The purposes of ‘supporting the voice’ are to exercise
control over the amount of air being expelled from the lungs during singing
tasks and to maintain a steady flow of air (and thus create a steady singing
The difference between how we breathe for singing and how we breathe for other daily activities lies not in the mechanisms but in how the airflow is regulated, as the demands that our bodies have for air changes with different activities. Although it is still in accordance with the natural functioning of the body, ‘natural breathing’ as employed for speech is not adequate for intense singing demands. During normal demands, such as speaking or resting, we tend to inhale and exhale more shallowly and evenly because our bodies don’t require as much oxygen. Air is exchanged in cycles of approximately four to six seconds; this differs slightly from person to person. During singing, however, we need to inhale quickly and often deeply, then exhale slowly and steadily, in a long breath, as we sing our phrases or notes.
Singing requires a higher rate of breath energy than
speaking does, as well as the elongation of the breath cycle. The rate of
expiration has to be retarded beyond that appropriate to speech, especially
during passages or notes of durations greater than the normal ‘at rest’ breath
cycle. This higher need for energy and stamina requires more muscle control and
coordination in supporting the work of the diaphragm and the function of the
larynx, and this is the part of breathing that needs to be developed through
training. Learned controls must be mastered in order to enhance and extend
breath management capabilities.
When it comes to supporting the tone of the voice, there are
two schools of teaching: 1) a contracting of the abdominal muscles; and 2) an
‘inspiratory hold’ (appoggio).
Many contemporary methods of teaching encourage a
contracting of the abdominal muscles. This technique involves utilizing the
muscles of the abdominal wall to create an upward and inward force or pressure.
The initial power of the voice is often loud (in part because the glottis tends
to respond to the forceful air pressure by increasing its resistance, and
pressing together more firmly and for longer during the closed phase of the
breath cycle), but this power is not usually sustainable for very long.
Attempting to support or ‘breathe from the belly (or diaphragm)’ like this
creates a number of potential problems with how the breathing ‘engine’ and the
larynx interact with each other. For example, rapidly pushing the abdominal
wall inwards and upwards places pressure on the diaphragm, which then rises
quickly and compresses the lungs, increasing the air pressure in the lungs. Air
is forced out of the lungs rapidly, and through the glottis at a very forceful
rate. The glottis then responds by either pressing the vocal folds together
more firmly and for longer before sound is created (pressed phonation) or it
blows apart and creates an airy or breathy tone.
In most classical singing schools, a technique called
appoggio is taught. Appoggio requires support from the muscles involved in
inhalation, rather than those responsible for forced expiration. Essentially,
we delay, slow down and steadily pace the rise of the diaphragm by continuing
to use the inspiratory muscles as we sing, which happens on the exhale. (This
centuries old concept expressed by great teachers of the past such as Giovanni
Battista Lamperti, is sometimes paraphrased ‘singing on the gesture of
inhalation’.) During appoggio, we rely on the muscles of inspiration to help
keep the diaphragm lower, in its position assumed during inhalation).
These muscles are primarily those that wrap around the ribs
(the external intercostals and the interchondral part of the internal
intercostal muscles). While the back muscles are contracting to maintain this
‘inspiratory hold’, the abdominal muscles must remain relaxed (thus the
abdominal wall and lower ribs at the sides and back will remain expanded throughout
most of the breath cycle). By ‘supporting’ with the inspiratory muscles, we
keep the diaphragm lower and the lower ribcage expanded, which in turn creates
lower subglottic pressure by maintaining the enlarged dimensions of the
thoracic cavity. (It should be noted that some lower abdominal muscles are
involved in initiating the airflow through the glottis, but the most important
habit to avoid is the tendency to push the air out of the lungs by engaging and
contracting or tightening the muscles of the abdominal wall. This will create
too much subglottic pressure, an unsteady volume and tone and a rapid loss of
air, and will lead to pressed phonation and potential vocal injury.)
Students of voice need to learn how to extend the normal
breath cycle by remaining in the inspiratory position for as long as is both
possible and comfortable, maintaining a raised sternum (but not raised
shoulders or clavicle), avoiding displacement of the chest (or collapse of the
ribcage), and allowing the muscles of the lateral abdominal wall to stay close
to the position of inhalation. This vocal posture is often referred to as the
With the diaphragm kept in a lower position for longer, and with less air in the lungs to start out with, there will be less air pressure pushing on the vocal folds. Singers will notice that their endurance increases because they are no longer pushing the air out as rapidly. This will help them sing for longer on a single breath. It will also preserve their long term vocal health. Also, with more appropriate air pressure on the closed vocal folds during phonation, the tone will sound better – more rich and easy, and steady.
Credit: Article sourced from Singwise