Singing Breath Support MYTH DEBUNKED - Part 2


Breath Support Doesn't Exist


Let's start with something we already know and discussed in Part 1. Successful singers "support" using a wide variety of different methods. Perhaps more drastically different than we once thought! 

Every Singer Supports Differently

This should be obvious to most people; but to some, it bears repeating. Many teachers suggest only ONE method of breath management to their students. And many students try arduously for years to attain a support method which isn't optimal for them! It's not just anecdotal; it's scientific! Equally talented singers support using different methods of support.

"Singers 1, 4, 6, 8, 9, and 10 use a generally steady decrease in both ribcage and abdomen, but the relative contributions vary: Singer 1 uses mostly ribcage, Singer 4 uses mostly abdomen. Singers 2, 5 and 7 start with something counter-intuitive: ribcage paradoxing. The paradox is when the ribcage expands during singing, when air is exhaling, so the kinematic trace actually rises. Air is still being exhaled because the ribcage increase is outweighed by the abdominal decrease. Ribcage paradoxing has been associated with phrases that start quietly. And Singer 3 shows abdominal paradoxing: the abdomen is actually larger at the end of the messa di voce than at the start. Breathing is clearly a lot more complex than we thought! "

Original study:

So far this isn't anything surprising to us. Anecdotal reports of different support methods have existed for centuries and the argument is likely to rage on for centuries more. So let's get a little bit more specific.

Singers Don't Know if They're Fucking Supporting or Not!

A 1995 study asked professional classical singers were asked to sing “supported” vs “unsupported.” Many participants had strong beliefs and opinions about their method of support. The results indicated that there were no statistically significant differences in breathing activity between a "supported" and "unsupported" tone.

"Breathing patterns were variable and not significantly different between supported and unsupported voice. Subjects in this study believe that the supported singing voice is resonant, clear, and easy to manage and is produced by correct breath management.. Singers adjust laryngeal and/or glottal configuration to account for these changes, but no significant differences in breathing activity were found.”


It would be easy to dismiss this study were it the only one.. but we're just getting started.

Not only do singers not know if they're supporting or not, a 1985 study shows us that singers have no idea WHICH METHOD of support they're using!!!

"Anteroposterior diameter changes of the rib cage and abdomen were recorded during respiratory, speaking, and singing activities in six adult male subjects, all baritones with extensive classical singing training and performance experience.... Subjects' descriptions of how they thought they breathed during singing bore little correspondence to how they actually breathed."

But wait... okay. So maybe singers can't tell the difference and maybe breath management isn't SIGNIFICANTLY different enough. Surely, though, listeners can tell the difference... right?

Listeners Can't Tell The Difference Between "Supported" and "Unsupported" Singing!

This study contradicts a previous study I linked in which "unsupported" singing was audible and primarily a laryngeal function vs. a breathing function. Welcome to the complexity and absurdity of "support!" Where anything goes and the rules don't matter!

"This study searched for perceptual, acoustic, and physiological correlates of support in singing. Seven trained professional singers (four women and three men) sang repetitions of the syllable [pa:] at varying pitch and sound levels (1) habitually (with support) and (2) simulating singing without support. All samples were also evaluated by the singers and other listeners, who were trained singers, singing students, and voice specialists without singing education (a total of 63 listeners). We rated both the overall voice quality and the amount of support. According to the results, it seemed impossible to observe any auditory differences between supported singing and good singing voice quality."


In the next study, there no relationship found between any particular support pattern and quality of singing.  

"Listeners rated the singers on standard of singing and of breath management. Ratings analysis took into consideration changes in kinematic behavior under each directive determined from the respiratory recordings. Listener ratings for two singers were unaffected by directive. For three singers, ratings were lower when the directive opposed habitual kinematic behavior. The results did not support the pedagogical assumption of a direct and proportional link between respiratory behavior and standard of singing or that the abdomen-outward strategy was deleterious to vocal quality."

To be fair, however, it's difficult for singers to change their support methods on queue and expect the results to be instantly better. Still, it's an interesting study that's worth mentioning; I will be bringing it up again toward the end of the article for other reasons.

So far we've learned that everyone "supports" differently and that "support" doesn't seem to have a clear connection to good singing. How does support function in performance contexts?

Singers "Support" Differently Depending on The Emotional Context

This was something I experienced time and time again.. but doubted my own opinion. Support is a constant right? It shouldn't change! A high note is a high note.. if it's supported its right and if it's not supported it's wrong.. right?

ES = Emotional stimulus

NES = Non emotional stimulus

LOBL =  Lower lateral abdomen

" We conclude that classical singers change their breathing pattern when they vocalize using ES compared with using NES. The results imply that vocalizing using ES facilitates a more prominent role for LOBL activity in the positioning of the abdominal wall and thorax than observed when vocalizing using NES."

Unfortunately.. for the time being I can't find the study. Hopefully I can update this in the future with the research. To my knowledge, it wasn't peer reviewed... perhaps doctoral work or something. However it was very extensive. In the study, a singer's breathing musculature was measured both during practice and during performance. It was found that breathing habits would not only change depending on voice timbre, emotional context, etc. but that breath management changed SIGNIFICANTLY between practice and performance.

If support systems change so frequently and are SO dependent on context.. why is there so much attention being paid to establishing something consistent? While a singer might BELIEVE they are supporting through the "appogio" method the entire way through a performance.. the reality of the situation, based off current research, seems that the singer's breath support is MUCH more fluid, responsive, and inconsistent than most singers believe!

If you think things are beginning to get muddy.. just wait. 


Ok.. so maybe it's too early to make this assumption. There is only one study done on the topic, to my knowledge,.. and it's very basic research with many holes including an incredibly small sample size. But let's entertain the idea shall we? If it's good enough for Roberto Alanga, surely it's good enough for us mortals!

In this study the reseacher, Sally Coyler,  found that singers who sing using their habitual support method tend to sing better! That is, if you "naturally" support with the abdominals.. simply supporting naturally will result in a better sound attempting to support using an intercostal method!

"Fourteen experienced singing teachers and vocal coaches assessed audio samples of five female classical singers whose respiratory kinematic patterns during singing had been recorded habitually and under two simple, dichotomous directives: Gradually drawing the abdomen inward and gradually expanding the abdomen, during each phrase. Listeners rated the singers on standard of singing and of breath management... For three singers, ratings were lower when the directive opposed habitual kinematic behavior. The findings demonstrate the importance of considering habitual breathing behavior in both research and pedagogical contexts.

The point I'm making here isn't to offer a yell conclusively that "support doesn't exist." What I AM suggesting is that the topic is IMMENSLY more complex than most singers wish to believe. Whether or not you believe that "support" is a consciously controlled process or not. I have demonstrated that, quite objectively, there are an infinitely large variety of support methods avaliable to a singer at any given moment. 

We all have different support musculature, bone structure, physical sensations, ideal laryngeal positions, vocal cord pressures, fachs, unique styles, emotional experiences, etc. Furthermore, a singer's preferred genre has an objectively significant impact on their support mechanism. A country singer WILL NEVER use the exact same breathing methods as an operatic singer. This, however, is a discussion best left for part 3.