Let it Happen – but how?

Many voice teachers and writers have urged the student to “let go”, to get out of the way and to “let it happen”. From Oren Brown, to Cornelius Reid, to my own teacher, the late Howard Milner. There are very good reasons for this, mainly to do with the fact that so much we do as singers is beyond our volitional control. But, if we were to stand up in front of an audience and “do nothing”, we can be pretty sure that nothing would happen. The impulse to sing must come from somewhere, and therefore we need to ask ourselves how to make the impulse, without exerting too much conscious control over that which we should be “letting happen.”
In this post I want to talk about the role of breathing. Breathing in itself does not make a good singer. In fact, Cornelius Reid went so far as to say that many good singers don’t or didn’t breathe particularly well. He may well have had a point (he was usually very perceptive in his writings), but then I would argue that to improve breathing can’t harm – and that is an important point. Reid wrote that there are two types of muscles in the throat, and the only ones that you can control consciously – those he described as constrictors, although we might also describe them as the strap muscles – are the ones that you don’t want to be involved in your singing. Therefore, he concluded, you shouldn’t think about your throat when singing. I stress that if you concentrate on your breathing, not only does it not do the harm that concentrating on your throat does, but it gives your mind something to do – a movement to follow that can be equated with the process of singing. Yes, this is mainly psychological, but then again so is most of singing.
Breathing is a process whereby chemical potential energy stored in the muscles (obtained from food) is converted into kinetic energy. By far the bigger process in breathing is this energy transfer – the end result is the movement of air in and out of the lungs, but what actually happens is that muscles move our internal bits around, or at least up and down. The interplay of our abdominal muscles for exhaling and our diaphragm for inhaling is complex and balanced, and once again mainly beyond our control. Desires and impulses to breathe in or out are all that are needed to set the whole process in motion. Identifying what key parts of the movement of breathing we can follow is important in having a conscious focus whilst singing. When breathing out, our abdominal muscles push the contents of the abdomen in and up, and therefore the movement of breathing is mainly upwards. The contents of our lungs only come out forwards because the airway goes around a corner above the pharynx. Our abdomens tend to draw in with the outbreath – this movement happens quite smoothly when allowed to, even if we are singing staccato passages. This is due to the controlling effect of the diaphragm. The contents of our abdomens are far too pliable to allow for a precise transfer of fine muscular movement, so we tend to breathe out too much and allow the controlling effect of the diaphragm to regulate it. Italians and many others have referred to this as appoggio, coming from the verb appoggiare – to lean. Cornelius Reid argued that conscious appoggio was not necessary as correct breath management would come directly from correct vocal function. Since correct vocal function is hampered by thoughts about the throat, I would say that thoughts of appoggio are still useful. Even more useful, and often overlooked, is the overall thought of the flow of breath up from the abdomen – the Tan Tien point of Tai Chi, or more succinctly Howard Milner’s “The Root”. This movement, this transfer of energy, is the source of all of the energy that creates sound waves from our voice. If this stops, nothing else works. The diaphragm cannot control what is not there to control, the vocal folds cannot vibrate without the energy that makes them move. Allowing this movement, this flow of energy, is the first part of the process of allowing natural singing. We’re never going to get very far if we don’t start the engine first.

Do we need government to help us sing?

Well, conference season has been and gone. It’s hardly surprising that in these times of austerity measures, bankers’ bonuses and catgate (thanks for the laugh Theresa, although – really!!) that not a lot has been mentioned about funding and encouraging the arts and music in the UK. It’s sad really, because music is not just a luxury to enjoy in good times. There is that aspect to it certainly, and occasionally it is difficult to think that music is for everyone when you see the prices for a ticket and dinner at the Glyndebourne Festival. However, music is something that brings people and communities together, often at the most difficult of times. I am reminded of a speech that my late teacher Howard Milner showed me, that was given by Karl Paulnack when he was Director of Music Division at the Boston Conservatory in the USA. A pianist by training, he was welcoming new students to the new academic year, and talked of his experiences of living in Manhattan in September 2001. On 12th September, the day after the attacks, he sat down at the piano to do his usual practice – a routine that all musicians will recognise. He opened the piano lid, sat and looked at the keyboard, and then closed the lid again, mainly wondering if what he was doing was really that important when compared to what had just happened in his own city. People found it difficult to express their feelings in the aftermath of such devastation, but they did find one way to express it. They sang. They gathered in groups on street corners and sang songs, they sang they sang outside fire stations, they sang “We Shall Overcome”. The first organised event in response to the attacks on 9/11 was a concert – Brahms’ German Requiem. Through the shared experience of music, a catharsis started. By going beyond logic, reasoning and semantics, music was able to draw the shared experiences out of the people of New York, and the wider world, and if not make sense of what had happened, at least start the healing process.

Ten years on from those events, we find ourselves in a very different global crisis. People across the world are having their livelihoods threatened not by terrorism, but by the very fragile and volatile nature of the market driven economy. In these times, we might like politicians to say that they are going to fund music and art making to bring us together, but actually we know that it’s unlikely to happen, and would probably be hammered in the tabloid press. So, it’s up to us. We can sing! We can play! We can create together! If you happen to know a banker that has had a bonus – persuade them to donate a little to a community music scheme, or to help the local choral society with new music, or to buy a set of ukuleles for the local primary school, or to help renovate the local church organ. We shouldn’t need government to do this for us – although it’s nice if they want to help! We should know that in times of need, music can bring us together, and there are some who are luckier than others and should help. If you can’t give money, see if you can give some time. Volunteer at a fundraiser for your local music centre, take the time to listen to your children’s practice, even take up a new thing yourself – has that old piano, sat in the corner of the dining room, been neglected for too long? Grab a couple of friends and a guitar or two, and remind yourselves of the community songs that we’ve all forgotten. Just remember, we got through these times in the past without the help of YouTube. I’m sure we can do it again.

The full text of Karl Paulnack’s speech can be found here