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Intro to Appoggio: The Epigastric Bounce

Exhalation is where singers earn their paychecks, so to speak, because this is when the singing actually happens. Among singers, proper exhalation is known as breath support, because it entails using certain muscles to regulate the amount of air leaving the body, thereby evenly supporting the vocal sound. Breath support is different than breath control; support is pulmonary, while control is laryngeal.

There are multiple approaches to breath support; far and away the most popular (and most effective) is appoggio, The term comes from the Italian verb appoggiare, which means "to lean," and this technique involves using muscular antagonism (pairs of muscles working against each other) to stabilize airflow. When used correctly, appoggio breathing allows singers to sing even very long phrases without "running out of juice", so to speak, near the end.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of learning any breathing technique is the fact that we can't see any of the relevant muscles. A pianist can see their arms, hands and fingers; singers have to rely almost exclusively on sensations and mental imagery, and the descriptions and images that work for one person may not mean anything to the next. In this entry, I'll share my approach.

First, let's have a brief discussion about muscular antagonism. Muscles pull; they cannot push. With the exception of the heart and diaphragm, all muscles come in pairs. For example, when you do a bicep curl, you contract your bicep to raise your forearm; when you lower your arm back down, you do it by relaxing your bicep and contracting its antagonist, the tricep.

In appoggio breathing, we activate both sets of breathing muscles simultaneously: the inspiratory muscles (used for breathing in) and the expiratory muscles (used for exhaling). Of course, the "breathe out" muscles need to win the war, because we do need a release of air through the vocal folds. However, left without the stabilizing tension of the engaged inspiratory muscles, the body would quickly expel a huge amount of air, and the singer would be unable to sing all but the shortest phrases on a single breath.

One technique for practicing activating the proper muscles is called the epigastric bounce. Here's how to do it:

  1. Stand comfortably with your feet shoulder-width apart and your shoulders comfortably loose. Your sternum (breastbone) should be comfortably high, but don't arch your back or adopt a military posture.

  2. Place the fingers of your favorite hand on your sternum (breastbone), and move down until you reach the slightly spongy spot directly below where the sternum ends. This is called the epigastrium.

  3. With your jaw and throat relaxed and your mouth slightly open, release the muscles in your abdomen, sides, and lower back. You'll feel air rush into your lungs. Don't try to gulp or suck the air in. It'll happen on its own.

  4. Place your lower lip against your upper front teeth, as if you were about to say a word that starts with the letter F. Make sure your jaw is still relaxed.

  5. Keep your sternum elevated as you release the air in a series of short bursts (F, F, F, etc.). Do you feel that bounce in your epigastrium? If you do, you're getting it right. If you cannot feel any movement there, you are likely stopping the airflow by clamping down in your throat. If you encounter difficulty keeping your throat relaxed, try a modified version of this exercise: rather than releasing the air in a series of short bursts, release it in one long, extended "F". Do it several times, noticing how your throat feels open and relaxed. Then try making the short bursts again.

If you initially struggle with this, don't be upset or discouraged. Singing is an athletic endeavor, and most of the world's most gifted athletes had to train pretty hard to achieve their success. Why should we be any different?

Next topic: lip trills!

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