Pt 1. - Introduction
What IS "Support?"
(If you'd like to skip to the more advanced portion of the discussion, click here for part 2)
The topic of breath support has eluded vocal scientists and singers for centuries. Everyone seems to believe it's incredibly important to good singing... but few are able to explain why. Most singing teachers will ramble incessantly about the importance of "support".. but once we ask "why" enough times the exact reasoning behind it begins to fade into obscurity.
Before I continue speaking on this topic let me say that the explanation as to how vocal fold vibration occurs is a mystery in many ways. The mainstream theory suggests that something called the Bernoili Effect is responsible; thus explaining why support is necessary. However, many scientists have recently called into question the validity of this theory. It's a very basic model and the reality of vocal production is far more complex than is presently understood.
So, as far as I understand, how I'm going to explain the phenomena below is the best we currently understand support and it's impact on vocal fold vibration However, as you'll see as demonstrated in the next few articles, we truly have no idea if support even works at all. For now, I'll just regurgitate the general opinion of most teachers who have studied pedagogy. I warn you, though... everything we think we know about voice science is in a constant state of flux. We truly understand very, very little for certain about our intricate vocal system.
Simply put, the reason why we believe "breath support" to be so important is that every note needs a very specific amount of "subglottic pressure" (the amount of pressure beneath the vocal cords) to be vocalized optimally. Certain styles require more subglottic pressure than others (ie: opera.)
The building of pressure beneath the vocal cords is what allows them to vibrate. Much like if you shake up a soda can and lightly open the lid; as pressure builds beneath the cords eventually it needs to escape which causes the vocal cords to vibrate. Higher notes tend to require more subglottic pressure as the larynx has to stretch and press the vocal cords; requiring more force to set them into motion.
Okay cool!! So that's a general idea of WHY support works. But HOW does it work?
SO! If a singer is "supporting" they are preventing the air in their lungs from escaping as they would during a natural breath, right?
Imagine you have a turkey baster and you're sitting in the bath tub. Submerge the baster in the water without pressing on the bulb and what happens? Nothing! This is because the pressure inside the turkey baster is equal to or greater than the force the water is exerting on the turkey baster. Still with me?
Now squeeze the bulb, submerge the baster, and let go. It sucks in the water! This is because the pressure inside the baster is less than that of the water! So what does this have to do with support? GLAD YOU ASKED!
As we inhale our lungs essentially behave similar the turkey baster. In a relaxed state, our lungs are in balance with the air pressure outside. As we inhale, muscles surrounding the lungs (including the diaphragm, intercostals, and abdominals) cause our lungs to expand. This expansion causes the air pressure inside of our lungs to be less than the pressure outside of our lungs! Air rushes in!
The purpose of support is to MAINTAIN this pressure inside of our lungs as we sing. Why? To increase the subglottic pressure and allow the vocal cords to vibrate!!
COOL! I'm glad that makes sense!
The Different Methods of Support
So, for the sake of simplicity, let's assume there are three methods of support. You've probably heard of them!
1. Intercostal (some might call this appogio or rib breathing)
2. Abdominal ('belly' breathing)
(And then theres the "natural" method (Alanga) which we will refer to later.)
(There also the ambiguous "diaphragmatic breathing" which were just going to throw out right now. "Singing from the diaphragm" is a myth. The diaphragm is involuntary; no matter how you breath the diaphragm is active. You can take the most shallow and tense breath imaginable and the diaphragm is still employed.)
(Lets not forget about 'chest breathing.' I hate this term because what people are REALLY saying is that you have unnecessarily upper body tension associated with breathing while singing. The chest is always involved to some degree in singing as your lungs are in your chest. Duh)
As I stated before, inhalation requires the contraction of musculature which assists in expanding the lungs. Singers have, basically, divided support techniques into the above two categories. Some employ a combination of the two.. and others insist one method is superior to the other. I've had many different singing teachers and every one of them insisted on a different method; it's very confusing!
Essentially, the intercostal method relies primarily on the muscles surrounding the mid and bottom of the rib cage to expand the lungs. A lift in the chest helps to maintain this expansion as well.
The abdominal method relies on internal abdominal support. In this method, the diapgram descends a bit further than usual. In order to compensate for this descent, the belly expands outwards a bit as our internal organs make space for the descending diapgrahm.
How Do Singers Experience Support?
Operatic tenor Roberto Alanga was asked about his technique for breath control, he is quick to reply:
"It's not difficult. It's only professors who make it seem difficult. It's something instinctive -- a child knows how to do it. You need only to analyze how you breathe ... find the position where your vocal emission is optimal, and when you find this position, just maintain the tension. It is not necessary to force. Find the balance between tension and relaxation."
Contrary, Enrico Caruso suggests:
"To take a full breath properly the chest must be raised at the moment that the abdomen sinks in. Then with a gradual expulsion of the breath, a contrary movement takes place. It is this ability to take in an adequate supply of breath and to retain it until required that makes or, by contrary, mars all singing... With the acquisition of this art of respiration, once acquired, the student has gone a considerable step on the road to Parnassus."
"There are a number of wrong sorts of voices, which should be mentioned to be shunned, the white voice, the throaty voice, the breathy voice, the nasal voice and the bleat (goat voice). After all, however, those who have practiced the art of right breathing need have none of the defects mentioned above."
Two phenomenal singers; two completely definitions of support. Alanga promotes a more "natural" method of support (typical of the french school) with little to no emphasis on any particular technique. Caruso, however, strongly states that the feeling of support is a very concrete technique with a fairly specific sensation associated with it.
Most people end the conversation here. Just about everyone supports (tehehehehehe) their favorite team and goes on with their life. They might hate the opposing team.. or they might respect the opposing team and say "Hey, different strokes for different folks! This works for me though and I'm stickin to it!"
But, looking at this objectively, how is it possible that two equally and incredibly talented vocalists have two DRASTICALLY different breathing techniques? One technique is very strict, specific, and ESSENTIAL; the other is hardly important enough to discuss for more than a sentence or two.
Now for the interesting part of this article.. the part that gets many singers upset. The part that will likely blow your goddamn mind the next time you're trying oh so hard to support that difficult high note!!!! Singers have absolutely no fucking idea whether or not they're supporting.