Releasing the Breath

Please tell me what it means when someone instructs the student to “release the breath” or “sing on the breath”. Is that not what we do all day long with every breath we take? If you don’t release your breath, it’s called being dead. You have to sing on the breath, as there is nothing else to sing on.

What teachers want when they utter these words is for the student to release tensions in the throat, and essentially, in the larynx at the level of the vocal folds, since THE VOCAL FOLDS CONTROL THE AIRFLOW. They want FREEDOM. You have to let go in the throat itself and, of course, this isn’t so easy. The phrases above also confuse the student, because releasing the breath (throat) will allow the sound to be breathy, which is often not a desired end product.

Real life example: Recently, at a master class, I heard a “master” singing teacher thoroughly confuse a young (15 year old) soprano by asking her to “release the breath”. This was not only ineffective, since the young lady was singing a Handel piece with melismas, it was counter productive. What the student needed to be able to negotiate the song was to conserve breath, not expend more. The teacher didn’t get it.

The teacher had begun the master class by having the student count while falling forward to “release the breath” (which the student did well). Then, when she did the song, the teacher was asking her to “release the breath” when what the student needed was greater control over her exhale, (think breath retention) and articulation of the musculature in the tongue and mouth. When I queried the teacher, saying that “release the breath” was confusing to me, she responded by saying (this is the truth) “I have been thinking about this for over a year. I really don’t know how you can have the student release the breath and not sing breathy”. I was so fried. Right in front of me was a singing voice specialist, a senior speech language pathologist who could easily have answered her question, but the “master teacher” didn’t even know where to go to get an answer for her stupid, but significant to her students, question.

Further, in the audience of teachers who were observing, one man observed that the student had “forgotten her warm-up” and was no longer doing what she had been doing when she was falling over. There was nothing to remember. She was doing exactly the same thing, but the warm-up was completely inappropriate to the tasks of the song. The second observation came from another man who said to the student (who was poised and appeared centered throughout the session) “You are nervous. We will close our eyes while you sing it again and it will let you feel free”. I was stupified. Of course, the student tried each time to do just what she was told and agreed with each comment made to her. How would she have had enough knowledge or courage to disagree?

A song which requires rapid roulades and flourishes requires both flexibility and strength in the vocal mechanism and the breathing muscles. Freedom is antithetical to stability. Stability requires that the body and voice are strong enough to remain relatively quiet in an unsqueezed adjustment. Freedom requires the entire system, voice and body, be able to respond quickly and with very small movements, which requires a high degree of neuro-muscular acuity. No beginning student of average ability has these two skills balanced together and releasing the breath is NEVER going to put them together.

I left chewing on my sneakers, as is my wont. If only I were a more placcid person!

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