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This method has now been replaced by a focus on expansion of the lungs within a relaxed torso, aiming for a sustained engagement of the transversus abdominus that support the diaphragm and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.



25 February 2011 at 4:50 PM

True, it can be puzzling to spend so much time on an autonomous activity. I wouldn’t want to always focus on my swallowing technique or I’d never enjoy my meal!

I know every time I’m attending any sort of acting class with beginning actors and the words “Now I’m going to teach you how breathe” come up, the room is filled with puzzled looks.

I understand that most people don’t take full, deep, or connected breaths because of the tension and other habits we’ve developed: such as those who keep their gut sucked in constantly only breathe into the chest, or raise the shoulders with each breath. But after reading this I think that teachers are trying to fix a symptom, rather than the cause. Without the tension habits we breathe “properly,” as can be seen in young children.

So maybe a more logical course of action is to try to release the tension elsewhere — phyiscally and psychologically — and the breathing should eventually correct itself. Easier said than done, right?

    25 February 2011 at 8:31 PM

    You hit the nail on the head, Gedaly. We do lots of work to get students to relax, to lose any unnecessary tensions in the body, but as long as we focus on the in-breath I believe we make it harder to achieve. I want to focus solely on the sound, which means the out-breath (but we don’t tell them that!), allowing the in-breath to take care of itself.

    I know this approach works when people are crying. Telling them to take a deep breath results in a high tense breath, and they still have to clamp up to stop the crying. Telling them to breathe out allows them to automatically allow a good breath in in order to have the lovely loose out breath that allows the emotional release to happen. The voice wobbles until the equilibrium is achieved, but the voice stays open and can be clearly articulated.

25 February 2011 at 9:08 PM

Hi Flloyd

Your post reminded me of a t-shirt that a voice teachers’ association had produced many years ago. It read, ‘Every day the same old thing: breath, breath, breath.’ I happen to think that this semi-serious line actually masks a profound truth for the actor.

There’s no doubt in my mind that the various approaches to breathing that have been essayed over the years are simply attempts to ‘master’ something that ought to be, as you put it so well, a natural response to staying alive and an unforced, natural and perfectly adequate means of supporting a thought as it is expressed either verbally or non-verbally. I can understand why mastery is desired, because without a profound connection between breath and impulse, a performance rarely rings true or, in some circumstances, can be heard or understood.

I remember at a conference once hearing an impassioned response to the idea of the ‘natural voice’ from a colleague which went something like this – the voice in performance is not at all functioning in its ‘natural’ or normal state. Whoever said responding under the stresses of performance in a room often larger than those normally inhabited, and to people usually seated much further away than is ‘normal’ in conversation is a ‘natural action’? I happen to agree with him – at least I am greatly persuaded from my own experience as an actor and in watching actors at work for many years. I still want to subscribe to the ‘relax and let it happen and everything will be fine’ school. Can I have 50c each way? 🙂

I’m less eager to do anything more these days with actors in training than to get them more aware of the physicality that is supporting what they’re doing – in other words lots of breathing and awareness of what’s happening when they are ‘at work’ on the floor and especially in training. Asking them to observe the kind of breath that is happening at various moments in rehearsal, for example – or when they feel they are ‘off breath’ and so on. It’s self-conscious work in the best sense of the word in my humble opinion. It’s rather akin to practising scales on the piano – stretching the muscles and working daily at the keyboard – repeating and repeating – so that when the moment of performance comes, they are ready to respond as needed.

This is a big topic and I’m glad you have broached it.

    26 February 2011 at 3:59 PM

    Thanks Kate, lovely to read your considered response.

    I also agree with your colleague, that the voice in performance is neither ‘natural’ nor ‘normal’ – at least, not if is effectively communicating to its audience! Performance conditions (including film and television) require the performer to have certain skills, one of which is the ability to create the illusion that they are speaking ‘normally’ when in fact they are not.

    I didn’t actually mean to imply that I believed that no training is necessary, and I certainly don’t subscribe to the view that if you “relax and let it happen, everything will be fine”. What I am proposing is a training program that addresses breath control, consistency of breath management, effective use of the breath in creating vocal sound (and anything else to do with realising a powerful, flexible, dynamic voice that involves breath – and what doesn’t!!) by using a different vocabulary. Such a vocabulary would acknowledge that breath is involved in sound, but would not require the student to attempt to consciously manipulate the breath. It would direct the focus of attention to the connection between the thought and the sound, AS WELL AS raising awareness of the actual physical state of the body at any given point. It wouldn’t take long before the student would be making the connection between sound and breath, but it would be – I believe – easier to facilitate the discovery, rather than directing, or pointing out what could or should be happening.

    What I am searching for – and I admit I haven’t found it yet – is a way of introducing the powerful exercises that we know will help to build strength and power and flexibility in the breath support system without having to go through the whole process of breathing less effectually in order to get to the effective process! Where you propose “lots of breathing and awareness of what’s happening when they are ‘at work’ on the floor and especially in training”, I would like to direct all that awareness to everything BUT the actual breathing (which is obviously happening), so that they become aware of what physical actions, and reactions result in good breathing practice.

    For example, there’s a great exercise I learnt from an opera singer, that involves attempting to make the longest ‘s’ in the world by setting up a good support posture (I call it my Sumo Wrestler position) and drawing that ‘s’ out of the belly button. Of course this is a breathing exercise, but if I introduce it as such, everybody (at first) lifts their shoulders and pushes out the sound. If I leave out mention of breath or breathing, they are much more likely to look for the ‘s’ – and hence the power – in the region of the belly button, which is roughly where the support is. If I ask them to persevere after they think there is no ‘s’ left, and find another 3 or 4 centimetres, they instinctively take a deeper breath the next time. Of course, it doesn’t always work this way, but enough for me to think this approach has something of value.

