It seems to make sense that we should get a “good breath” for singing a phrase. However, a good breath in one context can be bad in others.
It is agreed by most voice teachers that conscious manipulation of the throat is probably not a good idea. Most will say that it should feel “neutral”, ready to respond to the the intention of the singer and the resulting pitch, vowel, volume, and tone quality. But what about unconscious movements in the throat? Sometimes the way we breathe can add interfering tensions, even when we’re trying to follow kind advice and “get a good, deep breath”.
Standing tall but comfortably, take a few deep breaths and release them. Bring your attention to sensations in the throat, in the area where you can feel something happening when you swallow, cough, or whisper. Also pay attention to sensations and movements in the neck and jaw. What do they feel like and how do they move when you inhale quickly or slowly, with a big breath or a little breath? What sound does the entering air make (high, low, loud, soft, gasp, whoosh, hiss, wheeze, etc.)?
Now sing a short scale in the middle of your range. Sing the same pattern:
- immediately after inhaling a full, deep breath
- after releasing some of the air from a full, deep breath (approximately half-emptied lungs)
- after expelling most of the air from your lungs.
How do these feel different in terms of your physical sensations? You might want to try again, taking in less air or more air, to see if the size of the breath matters.
Now go back to resting silently. Just observe your breath gently entering and exiting your body. After a few of these easy breaths, notice when your throat is least active and most relaxed. Now slowly inhale a huge breath, filling your lungs. Does the feeling in your throat or neck change? If so, at what point – as soon as you start to inhale, or only after the lungs reach a certain point of fullness?
You may find that your throat feels like nothing at all during inhalation (probably a good thing), or that you can consciously keep it relaxed and neutral after becoming aware of it, or maybe it changes from a resting place into a better position for singing and is helping you. Overdoers (myself included) may sometimes introduce throat tensions in their eagerness to take in large volumes of air as quickly as possible. I have to occasionally check that when I take in a large breath, my larynx and throat stay out of the action, or else I can stiffen a bit inside and out (in my neck and jaw), with the sound diminished and dull. When I pay attention to my breathing, I can avoid the stiffening and unnecessary movement by keeping the action lower, in my chest where the air actually goes. Then it feels good and sounds better, and I don’t have to think about it again for a while.
The way we breathe can vary according to emotions, health, energy level, and other human considerations. In any case, a breath should not be something we have to recover from. It should be refreshing and nurturing – healthy food for the voice. There isn’t one right way to breathe, so it’s worth exploring how YOUR body works best in supporting your singing.