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.