How can I learn how to breathe from the diaphragm? Don’t singers breathe from their stomachs?
Whoopi Goldberg pushed that nun’s belly and made her sing louder. How do I do that?
These are some of the questions I’ve heard while working with voices. They all focus in on the confusion of what the diaphragm is and why we care about it while we sing or speak. Really the question should be, how do I use my ability to control the speed of my breathing to improve my singing or speaking?
What is “breathing from the diaphragm, what does it do?”
Diaphragmatic breathing can be defined in one word—BREATHING. The diaphragm, in technical terms, is the largest muscle involved in breathing. All mammals have a diaphragm. Indeed, if you did not have one you would most likely not survive, as evidenced by the high mortality rate of those born with no diaphragm or a highly deformed diaphragm. While all mammals have a diaphragm, the human diaphragm is the only one that can remain parallel to the floor even while moving, as noted by Kitaoka and Chihara in a 2009 article in the journal Advance in Experimental Medicine and Biology. They argue that this allows us to have greater control in the velocity of our breathing.
This greater control allows humans to change their breathing patterns to suit what they are doing. Indeed, we shift our breathing partially because of the brain’s role in body regulation (e.g. while running) but also by volition (e.g. trying to time our breathing while in a swimming race). We do this with the help of the diaphragm and more than thirty other support muscles.
How can we use it to sing or speak better?
Of course, when we begin to sing or speak in a prolonged manner, we need to shift that pattern again. We still use our diaphragm, but now we need to slow down the rate of inhalation and exhalation, which allows us to gather more air, which in turn provides the energy for our vocal folds to vibrate for a sustained period of time.
Do I need to push my belly to use the diaphragm?
In a word, no. Here is where the Whoopi Goldberg example becomes relevant. The point of using our ability to control the velocity of our inhalation and exhalation is to ensure there is enough energy for an entire phrase. In the movie “Sister Act,” after the young nun inhales by contracting her diaphragm and other support muscles, the character played by Whoopi Goldberg pushes the young nun’s abdomen inwards and pushes all her air out. It works for one note... what about the rest?
Rather than pushing air out, a singer or speaker needs to control the speed of exhalation by controlling the natural relaxation of the muscles. The vocalist is then perfectly situated to contract the muscles to take in another breath. This allows a continuous flow of air for an extended length of time.
There are a few ways to become mindful of this controlled relaxation and to use it. One way is monitoring how your torso is moving, by gently placing your hands on the lower ribs (those not connected to the sternum). In this way you can feel as the ribs expand (or don’t expand). Melanie Tapson, a fellow vocologist, talks about this expansion as being three dimensional - you should feel the ribs expand forwards, backwards, and sideways.
As all breathing is breathing from the diaphragm, it is important to be mindful of it as you are singing. The good news? It’s easy! You were designed to control the diaphragm. Doing so will allow you to energize your voice.
Thanks to those of you who have contacted me about my blogs. One of the concerns that some of you have had in reading this blog is that there is not enough basic information to understand what I'm talking about. So how do I impart basic knowledge of the voice, as well as, healthy and effective use of it without boring folks who are not self described "voice geeks"? I think I shall do a top ten list of cool things about the voice!
So at the very beginning...what actually creates the Sound Source of your voice are two rather peculiar muscles. These are called the vocal folds or vocal cords...The following images are from actual imaging procedures known as video laryngostroboscopy and are from the this website.
The left picture are the vocal folds in the closed position, the right picture is in a position which is neither fully open nor closed. In a way, when we use our voice our vocal folds are not fully closed nor fully open. Those two positions are saved for other biological functions. Which brings us to THE FIRST COOL THING ABOUT THE VOICE....
The actual primary biological purpose of the voice is....not to produce voice....but to protect our airways. The vocal folds close in order to keep food from going into the trachea...otherwise known as the windpipe! The vocal folds open in order to allow air to descend into the trachea and eventually into the lungs. We cough in response to debris being caught in between the two vocal folds (known as penetration). When it actually goes beyond the vocal folds (possibly causing blocking of air flowing into the lungs), we experience aspiration. If the debris is large enough it will completely block airflow and result in choking.
So we've addressed in the first part of this series the generalities of maintaining the health of your voice when sick, but what do you do if your voice is not quite what it usually is...and you are performing today?
The first thing to do is to ascertain if you should vocalize! Warning sings that you should not include pain. Yes, I know it seems obvious, but many of us put the show, or class, or project first, instead of our bodies. The second item is to ascertain whether the tissues of your vocal folds are swollen. A quick at home test to do this: if there is no pain, is to lightly vocalize in your high range (speaking or singing) and note how many disruptions there are. Does the pitch of your voice vary? Is there a crackling sound? What about delays in the onset of voice? Count these disruptions. Robert W. Bastian of the Bastian Voice Institute suggests doing this test everyday in order to be able to find a "baseline" of what normal is (1).
While, an absolutely wonderful strategy to monitor vocal health, Dr. Titze of the National Center of Voice Studies suggests it might be a good way to test whether your tissues of your vocal folds are swollen in general (2). Essentially, swollen tissues are a good indicator of the need to not vocalize and a trip to the doctor.
Let's say you have done the test and you feel confident that the cold and or other disturbance is workable. Then you need to remember three things to do--keep it wet, forward, and loose!
Wet means try keeping hydrated. This can mean increasing non drying liquids (sorry alcohol dries) intake, using a Neti pot, or using steam to thin the mucus. Maybe use all of these techniques.
Forward means using your favorite exercises which encourage a feeling of ease and forward vibration. In a later blog entry I will cover some of these, but some of my favorites include humming (open or closed mouth), lip trills, and of course straw phonation.
