Go with the Flow

As I have said before, breath is important to and for singers. Learning to let the breath “take care of itself” makes our singing easier and better. For me, understanding how my breath and vocal folds work together was crucial to improving my singing.

red-hoseSo. Imagine your windpipe is a garden hose. Now imagine that this hose is attached to a spigot at the side of a house.

In your mind, turn on the spigot and place your thumb over the end of your hose.

What happens?

Well, if you cover most of end of the hose with your thumb, the water moves very fast. (This has to do with physics and the same principle that keeps airplanes in the air.) On the other hand, if you cover little or none of the end of the hose, the water moves out of the hose as fast as it enters into the hose at the other end.

When we sing, our vocal folds act just like that thumb over the end of the hose.

trickleScenario #1: If only a trickle of water is moving through your hose, it doesn’t really matter what you do with your thumb at the end, right? With too little water going into the hose, your thumb has very little effect over the pressure and speed of what comes out of the hose.

Do you see the connection to singing?

If we only send a trickle of air from our “house” (lungs, diaphragm, rib cage), our vocal folds can’t do much. This is why we get thin, uneven tone (usually with a side of inconsistent intonation *grimace*) when we use too little air during singing (i.e. when we don’t support our tone).

Scenario #2: Okay, let’s say you are sending enough air. In fact, maybe you’re sending too much.

water spraying from hose with sprayer attachmentRemember, our vocal folds are teensy tiny muscles (smaller than a thumb *smile*; about the size of your pinky fingernail). These tiny (dare I say delicate?) muscles are not up to the task of controlling a lot of pressure. (I mean, hey, even your thumb gets tired covering the end of the hose after a while, right?)

When we overuse our vocal folds to control air speed and pressure, we get tone quality that sounds pressed, squeezed and forced. Sometimes this even hurts. This is sometimes called “singing from the throat” or oversinging and it means the vocal folds are working too hard.

If you haven’t guessed, overusing the vocal folds to regulate air pressure and speed can damage them over time.

(Please notice that I said when we OVER-use the vocal folds in this way. We have to use vocal folds as a valve; they only make sound when they vibrate against one another. *smile*)

What to Do?

So as singers, if we want to increase air pressure and speed we need to do that by moving air from the lungs, using the diaphragm and muscles of the abdomen and rib cage (our intercostals). These are much larger (therefore stronger!) muscles than any of the tiny muscles in our larynges.

Returning to our garden hose analogy, we want to open up the spigot to send more water.

Channel Your Inner Pavarotti

The next time you practice, try visualizing your throat as this garden hose. Keep your head level and your shoulders calm and relaxed. (You want to avoid doing anything that might put a kink in your ‘hose.’ *smile*).

Most important, this is a really W I D E, really BIG ‘hose.’ I heard somewhere that Luciano Pavarotti had to wear shirts with a neck measurement two sizes bigger than normal during performances to allow for how much his throat expanded when he sang. (Your throat should feel that open when you sing.)

Keep the hose wide and open no matter if the notes are high or low or if you are singing fast or slow. As you move from one part of your voice to the another, just keep sending air.

spigotYes, your vocal folds are acting like that thumb, but they are doing as LITTLE work as possible. The power and speed of the (air)flow comes from the spigot at the side of your house (i.e. your diaphragm, abs and rib cage muscles).

If your spigot (breath support) cannot create enough flow, work on building your breath capacity and power with exercises.

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