Breathing. Is. Important.
In their recent article The FlemIngo Stance: Resistance Training in Breath Management (Journal of Singing, September/October 2021), Renee Flemming, Ingo Titze, and Rachelle Flemming write:
"...breath management remains one of the more challenging subjects in teaching singing, as there is no industry-wide consensus on the best method of developing this important skill"
As I read on, it occurred to me that their statement remains true because while vocal pedagogues understand the physics and mechanics of breathing as it relates to singing, we generally think of breathing in the context of phonation, rather than thinking of phonation in the context of breathing.
Breathing is a vital function. The average adult takes 20,000 breaths per day, give or take. In addition to its role in producing vocal sounds, breathing is integral to maintaining postural stability and plays a role in both psychological and physiological regulation.
It only takes minutes after we notice symptoms for our vital organs to sustain damage from hypoxia, so naturally our bodies keep close tabs on our breathing and have quite a few fail-safes to make sure our tissue gets the oxygen it needs.
And, just as our bodies respond to intentional and unintentional calorie deprivation the same way, our brains don't care that they're feeling low on oxygen because we want to carry a phrase through. If homeostasis is disrupted our body will respond accordingly.
At the end of the day, breathing always wins.
When we sing, we essentially hijack the respiratory system to make art. Every part of the vocal mechanism has a role in breathing as well as phonation.
So what happens when our intercostals aren't strong enough to help keep us upright while simultaneously resisting our exhale while we sing? Or when our diaphragm can't generate the force necessary to sufficiently fill our lungs during the time allotted for a breath in a score?
What happens when our lungs are full enough to continue a phrase, but our brains sense that we need more oxygen in order to maintain homeostasis and optimal metabolic function?
Why do we overlook the importance of optimizing respiratory habits outside the studio as a component of voice care and a foundation on which to build a better singing breath?
What happens when obstruction in the upper or lower airway creates extra resistance to our inhale or exhale? And how does it affect our training when this occurs regularly or persistently?
How do we know when our struggles to integrate efficient breath management into our singing signal an underlying breathing problem that needs clinical attention, rather than a technical challenge that can be improved in the studio and practice room?
While I have some strong - and educated - opinions on the subject, I certainly don't have all the answers.
But I am convinced that until we, as a community, start building these questions into our research and the answers into our approach to training breath management, we will continue to both fall short of the evidence-based consensuses we have arrived at in other aspects of voice training and continue to leave behind those aspiring singers who have frequent and/or persistent disruptions to respiratory health and function.
Until we look at breathing holistically, in the context of its prominence in our overall health and function as well as our art, the best way to leverage its power in service of singing will continue to elude us.