Some of the most recurring comments I hear from students in their first lesson with me go something like, “I need to fix my breath, “I’m trying to figure out my breathing, “I need more support and more breath,” and my favorite, “My last teacher worked with me on my breath primarily and I just need more of that.”
My favorite analogy about breathing comes from Dr. Scott McCoy, professor of voice and pedagogy at the Ohio State University.
“I think it is reasonable to say that singers and singing teachers often fixate on breathing. This occurs in response to the fact that breath is the power source of our instrument, just as it is for a trumpet, flute, or clarinet. And as with other instruments, additional parts are involved in the creation of musical sounds. Along with our power source, we have a vibrator (vocal folds), a resonator (vocal tract), and a means of articulation…
These four elements-power source, vibrator, resonator, and articulator-must work in synchronicity, mutually reinforcing each other to produce our best sound. How is it, then, that problems with the vibrator or resonator can be corrected by altering the power source? Let’s pause for an analogy…”
He compares singing to driving a car. Breath is the gas that fills the tank, and subsequently fuels the car. In this analogy, the engine is the phonation system, and the steering wheel is our articulators (mouth and tongue). With this in place, saying
“One who knows how to breathe, knows how to sing,”
is like saying,
“He who knows how to fill up the fuel tank knows how to drive the car.”
Can’t accelerate? Better check the fuel tank! Is the steering wheel pulling a hard right? You probably filled up the fuel tank wrong. Can’t get past second gear? You obviously need different fuel!
Silly right? Keep this in mind when you’re struggling with some vocal issue, like nasality, getting though your bridges, staying on pitch, or discomfort in high notes. Consider that one of the other singing systems (phonation or resonation) is perhaps out of whack. All three systems, respiration included, need to be in balance to achieve excellent, comfortable singing.