abdominal wall and small inhaling, which allows higher pressure and less flow.

This makes the some sense to me. There will be a certain amount of compression behind the folds at any given time. If you want to feel the sensation of too much compression inhale enough air until you are completely stuffed. It will be difficult to speak and sing, as you'll have to hold back so much air it will create too much tension. If you want to feel too little air, exhale all air, and feel the very last breath.

So support in essence is altering the amount of air and air compression behind the voice, size, shape, and space the lungs are allowed to exist in. So when the air is released, it is released with a certain amount of pressure into the voice, ideally what the voice needs to phonate.

It still doesn't fully explain the situation in my mind of how a smaller space, or a tenser space would change things. I don't have a great understanding of compressed air in space. Someone who bottles spray cans, fills balloons of various shapes, or deals more with the science of fitting air into compressed spaces with varying materials might of shape, hardness, and could measure compression might have a better visualization. Is the abdominal wall more about changing the space, or the hardness of the space the lung would be making contact with?

I'm pretty sure I've tried all 3 types of breath support you are describing instinctively at various points or at least more in one direction than the other.

     I do not think any one even tried to answer the question. Some people think that just the amount of cord closure itself would be enough to Support (release enough air to make the folds vibrate efficiently) the tone.

     The act of expanding the rib cage and stretching the diaphragm, holding it in place with the solar plexus, Back and side muscles while leaving the lower abdominals free creates a self adjusting vacuum  of sorts (?) ...... Anyway....Moving on..... The vocal folds end up being something like a release valve. You can adjust the pressure from the action of the lower stomach.......the amount of pressure and cord closure(position) determines the amount of Bernoulli effect.       OK maybe I have no clue.....But it makes sense to me.

And I tried to actually answer the question.

I feel like Felipe gave a pretty good response, but it may be incomplete. I do like trying to visualize your explanation.

The diaphragm lowers to create inhalation creating a sort of vacuum/suction space. So you're partly right there. I think the suction and vacuum created is an important component:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thoracic_diaphragm

I not sure if the rib cage would hold be held in place to control the diaphragm if that's what you're what you're saying. I suspect the expansion of the ribs might have more to do with allowing more space for the lungs to fill and for the diaphragm to freely move. As an experiment, try to collapse your rib cage as much as possible and inhale. Does it feel less for you too?

Overall, I think I can kind of visualize the concept, (think filling varying sizes of spray cans or balloon with air and then trying to release the air. The least flexible surface would allow the least air to expand (a strong can vs a balloon), while the more flexible and larger surfaces would allow more air. I can't visualize the details of how the muscles would be working and interacting. There's a pretty interesting article here tht shows some of the muscles surrounding:

http://journals.library.mun.ca/ojs/index.php/singing/article/viewFile/1035/889

So you'd have to understand the musculature surrounding both the diaphragm and the lungs and how they shape the cavity and what kinds of tension they would create, and then you'd have to understand the of air pressure, how it relates to storage in various conditions (sizes, flexibility), and how that relates to the release of the air.

I definitely feel more informed after some of these replies, but feel it is probably too complex of a system to fully break down.

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   Felipe said nothing on the Physical aspect.....(position of physical muscles). He spoke on the effect of support.  I am no expert by any means and even saying that is laughable. The whole problem with "Not supporting" is the chest collapsing and running out of air.The actions that I spoke of "Keeping the rib cage expanded" "Holding the diaphragm in place with Taught solar plexus" kind of insures that the lungs do not empty completely. When I hold this position correctly....The more air I expel the wider the rib cage expands.....Less air comes out but under more pressure(amount of pressure is adjustable by lower ab motions or by just allowing sound for softer stuff).   Breath comes into the lungs just by letting your lower belly relax(open glottis of course). But once the muscles are in place they pretty much hold themselves in this position.

     You are not pushing out or down with the lower abs but UP against the diaphragm.

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   Felipe said nothing on the Physical aspect.....(position of physical muscles). He spoke on the effect of support.  I am no expert by any means and even saying that is laughable. The whole problem with "Not supporting" is the chest collapsing and running out of air.The actions that I spoke of "Keeping the rib cage expanded" "Holding the diaphragm in place with Taught solar plexus" kind of insures that the lungs do not empty completely. When I hold this position correctly....The more air I expel the wider the rib cage expands.....Less air comes out but under more pressure(amount of pressure is adjustable by lower ab motions or by just allowing sound for softer stuff).   Breath comes into the lungs just by letting your lower belly relax(open glottis of course). But once the muscles are in place they pretty much hold themselves in this position.

