There's likely no other topic in voice pedagogy as difficult and as nuanced as breathing. Some voice teachers can have some very strong feelings about how best to breathe for singing, often based on the tradition they were trained in, or from adopting beliefs of a beloved mentor. There's also quite a lot of misinformation born out of general misunderstandings about how the body works. Different styles of singing have different needs. And around and around we go, trying to make sense of it all.
When we as voice teachers discuss breathing for singing, I think there are two main parts that we have to address as we decide how to teach it to our clients: philosophy and mechanics. We'll take on each part in the next two weeks, starting this week with the philosophy of breath in vocal pedagogy.
Why start here?
Honestly, we could start with each part and be just fine, because in my estimation they are equally important in how we develop our pedagogy. This topic tends to be the murkiest, though, so I thought I'd go ahead and wade into these waters right out of the gate. And frankly, a teacher's philosophy on breathing is likely to influence how he or she understands the mechanics, more than the other way around, in my experience.
I'm going to lay all my cards on the table right here. I'm of the mind that however a person can get the job done, it's good breathing technique. Now, what I mean by that is if a singer can take in adequate breath, then use that breath in a way that accomplishes the tonal goals without a bunch of shenanigans going on in the body, then it's good breathing technique. That would amount to heresy in some circles, but I think when we start to teach a prescribed technique we can end up confusing more than we might intend.
I didn't get to this place immediately or easily. In my undergrad and in my first master's degree, breathing was taught as a somewhat singular technique, based on the idea of appoggio since I was in predominantly art song and opera programs, and the prevailing thought was that appoggio was the "right" way, or the best way, or the most efficient way, or insert-your-adjective-here way. Now, I did learn to breathe for the kind of singing I needed to do, and it was effective and allowed me to do what I needed to do in the moment that I needed to do it. Was it appoggio? Frankly, I have no idea. I just know that what I did worked. But I still was filled with a whole lot of questions and anxiety about it, because I never quite knew if I was getting it "right." I kind of missed the evidence that I was successful in my singing goals because I was more focused on whether the execution matched the ideal. I don't think my teachers were to blame for this at all. They were teaching me well, and I love those folks to this very day. (Shout out to Mr. Lynn Penticuff and Dr. Jacqueline Collett!) And I'll be honest and admit that I didn't ask questions when I didn't understand because it was hard to admit my own insecurities at that time of my life. The result was two degrees in voice without a clear understanding of breathing. I'm pretty sure I'm not alone in that.
When I got to my second master's degree (I know, I'm the BIGGEST nerd) my teacher had a totally different philosophy, and I was not a fan at the time. She stated explicitly that she didn't focus much on the breath because she felt that singers could learn what they needed to do somewhat instinctually. That thought kind of rocked my little singing world, and I was absolutely sure it was wrong. I was singing Bach, with these giant melismas and a huge range! I needed to know how to breathe! But you know what? All these years later, I think she was the most correct of all. I didn't get it for a long time, and honestly she and I did not gel for a lot of other reasons, but in that aspect of singing, I think she was spot on. I did learn what I needed to do, and I executed Bach arias with a high skill level, if I do say so myself. My doctoral professor was very similar in her approach, and by the time I got there, I was a little more on board with the loosey-goosey philosophy on breathing for singing.
One assumption in breathing techniques is that every singer feels things similarly in his or her body as the teacher does. So often breathing is taught with sensation-based imagery coupled with physical movements. But if a singer cannot feel the sensations the teacher is leading them toward, then the physical movements can get confusing and convoluted. Not to mention that bodies can hold all kinds of anomalies, from postural differences to sensory processing differences to trauma. The body holds ALL kinds of things, and it can actually be scary to experience or try new ways of feeling in the body. We are starting to talk more about this in pedagogy circles, but not enough yet, in my opinion. As an example, a teacher may feel the breath as expanding into the belly and into the pelvic floor, but to lead a singer who has a past experience of trauma may have a very negative reaction to this kind of direction. It is very easy to assume that students have had similar experiences to our own, but that kind of unspoken assumption can lead to unintended consequences.
I think another assumption that is held by many is that there is a "correct" way to breathe, and our goal is to get our students to adopt that technique for breath in order to get to the right tonal outcomes. I believe that thinking is backwards. I think we should begin with the tonal outcome, and then determine what kind of breathing needs to happen to get there. Is the other way of thinking wrong? No, it isn't. It's simply a difference in philosophy. But knowing which camp you land in will determine how you teach, so it's important to understand your own philosophy first.
Understanding Your Own Breathing Philosophy
We all have biases and assumptions in our own pedagogy. That's not wrong. However, we should not leave them unexamined. This week, I invite you to take some time to really think through what you believe about breathing for singing. Grab a cup of coffee and a notepad and write down everything you can remember about what you have been taught about breathing, all the terminology you have learned and use and what each word means, and examine what you truly believe about each thing. Determine what has been valuable to you that you'd like to keep in your tool kit, and what may need to be released and why. This type of practice allows us to be very intentional with our teaching, and can also lead us to examine other philosophies we hold in our pedagogy. An intentional pedagogy is one that will guide us well, because we'll have a reason and a direction for what we do in the studio.
Next week I'll get more into the mechanics of breathing. I think you'll be surprised just how many avenues the body can take to breathe in and breathe out. I'm already excited to share that with you!