Associate Professor of Voice, Shenandoah Conservatory Artistic Director of the CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute
There are many different ways that people describe transglottal airflow, the way air moves through the vocal folds during phonation. Phrases like “spin the tone,” “sing on the breath,” “release your air,” and many others are commonly used to achieve results. If the terminology you are currently using works, then by all means keep using it. However, if you are looking for other ways to explain this concept to your students, I am going to offer a few ideas to “mix it up.”
When helping my students learn to manage transglottal airflow (the way air moves through the vocal folds), I like to introduce them to the two extremes – holding their breath and exhaling. I teach my students that these two extremes are primarily caused by changes at the vocal fold level. If they are holding their breath, the folds are closed tightly together. This position is similar to what is found in chest register. When the student is exhaling, the folds open wide. If you were able to bring the folds slightly together from the exhale position until they began vibrating and producing a pitch, the mechanism would be in head register. I then have the student sing a single pitch in both chest and head register and ask them to identify what they feel in terms of airflow. They will usually notice that chest register feels more like holding their breath and head register feels more like exhaling. If they are having difficulty noticing the difference, I will have them sing through a straw with their hand at the opposite end so they can physically feel the changes in airflow. I then have the student sing messa di voce style exercises. I ask them to initiate phonation in chest register (held breath) then transition to head register (more exhale) and then back to chest register (held breath). Then I ask them to begin with more exhale (head register) transition towards more held breath (chest register) and then back to using more exhale (head register).
When we are working on a song, I can then use these two extremes as I coach them. If the student is singing a Britney Spears ballad, they are going to want more exhale in the sound to achieve a breathy intimate quality. If they are learning to belt and the sound is excessively airy, I may tell them that they have too much exhale in the sound and that it will feel more like they are holding their breath when singing in chest register. Now of course this is all tailored to each individual student. However, I find that the majority of my students can easily understand this concept and quickly apply it to their songs.
Terri Brinegar, author of Vocal and Stage Essentials for the Aspiring Female R&B Singer, uses a garden hose as an analogy. This is another great way to introduce the concept of transglottal airflow. When using a garden hose as an image, I ask the student to think of a twist style brass nozzle. When the nozzle is tightened, very little water will escape while a great deal of pressure will build up behind the nozzle (this is similar to chest register). If you open the nozzle, more water will flow through and there will be less pressure built up behind the nozzle (this is similar to head register). I then talk to my students about how to manage their breath so as not to overpower their nozzle (that’s going to have to wait for another post).
If you have other ideas about how to teach this concept, please leave a comment below. Thanks for reading.