When I begin with a new student I often start by saying, “Technique is everything you have to do to survive after you’ve taken the wrong breath.” They always laugh at that. But it really is true—the wrong breath affects the whole emission of sound so much that you have to compensate in many ways that are ultimately unhealthy. Understanding breathing (inhalation and exhalation) is not the whole story, but if the student does not address breathing and all of its ramifications, vocal problems can develop slowly and imperceptibly.
Very simply, there are two causes involved in singing—breathing and speaking. The muscular action involved in both breathing and sound emission (attack) is effect. The results of breathing correctly are both expansion (front-to-back and side-to-side) and the free descent of the diaphragm. Because breathing correctly involves these muscles, and the muscles governing the air entering the lowest part of the lungs, it is easy to confuse “letting the air go to the lowest part of the lungs” with trying to “breathe low.” We do not breathe low—we breathe normally and allow the air to go to the upper and lower part of the lungs. You’d be surprised how many people do not get this subtle difference.
The end result is that incorrect muscular action always involves the throat in some way. In order to breathe correctly, the throat must be completely relaxed. The jaw must float from the hinge, and when the throat is really relaxed it is open. Many techniques teach that you should open the throat as you take a breath. No, it must be completely relaxed like a still lake where there are no ripples. The more relaxed the throat is before breathing, the deeper the air will enter the lungs. This is accomplished by thought. “Thinking is enough; doing is too much” (Lamperti). As the air is entering the lungs, one should begin the attack without trying to use the “moving air,” so the attack is the resistance and not the muscles tightening. In other words, the air is moving, but is never pushed through the cords. As an exercise, I often have students inhale through a straw to prove that you don’t have to start with muscles to take in air. When a singer can actually feel moving air, but not push it through the vocal cords, they are starting to be in the right ballpark.
As a singer, my professional career began as an apprentice at the Staatstheater in Kassel, West Germany. After several seasons of singing leading roles in various European opera houses, it became clear to me that I needed more vocal study in order to face the rigors of a professional operatic career. A decision to return to San Diego to study “for a year” began my odyssey of self-discovery, which has led to a successful 18-year teaching career. I had worked with nine different teachers, with many approaches to singing and many “right” ideas, but the picture was not complete.
Starting over, I discovered an approach to singing that I call “individual alignment.” By this I mean teachers should not try to impose their own ideas of space—“open throat,” “dropping the jaw too far,” “three fingers in the mouth,” and so on. Each student must discover the inner space used by the breath and the voice. I made a conscious decision not to pursue performance at the highest professional level because I knew I could not do justice to two careers. I am a teacher. It has been an amazing spiritual journey for me, and every day I see some new aspect. All of the elements of singing are so simple, but the human mind has such a tendency to make truth complicated. That is why we are breathing so backward—we really believe that everything has to be so hard. I will say that the coordination has to be exact, but everything about breathing is simple in itself. As obvious as it may seem, this important element is left out of many vocal techniques and, in fact, offers the only real way to solve vocal problems.
First of all, I think professional singers find amazing ways to survive in this career. But the bottom line is how do we feel? Does what we are doing feel good? It should, you know. Singers often adopt the attitude of just “getting through” a performance. Experienced singers develop what I call professionalized bad vocal habits. When Flicka [Frederica von Stade] came to me she was thinking that because of age, her voice wasn’t as responsive any more, and that it was just getting a little harder to sing. Almost immediately, she said that correct breathing began to feel like an incredible oil or lubricant to her voice.
When you habitually breathe in a tense manner, the end result is that you can feel dry and a kind of friction. Some people have amazing vocal stamina (and Flicka is one of those people), but the point is that singing wasn’t as enjoyable as it had been. It has been quite a journey together. With every lesson and subsequent engagement, there has been an acute ongoing awareness about what really is right and what isn’t. Just being sure of how to get out of a tight spot—and being able to do it on stage—gives singers enormous confidence, and it shows in their delivery. We have to get out of the unrealistic idea that singing can be perfect all of the time. My definition of a professional singer is not someone who sings perfectly, but someone who knows when they are getting off the track, and doesn’t resort to “tricks” to get back on.
I was inspired by a recent symphony concert. I think, whenever we observe or participate in a truly creative process, it inspires. The conductor at this concert was truly inspired. It brought to my mind that all technical activity must ultimately have an artistic reason behind it. Simply, breathing is inspiration and singing is expression. Without true inspiration, expression is limited or at best imitative.
The trouble with technique is that it can lead to conditioning. I believe conditioning of any kind is against the creative process and inhibits us from being spontaneous. If we are not to be conditioned, then what? We need acute awareness of what is taking place in our bodies without getting in the way. This takes a lot of practice, patience, persistence and a teacher who is willing to bring the student’s awareness back over and over and over, until a perfect thought process commands the body in a very gentle but specific way. When we breathe correctly and expansion is a result, we create air pressure in our bodies. The attack must also be the right pressure so that the “fit,” so to speak, is right. This is a very individual sensing that must take place. The teacher’s job is to get the air pressure and the vocal pressure to be right for the specific student. My ear tells me if this is right. When alignment is right, correct breath pressure and vocal pressure achieve a “light attack.” You might say this is singing on the interest and not on the principal.
At this point, the true timbre of a voice begins to emerge, a timbre that may have been lost when a voice was pushed to become “big.” The trend today is to want incredibly big voices, but overly muscular singing can take the bloom off the voice, and take 10 to 15 years off of a career. Singers need to realize that when the voice is more balanced by correct breath and light attack, it will carry much better over an orchestra. As I begin to really think about this subject, it hits me how incredibly vast it is. It is the foundation of the whole process—breathing, in a very specific but easy way, is the key.
Jane Randolph has private vocal studios in San Francisco and New York City, and is on the faculty of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.