Let it Happen – Part 2

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)

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.