April 2012
A slightly late blog after the course in February at the RAM with the fabulous Ed Blake, physiotherapist extraordinaire.
While it’s pretty hard to argue over the importance of breathing to life generally, its rôle in voice work is seriously misunderstood and often inappropriately emphasised by many voice teachers, both in speaking and singing.
Many people mistakenly believe that because the Estill Model does not directly address breathing  (meaning that it doesn’t present a schedule of breathing exercises) that breathing does not feature or is not considered to be important.
This is taken to mean that Jo Estill didn’t look at breathing, that it wasn’t something that she thought was important or even blatantly ignored. This is accompanied by an adherence to a view that her response was inexplicably contrary behaviour allied to a stubborn refusal to address an area of teaching that forms the cornerstone of technical work in other systems of voice training.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
As someone who was fortunate enough to attend many courses given by Jo Estill, to hear her directly present her own research as well as her views on breathing, I can say with some assurance that I have never come across any teacher who was as informed about the physiology of breathing, the research on breathing and relationship between breathing and voice as she.
Too many teachers teach ‘breathing’ that is divorced from any physiological process or anatomical understanding, following a line of received ‘wisdom’ that states that more is always better, accompanied by aggressive abdominal pumping that is optimistically, but erroneously, identified as support.
It is unarguable (to me, at least) that in order to teach breathing effectively, a sound understanding of the relationship between breath and voice is essential.
So to give an overview of what was presented on the breathing day by Ed Blake and me, I would like to offer a few key points:
1: The vocal folds CLOSE in order to produce voice
Closure creates resistance, which generates sub-glottic pressure which in turn produces the sound pressure wave that is the basis of voice. Firm, unpressured contact is the basis of all good voice production.
Yes, the vocal folds open but it is the contact that is so important to sustainable voicing and is what we can both feel and control. The ability to register low level muscle messages leads to the ability to register that feedback which in turn allows the performer to train those muscles. While the sensation produced is small, it is not only possible but essential that the performer learns to identify and train the voice referring to those sensations. Without this, the performer is overly reliant on their own ear and as what you hear is not what we hear, it is not objective or reliable. The ear is certainly important but it can trap the performer into what they are used to, inhibiting progress and causing very real frustration.
2: The key indicator of good voicing is CLEAR TONE
This is the simplest way to tell that voice is effectively produced. I would always recommend that when TRAINING the voice , the objective should be CLEAR TONE.  Breathiness as part of interpretation is of course absolutely fine but as persistent huskiness or inability to produce clear tone indicates potential vocal problems, it is something that should be directly addressed in lessons.  If it proves difficult to shift, then the performer should be referred to an ENT clinic for an examination.
3: Breathe according to need, not habit.
Breathing should be determined by the demands of the phrase, tone and interpretation not just by volume, meaning how much you can cram in on one breath. Over breathing is one the most common problems that I encounter and one of the most tenacious.
4: The abdominal wall must release on the in-breath.
This allows the diaphragm to descend freely and also releases the deep abdominal muscles that engage with the closure of the vocal folds on the outbreath. If these muscles don’t release fully on the in-breath and remain tight, then they overwork on the outbreath (when speaking or singing) increasing air pressure to a level that is much greater than the voice needs or can manage. The regulation of this unnecessary, high air pressure then causes other, compensatory behaviour that builds tension and a locking of musculature that need to be flexible and responsive, specifically the neck, jaw and tongue.
Let it go.
5: Abdominal pumping is not support!
Once you have breathed in, you have positive pressure in the body, meaning greater pressure inside than outside. The air will come out through speaking and singing; you don’t have to push it. Support is using specific muscles to maintain strain-free vocal fold contact across changes of pitch, dynamic and shifts in voice quality. It is not about unregulated, forced air pressure.
6: Don’t forget posture and symmetry
Essential in order for the muscles to work effectively and economically and it needs constant checking!
These are the key points and there is clearly a lot that I have not included but I hope that there is enough here for you to take into your teaching and own voice practise.
Have fun!
© Anne-Marie Speed April 2012