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Noisy Breathing is Ineffective Breathing

The most effective singing breath is perfectly silent on the way in. Unfortunately, most untrained singers have an instinct to gulp or "tank up" before a long phrase, not realizing that this approach actually reduces the amount of air flowing into their lungs and reduces their ability to manage the air as they sing. To understand why, we've got to dip our toes into some physics. Let's get right into it.

It comes down to this: inhalation happens when the lungs get larger. When this occurs, air flows into the body automatically; you don't have to do anything extra to bring the air in. It's unavoidable, and here's why: nature abhors a vacuum. You may remember that from middle-school science class. What does this maxim really mean? When you have an area of low air pressure connected to an area of higher air pressure, the two will equalize. Air from the higher-pressure area will flow into the lower-pressure area until the two spaces reach equilibrium.

The speed at which this occurs depends on two factors: the degree of pressure differential and the size of the connection between the two areas. Let's return to my balloon analogy from the previous entry, but this time you've got two balloons (fancy!). Imagine you blow up one balloon until it's at 40% capacity, and the other until it's just about to burst. If you release the air out of both simultaneously, you'll notice that the air escapes from the full-to-bursting one much more violently (i.e. rapidly). The relevance for singers is this: more lung expansion means more rapid and complete airflow into the body.

Don't throw your balloons away yet, because you're about to need them again (well, one of 'em). Now we need to examine the throat during inhalation. Proper singing inhalation is silent. Notice the word "proper"; unfortunately, a lot of pop singers breathe very noisily, either through lack of technique or for emotional impact, and it's easy to pick up bad habits when you repeatedly see them on television (thanks, American Idol. Ugh!).

When you can hear an inhalation, you immediately know that some part of the vocal tract is being squeezed or held in tension, reducing the diameter of that connection between low pressure (the lungs) and high pressure (air outside the body). This makes the breath less efficient, because less air makes it into the lungs before singing begins.

Let's use our balloons again. Blow one up until it's pretty large and tight. Keep your fingers on the neck, but release as much pressure as you can without letting the balloon fly through the air. You're going to hear a soft rush of air (there are some unavoidable differences between a balloon and the human vocal tract, after all), but it will be soft.

Blow the balloon up again, and use two fingers on each hand to pinch the neck closed. Very slowly pull your hands apart; you're stretching the balloon neck tightly while some of the air escapes. Hear that loud squeaky noise? That tells you that the neck is under great tension. You'll also see that when you squeeze the neck like this, the air takes a lot longer to leave the balloon.

Are you pickn' up what I'm puttin' down? Constriction causes noise and obstructs airflow. The throat must always feel fat, relaxed, loose, open — use whatever term floats your boat — during inhalation. Actually, it should feel that way during singing, too, which I'll address in a subsequent post. Keep your eyes peeled.

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