Have you ever wondered if you or one of your singers is a breath holder? It is more common than you might think and can be one of the factors contributing to vocal fatigue, tension and increased effort in producing the voice. While there may be pathology on the cords that contributes to these issues too, many singers will get a clear strobe showing vocal cords that look and seem to function perfectly well, yet they are experiencing issues.
Breath holding can be a long term habit or it can arise as a result of a particularly stressful experience or a change in breathing resulting from an upper respiratory infection. (I write this as someone who was a breath holder as a result of a very stressful time in my life – I was literally holding my breath waiting for the next bad thing to happen, but I resolved it with time, awareness and practice.) How it came to be is almost beside the point, if it is happening we need some strategies to resolve it.
Physiologically, when we hold the breath back, there is a change in the way to vocal cords function, such that they are restricting the airflow. In the people I have worked with I have found there is also a change in the function of the musculature of the upper body that restricts motion of the parts that need to be moving (muscles of respiration, abdominal musculature, joints, tissue of the lungs etc.) – often their ribcage is lacking motion in at least 1 plane. I was also someone who carried a fair amount of constant engagement in my abdominals and needed to find ways to release those so I could turn on my reflexive core.
How do you identify breath holding in a singer? For one, you can watch the ribcage and abdomen while they breathe – always ask yourself is there movement and what is the quality of it? Do this for both the inhale and the exhale. I like to assess breath while the person is just breathing, while they are speaking and while they are singing. What you may hear (you probably won’t hear all of this in one voice, but you might hear a combination of these things) is an audible intake of air, a glottal at the beginning of a word, a quality of pushing to the voice, a phrase ending with lots of vocal fry and sometimes that little puff of air coming out after they’ve finished the phrase. The person might report that their throat is sore, it feels tight and the voice just feels plain effortful. I was that person with the extra effort going on, especially at a tessitura that put me near the passaggio, D5-G5.
The solution comes from a whole body approach that uncovers stress response patterns and creates an exhalation that is free. Using awareness practices we can ask students to begin to notice their breath in stressful situations. We can all relate to watching something like a down-to-the-wire sporting event moment where we hold our breath in response, or watching a movie where a character is about to meet his untimely end and we know it is coming but he doesn’t. What do we do in those situations? We hold our breath. If they are breath holding in response to stress, simply raising their awareness and remembering to keep breathing is a huge step in the right direction.
We can begin with breathing practices to give us some information about our breathing patterns. These practices are particularly valuable when taking time to explore and assess your habits. Breath Ratio is a great place to start. Then move into extending the inhale and exhale to both be long and smooth – always staying in your pure range – where there is no pain, strain or compensation. When the body fights the extension of either, that’s your edge and you want to work within that range rather than trying to push past it. I’ve written about these here and here
However, I haven’t encountered too many pieces of music where you can get 2 or 3 solid measures of rests in between each phrase AND we need to be able to phonate while we exhale, not just exhale. So we have to be able to incorporate breathing and singing.
Using a 10 minute practice that combines breath and physical motion, targeting the muscles of the torso can do wonders in liberating the breath prior to singing. Then, moving into singing phrases out of context to implement the new breathing patterns and slowly decreasing the length of time you are taking to inhale between phrases until the body can do so in a liberated way has been a solid approach for the voices I’ve dealt with.
If you are interested in exploring your breath more, schedule a 1-on-1 Singer Synergy Assessment and let’s dive in!