     You are not pushing out or down with the lower abs but UP against the diaphragm.

This is interesting. I'm not sure we use the same support method. I wonder how many of us actually the same support method given the amount of muscles that could be involved?

My generic support method is basically to inhale downward until the solar plexis naturally expands a decent amount and to let my ribs expand. My solar plexis expands but doesn't lock. As I exhale it tends to slowly collapse bit by bit, but I keep some sensation of the outward solar plexis until i run out of air. Using that method I can sing really long notes.

When approaching something resembling belting or doing very loud chesty sounds in general. I do tend to have more abdominal engagement. I have found a more collapsed position with a slight huffing sensation (compression) is actually functional, but not necessarily optimal for me.

So yeah, I think our methods might actually be polar opposites in a way. I have expansion, and I maintain a slight sensation of expansion, but I don't force or lock anything into place. It's like breath deep, expand, and then slowly let it go while holding onto a little of the the sensation of the inhale for me.

 

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Killer. I understand the confusion then.

If you use a strong exhalation force, but oppose it, its just muscles, not air. There is no pressure at all on the air inside you, no energy, no work, nothing (it would actually be equal to the open air pressure).

Do you understand this? If you put a weight over a frail table but keep its weight supported somehow the table will not be pressed down and wont be smashed. No matter how much Weight, as long as you keep something else holding it back, no pressure is applied. Its potential energy, but no work is done (thinking of the table of course).

Makes sense so far?

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   Without someone there to show you exactly what to do you come up with what you "THINK" others are talking about. This was the only thing that looked and gave results of what I deciphered from other sources. The idea of Expanding the rib cage and engaging the back and side muscles to keep the rib cage open.......The "Noble Stance".........

   I am a weird guy..... I like to imitate Cartoon and TV personality voices....... What led to this was "Hulk Hogan" and "Grandpa Simpson"(the episode where he kept saying "EVIL !!!!, EEEEEEVIL !!!! ).   I noticed what I was doing with my stomach to make those sounds.

 

     Edit:    From what I understand the diaphragm is connected to the lower ribs......So keeping the lower ribs expanded helps keep the diaphragm low and more flattened out.

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Killer. I understand the confusion then.

If you use a strong exhalation force, but oppose it, its just muscles, not air. There is no pressure at all on the air inside you, no energy, no work, nothing (it would actually be equal to the open air pressure).

Do you understand this? If you put a weight over a frail table but keep its weight supported somehow the table will not be pressed down and wont be smashed. No matter how much Weight, as long as you keep something else holding it back, no pressure is applied. Its potential energy, but no work is done.

Makes sense so far?

I've been re reading this and it has taken me a bit to understand this concept. But in the most simplistic terms I think I can understand you.

1. When a strong exhalation force occurs, (say from a balloon) there is a propulsive force, an equal and opposite reactionary force which would propel the balloon itself to travel.

2. If there was an opposing force to the balloon's exhalation, the balloon could remain stationary.

3. When exhaling out of the body, a similar opposing force occurs causing. If you have enough breath pressure behind the exhalation, the air being expelled can't blow back with as much force (folds). So the exhalation force is counteracted by the air pressure stored in the lungs. 

So for whatever type of vocalization being done, you'd want the inward air pressure to be as close to providing an opposite reaction to the exhalation pressure, as this would as two comparable forces counteracting each other puts less stress on the body than one unopposed force.

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Humm still too complicated.

When we exhale, something is driving the air out.

This is exhalation force. Can be muscles or the recoil of the tissue.

You can oppose this with contraction of the inhaling muscles. When this happens, that force to exhale does not transfer to the air, there is potential, but no action.

If you understand this there is a much simpler way to look at it, and it begins by understanding the problem to solve.

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Humm still too complicated.

When we exhale, something is driving the air out.

This is exhalation force. Can be muscles or the recoil of the tissue.

You can oppose this with contraction of the inhaling muscles. When this happens, that force to exhale does not transfer to the air, there is potential, but no action.

Interesting. So the inhalation and exhalation muscles counteract the force of each other, but ultimately exhalation still has to happen so one force must dominate another

I can't really do volume swells very smoothly without singing on an inhale sensation. Is it when those muscles are balancing each other out that you can get that finer tuned gradient and not just make a plosive exhale?

How do these muscles behave differently according to how much air/compression is in the lungs?

