Associate Professor of Voice, Shenandoah Conservatory Artistic Director of the CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute
If you are a frequent reader of this blog, you know that I do not believe it is “all about the breath,” but that doesn’t mean I believe that breathing is not important. It is, of course, vital to our craft. I just believe we need to think about it from multiple points of view and allow evidence from research to inform our approach. For instance, when considering how big of a breath a singer needs. Thomas J. Hixon discusses the impact of large inhalation on the vocal mechanism in his book “Respiratory Function in Singing.”
“The possible effects of lung volume as more than just a size change variable has garnered considerable research interest in recent years, with studies focusing on potential effects of lung volume on laryngeal positioning, laryngeal dilation, and voice source characteristics. Underlying much of this work is the premise that forces applied vertically to the larynx tend to abduct (pull apart) the vocal folds (Zenker, 1964). One such force is believed to be the pull of the trachea on the larynx in association with changes in the position of the diaphragm during lung volume change and/or change in the shape of the chest wall. The working hypothesis is that downward pull on the larynx is greatest at large lung volumes and large abdominal wall volumes and that this pull influences the behavior of the larynx during singing.
Studies bearing on this working hypothesis have been conducted on both untrained and trained singers under conditions of extended steady utterances following maximum inspirations (Sundberg, Leanderson, & von Euler, 1989; Iwarsson, Thomasson, & Sundberg, 1996; Iwarsson & Sundberg, 1998; Iwarsson, Thomasson, & Sund- berg, 1998; Milstein, 1999; Iwarsson, 2001; Thomasson, 2003a, 2003b). The findings from these studies are mixed. Some of them support the working hypothesis and others do not. These findings appear best understood when considered in terms of untrained versus trained singers.
For untrained singers, the data support the following conclusions. At large lung volumes, untrained singers use a higher subglottal (tracheal) pressure [the observations of Milstein (1999) being an exception] and a lower vertical position of the larynx. Also, at large lung volumes, untrained singers demonstrate voice source (laryngeal vibratory cycle) characteristics that include higher peak-to-peak flow, longer closed durations, greater glottal leakage, larger average glottal area, and larger posterior glottal gaps. Collectively, these observations have been interpreted as evidence that tracheal pull on the larynx at large lung volumes lowers the vertical position of the larynx and increases laryngeal dilation (Iwarsson et al., 1996, 1998; Iwarsson & Sundberg, 1998; Milstein, 1999). Thus, the working hypothesis would appear to be supported from the study of untrained singers.
For trained singers, however, the data suggest another story. At large lung volumes, trained singers have been shown to demonstrate greater electromyographic activity in the cricothyroid muscle. This increase in laryngeal muscle activity is assumed to be in response to downward pull of the trachea and is viewed as a compensatory adjustment to maintain pitch in the face of a slackening of the vocal folds (Sundberg et al., 1989). Other observations on trained singers support the following conclusions. At large lung volumes, trained singers use the same subglottal (tracheal) pressures and vertical positions of the larynx as they do at smaller lung volumes. Also, at large lung volumes, trained singers demonstrate voice source characteristics that include higher peak-to-peak flow and greater average glottal area than those observed at smaller lung volumes. These observations have been interpreted as evidence that tracheal pull on the larynx at large lung volumes results in different ultimate manifestations in trained singers than in untrained singers (Thomasson, 2003a, 2003b). Thus, although some observations in trained singers support the working hypothesis, the influence of lung volume on laryngeal behavior appears far less robust than in untrained singers.
The general conclusion to be drawn from the available evidence is that increasing lung volume exerts a downward pull on the trachea. This pull appears to influence the voice source in ways that tend collectively toward a more breathy voice quality. To the extent that audible effects are induced that are considered undesirable, untrained singers appear unconcerned or unable to compensate. However, such audible effects are important to the trained singer. Thus, trained singers must learn to compensate for (or use to their advantage) such effects as are brought about by lung volume change. Singers and teachers undoubtedly spend time managing audible voice effects that are undesirable, whether they result from the lung volume variable or other factors related to the way the respiratory apparatus acts upon and interacts with the other parts of the voice production apparatus.” (Hixon, p. 106-110)
For me, this information suggests that singers with breathy voices may have too much air in their lungs, especially if they are beginners. It also suggests that those who have too much pressure when belting might benefit from a lower breath that engages tracheal pull. There are additional ideas we could draw from this research and to me that is what is at the core of evidence-based voice pedagogy – drawing ideas from research. Ideas are not an entire technique, they are insights that help us make more informed decisions.
Have you read Hixon’s book? Do you have other insights about this idea of the impact of a large inhalation on the source? If so, please contribute to the conversation below. If you are not yet following the blog, please sign up to ensure you receive each new post in your email.
Thanks for reading and have a great week of teaching!
Matt Edwards is an Associate Professor of Voice/Coordinator of Musical Theatre Voice at Shenandoah Conservatory in Winchester, VA, and Artistic Director of the CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute. He is the author of “So You Want to Sing Rock ‘N Roll” and dozens of articles and book chapters on functional voice training for non-classical styles. For more information visit EdwardsVoice.com