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Exploring the Role of Breath in Voice Training

Breathing is one of the most misunderstood components in voice training. Maybe you’ve heard one of these phrases: 

  • You can’t sing because you have bad breath control

  • You’re not using your breath right

  • You need to sing “on the breath”  

  • Breathe from your diaphragm

The biggest misconception I’ve heard is the general concept of “Breath support.” But the breath does almost nothing to support the voice. It is merely the initiation of sound. It is gas in your car. You need gas, but you don’t think much about it- until you’re running out of it!

Breath is like gas in a car in the vocal process

Breath in the Power-Source-Filter Model

Any sound is initiated by breath in your lungs. In most physical states, breathing is naturally governed by the involuntary nervous system, as lung volume and rates of inhalation/exhalation adjust to maintain oxygen levels in the blood.

This is your POWER in the PSF (Power-source-filter) Model. 

Luke Steinhauer Voice Power Source Filter Model

During speaking and singing, breathing is regulated by the voluntary nervous system. In the service of a long musical phrase, the singer’s voluntary control of the exhalation

After the breath is initiated it hits your vocal folds or your SOURCE. This is where sound is made. Not the beautiful voice sound, but merely the sound of vibrating vocal folds.

Estill teaches us that we have control over how air and vocal folds interact. Different combinations produce different sounds depending on the vocal task at hand. 

The sound quality or the color of your sound is determined by your pharynx or FILTER; everything above the larynx. It is when all of these components, Power, Source, and Filter come together, that we get a voice or sound quality. 

Breathing is Dynamic

Breathing is dynamic and dynamic systems change: they do not operate in exactly the same manner under all conditions. Don't believe me? Stand up and run as quickly as you can in place. Take note of the contrast in breath patterns for resting and then running. Consider the changes in the rate of inhalation and exhalation.The amount of air moving in and out of the lungs. And the location of muscle activity!

The brain and body are adept at making these adjustments. It is only when we want to override these primal acts do we need to think a little more about the amount of air needed to perform the task. 

More or Less Breath?

Mostly when singing, we need LESS breath than we think we need. The fact of the matter is that when you go to speak or sing, the vocal folds close. They open when you breathe. When you add more subglottal air pressure on top of a stronger than normal vocal fold close, a sort of collision occurs at the level of the vocal folds. Un-complicate your vocal process and only use as much air that is actually needed.

And, most importantly, stop thinking of breath as your "support." In the voice production system, the bigger muscles support the smaller muscles, not your breath. 

breathing singing luke steinhauer voice

About the author: Luke Steinhauer is a premier vocal coach, international voice consultant, and Estill Master Trainer, based in New York City. Luke is a graduate of The University of Michigan and an MBA Candidate at Baruch College, Zicklin School of Business, CUNY. @lukesteinhauervoice


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