Let it Happen – Part 3

Let It Happen – Part 3: There’s a tongue in my cheek!

In the previous two articles, I have addressed the idea that we can start a flow of energy which corresponds with breathing, and then we can let it happen. There are, in my opinion, various imagery ideas that can be used to keep our minds in the “allowing” mode rather than the “controlling” mode. Since it is inevitable that we will think about our throats and mouths at some time during singing, then what can we do here? Again, I think that the language and imagery we use is extremely important. I was reminded of this whilst attending a recent event organised by the British Voice Association. Several mentions were made of sub-glottic pressure, and the need for increased sub-glottic pressure when raising pitch. To my mind, the word pressure immediately causes more pressure and tension than is necessary. If I were to say to a student that they need to increase sub-glottic pressure, then I can be fairly sure that they would quickly increase tension in the upper chest, across the collar and in the neck. So, why the need for sub-glottic pressure?

Fluids (gases and liquids) flow from areas of high pressure to areas of low pressure. When we see weather forecasts on TV and we have an area of low pressure over us, we know that air will rush in from an area of higher pressure, causing wind. If that area of higher pressure is somewhere cold, then it will bring cold winds – and associated weather! When we sing, we need air from our lungs to pass through the larynx. Therefore we need sub-glottic pressure (pressure in the area below the larynx) to be higher than supra-glottic pressure (pressure in the area above the larynx). More often than not, supra-glottic pressure is ignored, because whether consciously or sub-consciously, people assume this to just be atmospheric pressure, and therefore something that we cannot affect. This isn’t entirely accurate. After passing through the larynx, the air must negotiate other parts of the vocal tract and then the mouth before it emerges into the atmosphere. The first part of this is the pharynx.

In this diagram, the label of the pharynx is pointing at an area called the oropharynx. For simplicity, we can assume this to be a tube (cylinder) shape. The diameter of this tube can clearly be affected by pulling the tongue back and making the space smaller. Any fluid flowing through a tube will create resistance to its own flow. According to Poiseuille’s Law, this resistance can be expressed as follows.

R=\frac{8\eta L}{\pi r^4}

where η is the viscosity of air (constant in this case), L is the length (again we will assume it is constant) and r is the radius (cross section of the tube). If we were to half the width of the pharynx (radius) by pulling back on the tongue, the resistance to the air flowing through would increase 16 times. In other words, in order to get the same flow of air through the larynx we would need to push air sixteen times harder, or increase sub-glottic pressure sixteenfold. Conversely, if we allow the tongue to relax forwards in the mouth, we take away resistance. We retain the pressure differential that is required for airflow not by increasing sub-glottic pressure, but by taking away things that are in the way. Suddenly we find that things can flow, that unrestricted movement can occur, and that we can go with the flow. Undoubtedly there is a release of both tension and conscious control when this happens. Sometimes a feeling of resistance makes us feel secure, and makes us feel that we can “go at it” a little more confidently – just ask any golfer whether they prefer putting uphill or downhill! However, in accepting and going with the flow we can find an easier relationship with our own voice and our own expression.

So, my tongue isn’t really in my cheek. Hopefully it is remaining in my mouth rather than in my throat. Gormless expressions really can be of benefit in singing. Slack jaw, lolling tongue, open throat and flowing sound. After all, why would we want to make singing more effort?

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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.

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