In the end, it all comes down to the art of breathing.
The voice as we know it is the result of interconnected functions in the body powered by air, specifically by your breathing. Breathing is defined simply as the process of taking air into and expelling it from the lungs. Breathing is a survival imperative as humans require oxygen to produce the energy that sustains life. The process of inhalation and exhalation can take three forms, two of which most of us readily practice and other which we need to encourage more of as voice users. I will list this in order of quality of breath.
The first is clavicular breathing in which air is drawn predominantly into the chest by the raising of the shoulders and collarbone (clavicles), and simultaneous contracting of the abdomen during inhalation.
The second is costal breathing which is inhalation and exhalation using chiefly the movements of the ribs.
The third is diaphragmatic breathing involves contracting the diaphragm, a muscle located horizontally between the thoracic cavity and abdominal cavity. The descent of the diaphragm causes air to enter the lungs, the release of the diaphragm allows for exhalation which is aided my the abdominal muscles.
Most of us survive through clavicular and costal breathing alone. Still, in our quest to improve ourselves as voice users, it becomes necessary to develop the craft of diaphragmatic breathing as well.
Important things to know about breathing.
- The lungs are a pair of asymmetrical organs, they are essentially elastic sacks through which oxygen gets into the body, but they do not, on their own, do anything. The left lung also has a “pocket” of sorts in which your heart resides.
- The lungs are encased in the pleura, two thin layers of tissue which protect and cushion the lungs. In between these layers is fluid. So in essence what we have is a sack within a sack.
- Your ribs are supported by musculature called the external and internal intercostals. When the external intercostals contract, the internals release and your ribcage expands. When the internal intercostals contract, the externals release and your ribcage also contracts.
- The pleura are linked to a degree to the intercostals by connective tissue.
- In breathing for survival, the inhalation takes all of the work muscularly, and the exhalation (absent lung disorder) come from release in musculature.
You are probably starting to get a picture of respiration, but I want to clarify one point. The lungs cannot breathe alone. We do not inhale absent an expansion of the chest cavity through either an upward stretching of the ribcage (clavicular breathing) and full expansion of the ribcage (costal breathing) and/or contraction of the diaphragm (diaphragmatic breathing). If the chest cavity does not expand, the lungs do not fill with air.
So why is that important? It is because there is an action before all of this breathing commences. The brain has to set the thing in motion. When we are breathing for survival the intention is clear, oxygenate this body and remove carbon dioxide. When we are speaking, intentions can vary. There is the message, context, and the desired product which makes breathing for voice use more than sound production. It is everything. Hence the Martha Graham quote at the beginning of this article.
During voice use, our intention propels the type of breath needed and how it gets used. For speaking in intimate settings, as with singing with a microphone, we sometimes use costal breathing in concert with diaphragmatic breathing. For spaces requiring more projection or for singing in a more sustained manner we use diaphragmatic breathing almost exclusively. Most of us are already wizards at costal breathing, so I am going to focus on diaphragmatic breathing which requires me to introduce another player.
The Transverse Abdominis.
The transverse is the giant interior abdominal structure that encircles us like a muscular cumberbund stretching from the diaphragm to our pelvic floor in the front. It is the musculature we are referring to when we talk about our “core.” It is entirely integrated to the surrounding musculature through the fascia, but importantly it is innervated in part by the intercostal nerves. Though not directly considered part of the respiratory system, it is inseparable from intentional breathing for voice use. In fact, any support or controlled exhalation in your voice production should come from the transverse abdominis.
Okay, so I have thrown a lot of anatomy and processes at you but how does it come together? Here is diaphragmatic breathing, step by step (in an optimal form of course). Note: I’ve listed these processes as steps, but many co-occur. This process is called coordinated breathing.
- You have an intention for sound. A series of words, perhaps pitch, rhythmic variance, volume, duration.
- The intention becomes an impulse (or more likely a series of impulses).
- The impulses cause the ribcage to expand AND the diaphragm to contract to expand the chest cavity outward all the way around and below.
- The increase of space in the chest cavity causes inhalation. Since this breath for voice use is so connected to intention, I refer to it as inspiration.
- During inspiration, air enters the body through the nose and/or mouth through the vocal folds, down the trachea, and through the bronchi into the lungs.
- The contraction of the diaphragm momentarily displaces the organs below it, and it has a strong impulse to recoil and begin the exhalation.
- Our intention to guide the phonation sends impulses to the front of the transverse abdominis which then actively contracts to guide the exhalation.
- For extended projection of speech and singing, we also try to delay the recoil of the rib cage, again through intention and impulse, as the transverse works in concert with our phonated exhalation. Since again we start with intention during breathing for voice use, I refer this exhalation as expression.
- At the completion of the expression, all muscles release completely to a ready state to prepare for the next inspiration and expression.
When I speak of intention and impulse, I am not implying that you are directly involved in the electrical communication between the brain and the body. What I am saying is that your thought, your intention, your desires about what you are trying to communicate, drive that electrical communication.
We could discuss breath in much greater detail (and many books do) but what I have described here is the core of what I teach in the studio. The way I talk about breathing have recently been clarified and focused by my introduction to Fitzmaurice Voicework. I highly recommend the method for voice users, particularly actors and singers. I am including a few of my favorite links about breathing and voice use below.
Rib Animation Video from The Art of Breathing by Jessica Wolf
How to breath better for Singing by Claudia Friedlander. Claudia is a gifted teacher and a master in understanding vocal athleticism.
Cool and very detailed animation of the Respiratory System by Designmate.