Loose refers to ensuring that all the muscles involved in support roles do not experience an imbalance of tension as a result of the difficulty. This may be as a result of overcompensating when beginning to have a vocal problem, or overcompensation in another system(e.g. broncho-spasms from an asthma attack may result in other muscles tensing). Some areas to be aware of include neck and shoulder muscles and the tongue. Remember the body tends to communicate tension in one part of the body to another. Of course resting when sick is the ultimate in "hanging loose". If you are sick, or tired, or injured, your body needs rest to muster the energy into making repairs.
Of course your behavior might need to change for the time that your voice is strained. Some of these changes include not speaking with a whisper unless it is a "voiceless whisper". Likewise you shouldn't shout to be heard. If you cannot project easily and you are able, walk to where your voice needs to be heard. Clearing your throat is also not constructive. The reason is simply that you are slamming your vocal folds together in order to clear them. Ironically the body's reaction to an injury in this area is to produce--mucus--thus beginning a never ending cycle. Try instead taking a large sip of water and swallowing hard. Another technique is to produce an "h" sound in the back of your throat (it'll sound like a cat bringing up a hairball). While less socially acceptable than "clearing your throat", it might be more productive in the end.
A very important "cure for the vocal disruption" may be to completely warm-up using appropriate warm-up exercises. These include non straining vocalization that go to the lows and highs of your range but not to the edges. Even when we're young it is important to build the habit of warming up before we attempt a "vocal performance" of any kind.
(1) The Swelling Test Bastian Voice Institute http://m4kkh33o91u4eghiq4fdgig9.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/New-swelling-tests.pdf
(2) NCVS lecture July 31, 2016.
So it's that time of the year again when we all give and receive; when we spend time celebrating with parties: eating and drinking treats usually forbidden the rest of the year; and hopefully enjoying life!
Unfortunately problems can occur when we perhaps give and receive the latest viruses, or parties take us to environments where we need to speak louder and cause us to stay up late. Perhaps we might remember that those treats we're eating are forbidden for a reason! This might lead to a situation where you awake one morning with a voice that doesn't seem to function like it should! This blog entry as well as the next two will be targeted at addressing the temporary loss of voice. Temporary voice loss can be called laryngitis although all voice loss is more properly referred to as aphonia (a=no, phonia=voice). It can be described as acute (immediate and possibly short term) or chronic (recurs or never goes away). This blog entry discusses basic principles of voice loss including the purpose of vocal folds or vocal cords, human individuality, the causes of temporary voice loss, and things to remember when deciding how to address temporary voice loss.
Vocal cords or more properly vocal folds are in essence two membranous covered "folds" of muscles located just above the trachea and in front of the esophagus. This is your best and your final step in preventing the accidental aspiration of foreign substances into your airways. When something "goes down the wrong way" that means instead of going into the esophagus it penetrated the vocal folds. When you cough to clear the foreign object you are manipulating your vocal folds to expel the foreign object and redirect it back into the esophagus. When you have a post nasal drip that triggers coughing you are using your vocal folds to eject that fluid and keep it out of your lungs.
When something irritates the vocal folds, which are covered by several layers of membrane some of these tissues can swell. If you are experiencing aphonia it is most likely that it is from the inflammation of tissue rather than a muscle weakness. The cause of the inflammation can be either from an organic matter such as cold, virus, or bacteria, or from what we call a functional problem. The difference can be significant or it can be moot as often functional problems start from over compensating when there is an organic problem. For instance, allergies might trigger the behavior of constantly clearing the throat. Unfortunately, clearing the throat involves slamming the vocal folds together, and repeating this action can lead to the production of more mucous to clear. The result might be aphonia originally stemming from allergies but continued by using a behavior to address the allergies.
On the other hand, a behavior such as using the voice at unsustainable volume levels for a long period of time, might produce an organic problem such as vocal nodules. This can change the quality of a person's voice. Because it is difficult to ascertain which came first--the behavior or the lack of voice--it is important that any aphonia without an obvious cause (such as a cold), or which continues past a few days, or occurs suddenly is checked by a qualified physician. Remember it is not just your voice we're talking about we are talking about the mechanism that keeps you from choking!
Of course while humans share maybe 99.9% the same physiology, there is perhaps .1 percent or maybe even less, that makes each of us truly unique. Not one of us has the exact same combination of characteristics which makes us so wonderfully different,m despite our sameness. This individuality reaches not only into eye color, height or skin color, but it means that you may not react exactly the same way to certain factors including viruses, behaviors, or even remedies in the same way as your BFF! So while your friends might be okay with the latest cold and able to function afterwards as well as ever, you may not and that is okay! Are blue eyes a sign of weakness? Hopefully you said no, likewise having a stronger reaction to a virus is not by any means a show of weakness. This gets to be very important when trading ideas on "solving laryngitis". Just as your doctor gathers information on you before prescribing a method of treatment it is important to consider your individual factors before using a "home remedy".
So things to consider when addressing aphonia include: When and how did it begin?--can you find an originating cause such as last night's football game or a horrible head cold? Did it occur suddenly or slowly? Is it true aphonia or simply raspiness or roughness? Before you use a remedy check out the possible side effects on the NCVS or similar websites. If you need rest--rest! Remember not all "natural remedies" are good for you, consider your individual body--if you are allergic to grass then inhaling camomile steam might not be a good choice for you. Finally, it is very important to remember that the first job of your vocal folds is to keep you from choking so you should never attempt to "coat" your vocal folds with substances. To do so may trigger coughing or worse a laryngeal spasm.
Vocal hygiene is simply put how to keep and maintain your voice in your daily life! What you need to do may vary depending upon the demands on your voice due to your job or social life. They may also change depending on your own physical characteristics but here are some basic tips:
Finally a vocologist can help design a daily plan to ensure the health of your voice whether he or she works as your primary voice trainer/teacher or with your voice professional.