Riva Capellari

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Located in Brookside in the heart of Kansas City

The Breath of Song

The Breath of Song
In the March issue of News of Note I laid out the basic function of our respiratory system and the importance of proper body alignment and breathing in phonation, speaking or singing. This month we will continue that discussion, more specifically, on how our normal breathing routine is altered for singing. Think of singing as amplified exhalation!

The time ratio between inhaling vs. exhaling is approximately 40/60 at rest vs. 10/90 in singing. Sung phrases can last from 15-20 seconds, maybe more, whereas most speaking phrases time out between 1-5 seconds. This means that our exhalation needs to be monitored and managed differently in singing than in restful breathing or even normal speech.

Phonation requires a balanced working relationship between the respiratory, phonatory and resonatory systems. Our breath must supply an airflow of sufficient volume and pressure to accommodate all manners of phonation from normal speech to high, strong singing. In order for this to happen, our breathing muscles need to work together to delay the natural recoil tendencies that generate the exhalation. In other words, we have to learn to over-ride the automatic control of our respiratory system. This interdependence of the muscles results in an equally balanced contest between the inhalation and exhalation muscles. The diaphragm opposes the abdominal muscles that want to push it back up, forcing out the air faster than we need for efficient singing. Maintaining the outward swing of the ribs will also prevent a too rapid exhalation. Even the laryngeal muscles and the vocal folds assist – the glottis (the opening between the folds) acts as a valve to regulate the release of the air which is determined partly by the adjustment of the folds. A too tight or squeezed closure uses less air, but produces a compressed sound while a too open glottis will result in breathiness.

Why is this necessary? Going back to the phrase length differentiation between speaking and singing, there needs to be adequate, consistent air pressure compressing against the vocal folds for them to phonate for longer periods of time. Much of this responsibility falls on the exhalation muscles to monitor the amount of airflow exhaled, depending on not just the length of the singing phrase, but pitch and dynamic level. This delay then, in the “normal” breathing routine creates irregular intervals between our inhalations, dictated by the music.

Air pressure is the prime mover of air flow. Pressurized air in the lungs is released through the cooperation of the respiratory muscles. This aerodynamic power (airflow) turns into acoustic power (vibration) in phonation. And the right amount of airflow to do this is called the phonation threshold pressure or PTP. PTP is higher than atmospheric pressure and is the amount of breath pressure needed to set the vocal folds to vibration. As we sing higher and louder, the folds stiffen, and more air pressure is needed to reach this threshold.

So—singing and even speaking requires more energy (air pressure) then is normally used in restful breathing. Many people find it difficult to apply this knowledge to their vocalizations, instead relying on the musculature of the larynx to produce sound. This increases the workload on the larynx and the vocal folds, causing fatigue and in some cases, injury (think yelling and screaming!). Breathing should be quiet not “grasped”, but allowed to naturally flow into the lungs. And before a new inhale takes place, all air (minus the residual air) should be exhaled to prevent “stacking”, i.e., taking in new air on top of the old. This creates tension and can speed up the exhalation. In singing, a relaxed deep breath also tends to cause the larynx to descend, a positive laryngeal position for singing that widens and lengthens the pharynx (throat), benefiting resonance and timbre (to be explored in a later issue!).

Emotional states produce signature breath patterns, that is, specific responses to diverse stimuli. Try to recall what happens to your breathing when you are surprised, frightened, laughing or close to tears. Because of this, singers must learn how to “emote” without losing control over their breathing.

To sum up, during singing it is necessary to delay the natural recoil of the respiratory system so that the amount of exhaled air can be monitored in accordance to the length, pitch and dynamic level of the phrase to be sung. This means that our “natural” respiratory timing will be regulated by the music rather than our bodies. The proper adjustment of vocal fold opening and the right amount of air pressure must be present to achieve the right PTP. We must learn how to increase this threshold for higher pitches and dynamic levels without sacrificing intonation. Let the body breathe without any undue tension or extraneous muscle activity that can actually lessen the amount of air we can inhale. Crowding the lungs, taking in too much air can increase the rate of exhalation. Stress can cause us to use muscles in a compensatory manner which weakens them, expends energy and if continued, may cause injury. The bottom line is, singing through to the end of those long phrases has more to do with skill and training than big lungs!
Teaching Breathing, Mk. & D. Bell. JOS M/A 2005.
Breathing Myths, D. Michael. JOS M/J 2010.
End of Phrase Breath, L. Indik. JOS J/A 2010

Sing Into Spring!!!!
If you were not able to sign up for the April voice classes, there will be more opportunities in May and throughout the summer. Check my website or contact me at [email protected] for future dates. I will also be offering another Re-Discover Your Voice, a one hour introduction to voice class, through Communiversity on Saturday, May 12 from 10-11am at the Waldo Library. The class is limited to 12 and slots are filling up, so if you are interested, contact Communiversity at 235-1448 to register.

To Anti-histamine or Not?
Spring brings beautiful flowers and the allergy season. There are numerous over the counter medicines that can alleviate some of the irritating symptoms that accompany allergies. However, as with all things, there are drawbacks.
An allergy is none other than an increased activity of the immune system responding to a certain foreign substance such as pollen or mold. Antibodies are then released to induce tissue inflammation. One of these mediators of inflammation is histamine. This inflam-mation alters the mucosa of the vocal folds, creating voice problems, especially for singers.
Anti-histamines, as the names suggests, block the release of histamines the body produces in response to the allergen. It works by drying out the mucosal surfaces and shrinking the swelling in the tissue membranes. This results in “dry mouth” (xerostomia), which robs the mucosa of the lubrication it needs for efficient vocal fold vibration, thereby increasing the PTP. Some new medications combine the anti-histamine with an expectorant such as guaifenesin found in Robitussun and Humibid. To help counteract the drying effect of the anti-histamine, guaifenesin thins the mucus, clearing out the thick secretions that can accompany allergies.
Remember that these medications, though over the counter, are still drugs and need to be used with caution. Check with your doctor if you encounter any problems with them.
Bodymind & Voice: Foundations of Voice Education, L Thurman, EdD & G. Welch, Phd, co-eds. Vol 1-3. 2000. VoiceCare Network

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