In the previous article, I remarked on some of the background to the idea of “letting go”, and thinking of allowing movement of breath to come from the root, the Tan Tien point of Tai Chi. This flow, this movement, this source of energy is what drives our singing. Nothing else can work without it, because this is the very energy that we transform into sound. The first part of the process must be to ensure that the engine is running. Relaxation of the abdomen is important to allow muscular processes that are beyond our conscious control to occur. To our conscious brain it often appears that abdominal movement follows breath, rather than generates it. This is quite normal, and learning how to follow movement rather than instigate or control it is an important step in singing. Moshe Feldenkrais, in his book “Awareness Through Movement” writes that movement is the basis of awareness, and that breathing is movement. Becoming aware of the movement of breathing, and letting it guide us, rather than vice-versa, gives us mental focus without imposing conscious, and clumsy, control. What, then, of these commonly used terms in teaching singing; “support”, “breath control”, “use your diaphragm”?
Firstly, let’s address the diaphragm. The diaphragm is a large, dome-shaped muscle that runs roughly around the lower part of the rib-cage. It divides your trunk in two, separating the abdomen from the thorax. Its principal function as a muscle is to inhale. By contracting, the dome flattens downwards, pushing down on the contents of the abdomen and increasing the volume (and consequently decreasing the pressure) in the thorax. Air is pushed into the lungs to equalise the pressure, and the result is that we have breathed in. Now for by far the most of our waking lives, and pretty much the entirety of our sleeping lives, we are unaware of this process. The diaphragm is generally referred to as a non-volitional muscle. Normal breathing is part of our autonomic nervous system and outside of conscious control – this is a good thing, especially when we are asleep. Since this is the case, we do not have sensory nerves attached to our conscious peripheral nervous system in the diaphragm – put more simply, we don’t feel it working. We can be aware of the diaphragm in action through its effects on the other parts of our body, but the diaphragm itself is not sensed, nor is it controlled consciously. Immediately we can see that conscious commands such as “support from your diaphragm” are not really helpful – or indeed possible! So what does the diaphragm do in singing, and what can we do to make this as correct as possible. Mainly, during singing, the diaphragm can control the rate of airflow. By maintaining activity, effectively “breathing in”, the diaphragm regulates the energy flow that comes up from the lower abdomen. We feel this activity, this regulation of the energy, in natural activities such as laughter. When laughing we breathe out first, and the diaphragm holds back and then lets go of this breath in a series of pulses that gives rise to recognisable laughing sounds. When laughter becomes uncontrollable, we feel quite extreme activity around the lower ribcage and call it side-splitting laughter.
So much for emotional responses in laughter. How can we access this regulating activity during singing? Well, firstly we can decide not to interfere. Clearly the diaphragm does its work without drawing too much attention to itself, so deciding that we can consciously do something to improve it is not going to work. Acceptance, and a sense of “going with the flow” is more useful. Imagery can play a great part in this process. Our imaginations can be used to reach beyond volitional barriers and access our subconscious, and our nervous systems. Many of us will have heard (and probably used) the advice that if we are about to perform and are nervous and have dry mouths, we imagine biting a lemon and this helps to produce saliva. A simple image is used to effect a change that we cannot do consciously. Similarly, meditation can be used, with practice, to regulate heart beats and breathing patterns. Imagery needs to be relevant to the particular student, there are very few universal images that work. This is where the skill and experience of the individual teacher is necessary in finding useful and workable models for each student. There are plenty of starting points – in her book “Freeing the Natural Voice”, Kristin Linklater uses many such images and these are all worth trying. Similarly, reading around subjects such as Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) can give a sense of how to start building mental image models.
From experience, I can say that exercises that develop staccato singing are very good for becoming aware of the activity of the diaphragm. Many of these take the form of laughter – after all a good amount of laughter in singing lessons can be a fantastic way of learning. Very importantly, these exercises and images can yet again help to take thoughts away from the throat, and those difficult strap muscles referred to in the previous article.
Letting go, and allowing the movement of energy in the form of breath can be the most important aspects of learning to sing. Last thoughts on this matter go to Cornelius Reid and Cicely Berry.
“By restoring circulation of energy to the entire body through release of the breathing mechanism, one is made to feel alive. This feeling immediately reflects itself in the response of the vocal organs in singing. The throat loses its feeling of tightness” (Reid)
“If we let go, we release our own sound. Otherwise, we create the acceptable” (Berry)