    I’m interested in exploring that analogy of practising scales on the piano. I was one of those kids who responded to scales and exercises by getting to be very good at doing the scales and exercises, but could never translate that into creative performance. Possibly the way I was taught? And I have seen so many students training in various voice training methodologies who likewise become very expert in doing the exercises, but still it doesn’t translate into quality performance work.

    So I’m still on the trail of a more holistic training process, one that relies deeply upon self-awareness and commitment, thorough understanding of the process itself and what it is for at all times.

    It’s great to have fine teachers and practitioners such as yourself and Gedaly engaging in this discussion, and helping me to clarify my thoughts.

    And I’d love to know how you get smilies into your post!

26 February 2011 at 5:05 PM

Hi again! My analogy re doing scales – getting your breath working well – is so you can forget about it i.e., it’s ‘there’ when you need it as a reflex in performance. I think Cic Berry said something similar – ‘just do the work and forget about it’ … at least it sounds like something she might have said. As to being good at exercises and that not translating into ‘quality performance work,’ I think no amount of good practice and perfection at exercises is going to help if something like imagination or trust or confidence is lacking.

And to smilies – well, your WP blog allows it. When you put a : and a – and a ) all together, they make the wonderful smily emoticon 🙂 Let’s see if the sad face works 🙁 *playtime*

5 March 2011 at 7:04 AM

‘So I’m still on the trail of a more holistic training process, one that relies deeply upon self-awareness and commitment, thorough understanding of the process itself and what it is for at all times.’

Your comment above is exactly what the Lessac Kinesensic training addresses. The various old-school methods of pushing out, pulling in, pressing or forcing various muscle groups in order to expand the breathing capacity were certainly well meaning in their way. I remember distinctly being taught to push out my abdominal area in order to take a deeper breath in my singing training. This compartmentalizing of our physical instruments may result in the individual student making the connection between the instruction and the body’s response to it: by somehow translating it (the instruction to push, pull, force etc.) to a full breath with expansion all around the torso. If the student has innate and sensitive awareness, he/she begins to feel what the possibilities are in this rather limited instruction to move a certain part of the body. However, in Arthur’s work, he describes the relationship between breathing and posture as one of the fundamental dualities that contribute to optimal body condition and vocal health. They are interdependent. So we teach students to become’ aware’ (with a capital A) of sensation within the body, and use that sensation as a guide for optimal functioning in any given physical activity—such as breathing.
He states in his book: The Use and Training of the Human Voice: A Bio-Dynamic Approach to Vocal Life, that ‘No physical act, speaking and singing included, can be carried out efficiently and pleasurably unless it is supported by healthful breathing and by posture that is responsive to the body’s needs. This is as true offstage as it is onstage, but it becomes especially important during performance when speaking occurs simultaneously with a wide range of physical and emotional projects that change from moment to moment.’
So the Kinesensic training teaches us how to become aware of and use active, instinctive breathing through a series of developmental experiences. We find that breathing becomes active and instinctive when:
• the body assumes a posture that forms a single-convex dorsal (or back) curve, such as when sitting, squatting, leaning, dancing, golfing, crouching and so on.
• the body is balancing or performing a ‘spherical’ action, such as rolling, rocking or tumbling
• inhaling occurs through the natural and spontaneous self-absorbing actions of smelling some wonderful aroma for pleasure, or sighing with pleasure, or laughing.
We learn through a series of familiar events how to carry over these actions to our breathing in a very natural, organic way. Once we have established the relationship of breathing to posture and vice versa—we then turn our attention to how this affects the production of sound. As you mentioned, we breathe for two reasons:
1. to provide oxygen to every cell in the body in order to live
2. to provide the breath puffs necessary so that the vocal folds will be set in motion for the production of sound.
Once the vocal folds have been set in motion, Kinesensic training teaches that now it becomes a sound stream: a tonal experience, full of vibration and life; and we concentrate on focusing and guiding that sound stream into the bony structures of the face and head for optimal voice production. Since we’ve already learned how to maintain our full, expansive breath, there is no fear that it will stop doing its job. Our awareness will take care of that.
So it appears you might be looking for a holistic, comprehensive training program that organically addresses the subject of breathing as it relates to optimal performance in any situation. Lessac Kinesensic training posits that the whole is not just the sum of its parts—but that the Vocal and Physical energies work synergistically to create a far more dynamic and exciting living experience. This training identifies so many dualities and trinities that work independently as well as together; and gives us a self-teaching modality that I have found never fails me. Once you learn to ‘feel’ something, you never forget that sensation again. Once I learn to feel and recognize the full expansion of breath and to carry it into my everyday life experience, it’s mine forever.

    5 March 2011 at 10:16 AM

    Thank so much, Nancy, for reposting this. I apologise for all the inconvenience caused by the website going down.

    You raise some very interesting points about breath training in general, and the Lessac training in particular. I have explored this work, and find many of the exercises a vital and exciting addition to my store of training techniques.

    The “self-teaching” modality in particular is something I value. After all, if the student is only trying to follow my instructions, there will never been that sense of ownership of the process that leads to the genuine, gentle, generous self control and self discipline we are aiming for.

    I’m still hankering for a way of achieving all this by leaving talk about the actual breath out of the conversation, at least until the student has learnt how to acknowledge the physicality of his or her own body, its subtle sensations during the act of vocalising, as well as the more obvious sensations of particular muscle groups in action during movement, and during movement and voicing as an integrated modality.

    It’s a dream – possibly not achievable, but worth striving for, in my opinion.

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