Some Thoughts on the Breath

Evan Bortnick Wiesbaden

Much has been said and much has been written about "The Breath" for singing and for speaking. Discussions about the breath in general and in singing specifically always remind me of that Zen story of the three blind men describing an elephant; one says it’s like a snake, the other says it’s like a hairy tree, the third says it’s like a big wine barrel. They’re all right, they’re all wrong and they’re all quite sure of themselves.

We all live in a Sense-Horizon. In other words, we are ALL limited by the horizons of our own senses. We can extend this horizon. However, in my experience, this is only possible through the sure palpation that the horizon is, in fact, limited! As I’ve written in another blog, this is a humbling experience; ‘there’s something going on here that I don’t really get YET!”---an important pedagogical step.

A propos three different perspectives; our vocal instrument is made up of three distinct functional systems (at least within the horizon of the model I’m working with at the moment):

Energy Delivery System

Vocal Phonation Vibratory System

Resonance System

Any vocal phenomenon; sensory, acoustic, anatomical, functional, etc. can be described from each of these systems. Even for those out there whose habits and training have encouraged them, for one good reason or another, to IGNORE or DELETE signals from one or more of these systems (and in my experience, there are many), they are still functioning in one way or another. If everything’s going well, if you as a singer are in “Flow”, there is truly no need to consciously palpate all these at once. Indeed a case can be made that too much consciousness is detrimental to performing. Those familiar with the work of George Miller of 7, plus-minus 2 fame, will find affirmation in this statement! On the other hand, if something is dysfunctional in one or more of these systems, then it’s only sensible to feel into and understand what a corrective intervention within that system may be.

When we talk about breathing, the focus is, of course, on the Energy Delivery System. Breathing (both in the Thoracic and the Cranio-Sacral sense) touches, without exception, on every function, conscious and unconscious in the human body, mind and spirit. There are groups of muscles and muscle chains which are responsible for inhalation and for exhalation, yet every subtle change in pressure regulation affects and is palpable in every cell membrane. That’s what makes it often so challenging to sense-isolate the specific muscles which regulate the inhalatory and exhalatory impulse. Basically speaking the diaphragm and external intercostals are the motors behind the inhalation and the internal intercostals and assorted stomach muscles for the exhalatory impulse. One of my favorite exercises to use with beginning singers (and speakers) is to ask them to take a comfortable, maximum, full breath and to let it out with a VERY slow and steady air stream on an “S”, keeping the airflow through the teeth and tongue tip steady to the expiratory reserve lung volume. In other words, breathe as much air out of the lungs as is possible. What they notice is that this breath runs in three phases.

In the first phase although they’re breathing out, they need to keep the inhalatory muscles fully engaged or they can’t keep the slow air flow. I ask them which muscles they feel working and they describe lateral expansion in the chest cavity, shoulder blades and often clavicles as well. If they release the muscle tonus here, the breath will come shooting out.

In the second phase the inhalatory and exhalatory forces are in balance and it feels quite effortless to keep the air flow steady and slow. In the third phase, they begin to feel contraction in the chest and in the stomach muscles. Here the exhalatory forces are dominant. If they release muscle tone here, the breath with shoot in. N.B….this is an extreme exercise. Few teachers would recommend singing or speaking to these exhalatory and inhalatory extremes, but I find it to be a good exercise to demonstrate the forces at work in the different phases of lung volume and rib-cage pressure. With singers, it shows quite clearly that the sensation changes of pressure, resonance and posture within the system mirror lung volume and diaphram position.

Because we all have different bodies, different muscle strengths/sizes and different thorax and pelvis forms (add to that all the many psychological factors involved), we have different tendencies in breathing. For some, the fullness (what the ancients called Pleroma) is the most comfortable. For others, the emptiness (Kenoma) is comfortable. I’ve had students and clients who, on the other side of the coin, felt light panic in holding and regulating fullness and emptiness.

My point here is that we need to understand and respect the breathing habits of our students, including blockages, defenses and resistances, before we can make new, healthier and more efficient habits available. Another important point for those who emphasize the breath; inhalare, appoggia, sul fiato in the “Bel Canto” school…..or pranayama, Re-Birthing, holotrophic breathing or whatever other methods and techniques you’ve studied, in phonation the breath must be regulated by the vocalis muscle and not the other way around. The idea that the breath reigns and the vocalis reacts leads to misunderstanding and too often damage to the instrument. In any closed pressure system, the functional regulatory valve is responsible for the regulation, not the motor of energy delivery. If the feedback loop is damaged, the valve will cease to function!

My first voice teacher used to love the phrase “Bow the BREATH” and screamed it regularly while I was singing. At first I found this invigorating and the voice got bigger and more efficient. After a while it felt more like ‘pushing’, exerting WAY too much sub-glottal pressure. Even more disturbing than that was the fact that the teacher seemed oblivious to this and still kept yelling “Bow the BREATH!” There are those out there, teachers I’ve had and pedagogy students I’ve had, who held the belief that “The Breath” is everything. "Breath well and you sing well" is their mantra. If everything’s in balance, this works. If everything is not in balance and you emphasize ONLY the breath, you are obviously missing something important and your student is going to pay the price.

Evan Bortnick Wiesbaden