Mix it up Monday: A few breathing exercises from Gillyanne Kayes
Gillyanne Kayes’ book “Singing and the Actor” is full of practical exercises for musical theatre performers. Today I want to share three of her exercises for breath management. Kayes says that breath management strategies need to adapt to the needs of each song. In chapter 10, she gives three examples of how to fix insufficient airflow, breathy tone, and over-breathing.
Insufficient Airflow and Locking
If a student is struggling to keep steady transglottal airflow while singing, Kayes suggests the following.
- Sing the melody on voiced fricatives such as /v/ or /z/. Make sure that the student is moving the center of the belly towards the spine during this process and that he is able to recoil at the ends of phrases.
- If the student is locking the breath at the ends of phrases, ask him to rub his belly with both hands while singing. This should help raise his awareness of the sensation of elastic recoil.
- The student will likely use less breath when singing the song than he will in the fricative exercise. To balance airflow, use alternate practice between fricatives and words, working through the song phrase by phrase.
- Remind the student that he does not need to use all of his air each time he sings a phrase. Whenever he wants to breathe, instruct him to simply let go of the abdominal wall.
Targeting Breathy Tone
Breathy tone is generally a result of too little resistance at the vocal fold level. This can sometimes be remedied by using voiced fricatives as above, but not always. When voice fricatives fail, try glottals.
- Try inserting a glottal onset at the beginning of problematic phrases. For instance, in the song “I’ve never been in love before,” put a glottal on “I” and “in.” Kayes suggests you make sure the student uses vocal tract and torso anchoring to support this more energized voice use (see Chapter 7, pages 77 and 81 for more information about anchoring).
- Once the student has established increased vocal fold mass via the glottal onset, you can help her transition to clean onsets while maintaining a firmer vocal fold closure.
- Twang is sometimes helpful in addressing a breathy voice. Practice each note of the song using “nyeeow” to work twang, then sing the words.
Over-breathing is a very common problem that results from a mistaken idea that both airflow and breath pressure are constant in singing. This is not the case. Subglottic pressure (the air held back by the vocal folds) varies according to the dynamic level (loud or soft), the pitch (less breath for high notes, more for low notes), and from syllable to syllable (the breath flow will stop for stopped consonants and increase for fricatives). Excessive vibrato may also be a by-product of over-breathing.
- Have the student first sing the song first on a siren (/ng/) and then on a miren (mouthing the words on an /ng/). Ask them to notice how little breath is required to produce sound.
- Next, have them sing the song on vowels only, using first one vowel, then the vowels for each syllable. The student’s breath use should be relatively smooth and uninterrupted with each phrase.
- Ask the student to pay attention to what happens when she goes up in range: she should notice she uses less breath and works more in the postural anchoring muscles.
- Now have her add the words. She will likely notice that the airflow is different because she has introduced consonants. This will be particularly noticeable when she sings words that have stopped consonants or fricatives, e.g. “before,” “at,” “once,” and “it’s.” In the speech, the rapid changes of airflow between voiceless and voiced sounds are generally unproblematic. In sustaining pitch, the task becomes more complex, and constriction can occur if she singer is unable to coordinate pitching with these changes.
- Have the student practice singing the words on one note, focusing on what is happening as she moves from the vowels to the consonants. Sometimes the breath will be stopped altogether; sometimes she will need more breath to make the consonant. You may want to have her monitor her abdominal wall during this exercise to find out how flexible she needs to be with her breath use when singing.
- Finally, have her sing the phrases worked on in stage 5 on the written notes. She may find that her breath use is more efficient because she has worked out how to manage her breath appropriately for the task of the sung task.
Respiration strategies vary amongst singers and styles. Therefore, there is no simple fix for every singer. However, with a little experimentation, each singer should be able to find what works for them and be able to coordinate their respiratory and phonatory systems for maximum efficiency.
To read the full explanation of these exercises, be sure to read pages 124-126 in Kayes book. Do you have other exercises you like to use to address these concepts? If so, please share them below in the comments section. If you are not already following the blog, you can also enter your email below to receive a message each time there is a new post. If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it on social media. As always, thank you for reading and have a wonderful week of teaching! ~ Matt