Breath and Support:
Two Separate Coordinated Functions in Singing

by David L. Jones

In the vocal world today, there seems to be confusion in regard to breath and support. Most singers and many teachers do not understand that these are two separate yet coordinated functions.

(1) Inhalation: One of the most important concepts in understanding vocal technique is to understand where to concentrate on breathing. In 1916, when Flagstad studied with Dr. Gillis Bratt, she was taught for the first time the importance of the expansion of the lower back. This concept seems to be more easily achieved in the female singer than the male singer. However, it is a concept which must be explored by both. The expansion of the lower back helps to insure that the breath is going low enough, thus cementing a lower position of the diaphragm. This is vital in respect to not "pushing" the voice at the "onset of sound". If the breath does not travel low enough, the singer has little chance of achieving balanced tone. This expansion of the lower back also allows the lower abdominals to expand secondarily. One of the images I use in my teaching is one of an "inner tube" of breath surrounding the body. This concept seems to work for younger singers especially. Many male singers who seem to have difficulty expanding the lower back identify with the release of the lower abdominal wall more. In either case, the expansion of the lower back and the expansion of the abdominal wall need to work together in order for the breath to lower sufficiently.

Why is a low breath so important? This is a question that comes up in teaching and study often. The importance of the low breath and the low expansion of the body is to insure less breath pressure under the larynx, therefore allowing for a "rounder" quality of tone and a more open throat through a lower larynx position. If the breath travels to a low point in the body, the singer feels more "grounded" and less likely to "push too much breath through the cords". Flagstad said that her feeling in approaching a high note was a sense of "sinking into the floor
with knees bent". In making this statement, she was speaking of the law of opposition working together.

The "cough-off": how does it work and why is it important? In 1917, when Alan Lindquest coached with Enrico Caruso, he learned the importance of the "cough-off" or "puff-off". Caruso explained that every singer needs to understand breath management precisely and completely in order to produce a relaxed tonal quality. Often, the tenor is criticized for "pushing" the voice too much. This "pushing of the voice" is usually connected with a lack of understanding of breath management. Most arias begin to have a "snowball effect" toward the end; back to back phrases with little time to breathe. This is where the "cough-off" is a most useful tool. Most singers take more breath than a phrase requires. If "old breath" remains in the lungs and new breath is taken for the next phrase, the result is a "stacking-up" of breath pressure. If this happens repeatedly, the singer feels a choking sensation. The purpose of the "cough-off" is to get rid of the old breath left in the lungs. Amazingly, after the "cough-off" the body refills with breath automatically. This effective tool keeps the singer free in some of the most dramatic sections of an aria. Garcia also speaks of this phenomenon is his treatise. If teachers would incorporate this idea in vocalization, it would be of great service to the singer.

(2) Support: when does it come into play and what is its role in vocal sound? While studying with Alan Lindquest, he once said to me that support would insure "closed cords". He was speaking about the "perfect attack" which he learned from Jussi Bjoerling in 1938. This means a perfect approximation of the vocal folds at the exact same time that the body support is engaged. "Body support" is the expansion of the "laugh or grunt muscular reflex" in the lower abdominal and lower back areas. (A singer should never feel a "grunt" feeling in the throat area, only in the lower body area. The throat muscles must always feel soft and supple.) The primary role of support is to achieve enough "breath compression" that a singer can sustain an energized and exciting tone that is off the throat. Lindquest used to say that if a tone is unsupported, the singer has "too much loose air through the larynx". The basis of healthy singing is a tone that is relaxed through supple and flexible support. One very important teaching tool is to have the singer "hiss" in a sustained function. This creates "exact and balanced support" which allows enough resistance in the body with too much "over-tensing" of the body.

A secondary function of support: Another important characteristic of proper support is what many call assisting in the "open throat". As I said before, the larynx cannot "hold back" breath pressure. The mechanism does not have the strength to achieve this function. However, if the lower body is "holding back" the breath pressure, the throat is more able to assume an open position. Singers must realize that it is only the body which "holds back" breath pressure, not the glottis. Holding at the glottis can be very injurious to the throat. Proper support allows for the "holding back" of breath pressure while allowing a perfect "breath stream" through the larynx. This constitutes Lindquest's duality theory: two opposites working together to create a balance. So in supporting a tone correctly, a singer is "holding back" and "letting go" at the same time. This can be taught and felt through the "laugh reflex" which is one of the most useful tools in teaching support safely. I have experienced much success in going from a "laugh function" to a "singing function" immediately so that the singer has no time to "prepare" or "tense" for the singing function.

What is the value of the teaching ear? Mr. Lindquest firmly believed that a singer learned by "feel" and not "sound". Of course, we all must learn to sing in tune, however, it is impossible to hear the true sound of our own voice. This is why the teaching ear is priceless in the process of learning how to sing. Some singers "hold" too tightly at the glottis, creating laryngeal pressure. Other singers may sing with a "breathy" or "unfocused" tonal quality. Because singers come from different vocal histories and different concepts of singing, the teacher's ear is extremely valuable. Every singer has individual and specific needs. This is why talented teachers do not teach every singer the same way. We all need those expert guiding ears to help us "learn through healthy mirroring."