MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT THE VOICE, AND THE IMPORTANCE OF BREATH CONTROL........
One of my many catchphrases is: “breath is to singing, as petrol is to the performance of a car.”
99% of new students who come for lessons are using the same amount of breath to drive their voices as a car as it’s actually running out of petrol! There has to be a constant and sufficient flow of breath with good support (provided by learning how to use the diaphragm properly) so that the voice can sound its best.
People have been coming to me for singing lessons for the past seventeen years, so I think I’ve pretty much seen it all now and voices do seem to fall into a set amount of categories in terms of their problems! During the first lesson, I always ask new students what they most want to improve about their voices and nearly everybody says the same things: improving breath control, increasing range, understanding their voice better and learning how not to strain their voice.
A really common comment from new students is: “I need a few lessons to gain breath control”. Unfortunately, this is like saying “I’ve never had any piano lessons before, but I want a few lessons so that I can learn to play the whole of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata”!
What is generally not understood is that the voice is considered to be more difficult to train than any other instrument. This is for two simple reasons: if they love singing, people are generally singing a lot, so they have bad habits to break before they can progress - and which they wouldn’t be presenting with if they were starting an instrument like the guitar or piano - and secondly, unlike any other instrument, a teacher cannot demonstrate on you because you are the instrument!
I need to be honest here – learning to breathe properly is not easy, it takes time, practice and commitment, because students have to get rid of their demon bad habits. Basically, we start out breathing correctly when we’re babies, but somewhere along the line, during childhood, we seem to “unlearn” this. Everything moves up into the chest and neck, becoming tense, more stressed and using the least amount of breath possible! People just go around breathing in quite a shallow way, not using the whole of their lung capacity, which is the main reason that many people believe their range to be much smaller than it most likely is – lack of breath (remember my catchphrase above – if you’ve no fuel (breath) to drive your voice, it will literally splutter to a stop.
I breathe in the same way for both singing and speaking, because it is the correct way to breathe. I’m not talking here about the way breathing is taught in exercise classes: these are specific breaths which people learn, to support exercise poses and strength training, but they’re not appropriate for daily life as they’re very exaggerated and they’re certainly not much help for speaking or singing! Breathing correctly of course means better oxygenation of the blood etc etc. so I’d recommend it to everyone, not just people interested in learning to sing.
As a teacher, I am, therefore, helping students to re-learn how to breathe as nature intended and then on top of that, teaching them how to take in plenty of breath, gain sophisticated control of their diaphragm, control of resonance in the voice and lots more!
Learning this control takes time and not everybody feels this level of commitment, however, looking after our voices is very important – it’s a 'use it or lose it' scenario. It never ceases to amaze me how most famous pop etc singers clearly never bother with singing lessons and then get problems with their voices as they get older because they haven’t looked after them. Sadly, Paul McCartney is a good example of the end result of not looking after your voice and oh dear, Taylor Swift really needs to sort out her voice which is just non-existent at the top – all breath and nothing else (which can cause problems in itself). I could go on and on, and on with examples….. for days!
When students start coming for lessons, therefore, they’re usually really surprised at how complex it all is at first and also how difficult it is to break their entrenched habits. Once they’re over this initial challenge, things do get easier, but even then, learning to breathe is not the same thing as learning to take in the right amount of breath to support the voice at all times. This is a separate challenge as is learning to tone and control the diaphragm, which I’ll talk about in another post.