The Myth of the Big Breath

Looking back on childhood choirs, I can clearly remember being told to ‘take a big breath’ in order to get through the line of a song; it’s such a traditional and pervasive idea for creating an effective singing voice. Even a couple of years ago, a student who had started studying for the ABRSM Grade 4 Vocal exam with another teacher, came to me and showed me the pieces she was working on. Most of the pencilled-in annotations and notes I could decipher, but I was confused by several saying ‘BB’ throughout the pieces; when I asked the student what it meant she said, “oh, that’s where I need to take a big breath!”

At this point I almost hung my head in my hands! This student had come to me asking for help improving her tone, volume and control; she was singing with a very airy, quiet voice ….. and of course, there was the answer, scrawled across her music in pencil ….

It sounds counter-intuitive to say ‘use less air’, or at least, use the amount of air necessary, is probably a more accurate way of phrasing it. After all, when Marilyn sang ‘Happy Birthday Mr President’, she was deliberately over-breathy for effect.

The vocal cords’ primary function is to be a valve; after all, the need to control air flow in and out of the lungs preceded the need for sound! Imagine how tightly you need to pinch your fingers at the opening of a party balloon in order to stop the air escaping … at this point your fingers are acting as a tightly-closed valve. Your vocal cords act in a similar way if you over-fill your lungs with air and then try to control the resulting air pressure – whilst asking your vocal cords to vibrate, close and stretch to produce the lovely sounds you want – the stress caused will either force the vocal cords apart, creating an ‘airy’ or ‘aspirate’ vocal quality, or the required note will simply not work, crack or sound strained. This is even more obvious on high notes where more stretch is required in the vocal cords.

I tell all my students that this is basically the first lesson of singing – if we can understand the physics behind how air affects our sound, we can begin to unravel several problems at once.

So, in order to produce more volume, clarity of tone, and even pitch control, we need to banish the idea of the ‘big breath’ to the bin of history … or simply leave it for sultry renditions of the birthday song …

The next logical question might be, ‘how do I get to the end of that line without taking in three more breaths?!’ … so I’ll discuss that in my next blog.

For more info and practical application of the techniques and ideas discussed in this blog, please contact me or visit http://www.fionawallace.com for more info.

©️Fiona Wallace 2018

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