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Interesting. So the inhalation and exhalation muscles counteract the force of each other, but ultimately exhalation still has to happen so one force must dominate another

I can't really do volume swells very smoothly without singing on an inhale sensation. Is it when those muscles are balancing each other out that you can get that finer tuned gradient and not just make a plosive exhale?

Do the muscles behave differently according to how much air is in the lungs?

    With my model the volume swell is from the action of the lower abs.

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    With my model the volume swell is from the action of the lower abs.

That's interesting. Depends on where I'm at in my range, and what vowel, but I tend to need engagement with the swell I think too. Can't do one right now, going to wake neighbors but will do some experiments tomorrow to see what I can isolate in or out. 

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Killer

The muscles can work in this antagonic manner. Yes. During speech we do it a bit as I said. The inhaling muscles remain active to slow down the release of air.

But speech is vanila singing. The dynamic range is low. The pitch range is low. The expected quality is not that high, etc. To speak all you need is that people understand you.

So you see. If you set a somewhat constant pressure in the manner I described, compensating the volume vs pressure relationship, its enough. You dont need much precision because its on a very comfortable area.

On singing, totally different ball game. Pitch and dynamic range is huge, you have longer sustain, phrasings that go on the opposite direction of the physiology, etc.

Each vowel, pitch and intensity will require something different. So this strategy of just compensating the natural release just doesn't cut it. You can perhaps attack a note well. Sure. Do what you said, inhale just the right amount and attack.

What if you have a long soft phrase that ends on a crescendo that requires pressure? Contracting the muscles just at a given point work well with a note that should have more impact, but what if you wanted legatto? What if the phrase goes strong and then soft again?

Thats why using a strong exhalation force and hold it back works well. Because you can produce the necessary adjustments faster, with much more stability and without depending so much on the natural recoil and its non linear behaviour. Appoggio (support as known in singing technique) is this.

Its not the only strategy. But in my opinion, its the most versatile one. Harder to learn than just belly all out or all in, but very efficient.

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That's interesting. Depends on where I'm at in my range, and what vowel, but I tend to need engagement with the swell I think too. Can't do one right now, going to wake neighbors but will do some experiments tomorrow to see what I can isolate in or out. 

     Remember..... Support is just one part of it........

General disclaimer...... If Felipe, Robert, Daniel, Martin ..................has a different take on this or anything I suggest ........ Defer to them ........ They Rock ......

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I've been re reading this and it has taken me a bit to understand this concept. But in the most simplistic terms I think I can understand you.

1. When a strong exhalation force occurs, (say from a balloon) there is a propulsive force, an equal and opposite reactionary force which would propel the balloon itself to travel.

 

Actually, there is an equal and opposite reaction to every action, at all times, not just on forceful exhalations.

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Thats why using a strong exhalation force and hold it back works well. Because you can produce the necessary adjustments faster, with much more stability and without depending so much on the natural recoil and its non linear behaviour. Appoggio (support as known in singing technique) is this.

Its not the only strategy. But in my opinion, its the most versatile one. Harder to learn than just belly all out or all in, but very efficient.

This make a lot of sense to me now. I've been toying with it a bit today. It seems my method of 'hold onto some inhalation sensation' is like a primitive take on this but still not fully efficient. If you consciously balance the exhalation versus the inhalation forces the antagonistic forces can leak over in really small and smooth percentages with minute changes. There's a lot of precision when two forces are allowing some give and take.

I've definitely learned a lot from this topic so far, so thanks Felipe. I think it will be useful for my speech as well to be conscious of some of this stuff. Cause if I get one of those jolts of nerve pain I reflexively tend to want to wince/shut or power through, but I think having more conscious awareness and control over these two muscles could help me hit sweet spots and ride through some pain with the less effort. The instinctive response I have tends to fail me in those situations so if there is a way I can consciously override the least effort it could be helpful.

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Killer, what you said below, does not have anything to do with support. You have to get to a point where you hold back air (a little or a lot) with the lower core. Your body maintains an inspiratory hold on the air. The folds are not what's holding back the air! In fact, you free up the folds so you can apply them to the air. 

"This makes the some sense to me. There will be a certain amount of compression behind the folds at any given time. If you want to feel the sensation of too much compression inhale enough air until you are completely stuffed. It will be difficult to speak and sing, as you'll have to hold back so much air it will create too much tension. If you want to feel too little air, exhale all air, and feel the very last breath."

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