A Breath of Fresh Air

For many years, I have been troubled by the attention given in voice coaching to working on breathing. I know it has to happen, but there is always something about the way it is approached that seems to me to be counter-productive.

My early years were spent learning ‘rib-reserve’, whereby we expanded and lifted the rib-cage while lowering the diaphragm, and then attempted to keep the rib-cage up and out as we hummed, or ah-ed, or counted to 500 (ok, I’m exaggerating slightly), or spoke ten lines of Shakespeare on one breath.  The result was the kind of performance that gave acting a bad name during the 20th century, all frozen from the chest down.

That system fell into disrepute, and was replaced by ‘belly breathing’, where we all tried to puff out our bellies with the incoming breath, ignoring our ribs entirely.  This allows more freedom of movement.  Trouble is it takes ages to get people to let go of the impulse to put such a huge effort into taking that in-breath that their upper chest and shoulders do all the work, making it hard for the diaphragm to do any supporting at all!  Another problem is when people just push out their bellies, using their external abs while constricting the internal core muscles.

This method has now been replaced by a focus on expansion of the lungs within a relaxed torso, aiming for a sustained engagement of the transversus abdominus that support the diaphragm and facilitates a consistent supply of air to the vocal folds. Nice work, if you can get it.

Part of the problem is the language that is used to describe the behaviour of the various sets of muscles.  For example, in looking for a website to link to for ‘diaphragm’, the first one I found described the diaphragm as “pushing” the air out on exhalation. The second – the one I have linked to – refers to the air being “forced” out. These are medical encyclopaedias!  They should know better…  because the air is neither pushed, nor forced out – or at least, it shouldn’t be.

Breathing is an autonomous function of the body. Air comes in, the body takes what it needs and (roughly speaking) converts what’s left into carbon dioxide and that is allowed to leave. In the normal course of our lives, we know perfectly well how to breathe. If we didn’t, we’d be dead. I have checked this Wikipedia entry, and it’s pretty scientifically spot on.

However, as soon as we start trying to consciously control our breathing, we run into problems. We do all sorts of weird things quite unconsciously, trying to control the air flow by tensing our jaw, or throat, as if we could manipulate air that way! Or we push the air out in a rush, attacking the vocal folds on the way and giving ourselves vocal strain.

I take the view that we breathe for two reasons: 1) to stay alive and 2) to express ourselves vocally and to communicate with each other. The staying alive part is taken care of by our very clever bodies, that know perfectly well how to do breathing without any help from us thank you very much.  In the normal course of our lives, the speaking part is also taken care of by our clever bodies, which know that air needs to be within the lungs so that it can come out and interfere with our vocal cords, thus setting sound waves in motion. As soon as we have the urge to speak, or yell, or cry, or laugh, our bodies ensure that there is air inside already set up and away we go!

So – here’s my suggestion.  Let’s stop doing breath control, or breathing training, or any form of breathing exercises.  Instead, let’s work on our voices, and creating healthy sounds, with the understanding that if we leave our bodies alone to get the breath into our bodies, we can train ourselves to have better and more sustainable air supply to the vocal cords (or folds) by demanding more sustained thoughts, and needs and desires for expression. The body will always try to give us what we are asking for, but it must be allowed to do it in its own way. The more demanding we are of ourselves, in the sense of having more intense, passionate, intellectually stimulated thoughts to express (whether in the form of a hum, or a sigh, or clearly articulated language), the harder the body will work to supply those thoughts, and this workout will result in stronger, more powerful muscles that are actually and appropriately involved in providing the necessary air flow.

Fitzmaurice Voicework goes some way towards addressing this with the Destructuring program, but still with the focus on conscious awareness of the breathing process. I’d like to take it even further, destructuring (in a sense) but while focusing upon the vocal sound, and the physical sensations in the body that occur during the eventuation of the sound.

I’d love to hear what you think?  Please leave your comments below.