Searching for Tangibility
Tangibility - the quality of being perceivable by touch. palpability, tangibleness. corporality, corporeality, physicalness, materiality - the quality of being physical; consisting of matter.
As a soprano, songwriter, and voice teacher, I often experience the desire for tangibility. I want to know that I am singing the right notes, that I am writing the correct words. I remember when I was really delving into practicing and understanding vocal technique, I would get discouraged and have that feeling of "I'll never get this..." Then, when I least expected it, I would get it! But it wouldn't feel like a huge accomplishment, it would be like I had forgotten how hard it used to be for me and when I finally got it, it would simply be a relief.
I write about this today because I have been finding this same feeling of frustration expressed in my voice students. If only the voice could be like a piano where we can see the notes we want to sing and then touch them and the proper note will come out. Singing takes so much trust. Usually when we are trying to "control" our sound, our words, our breath, everything gets tight and we end up feeling even more frustrated.
There is one part of vocal technique though that we can really lean on for support, the breath. Like most voice teachers, I teach diaphragmatic-costal breathing. That is a complicated way of saying we breath low and allow our diaphragm to work in the most efficient way. I remember all the way back to middle school when I first heard the phrase "use your diaphragm." This is a simple way to tell singers to support their sound with a low breath. However, I had no idea what a diaphragm was, so instead of allowing a nice low and supported breath, I just clenched my abdominals like I was doing crunchies at the gym and then was surprised and confused as to why I kept running out of breath!
The diaphragm is an involuntary muscle. The truth is, it is always working for us but we can't actively control it. I describe it like a big upside down bowl that fits along the inside of the ribs. As we breathe in, it lowers, giving us more space to breathe in the lungs, and then as we exhale (or sing) it rises back to its original spot. Its function is to separate the digesting from the breathing...a pretty important function!
When we breathe for singing, we want to see the belly stretch and expand, because if the diaphragm lowers fully then the intestines and digestive organs need to go somewhere, so the belly goes out. Then as we sing, we want to continue "stretching" the belly, but this time we stretch it in towards the spine and up toward the top of the head. The hard part of this breathing for me is allowing my belly muscles to stretch instead of contract. That habit of clenching the abdominals that I started in elementary-middle school was a tough one to break.
Breathing can be a spiritual experience if we let it. With every inhale, all we need to do is invite the air in, and it will enter. When I try to "control" my breath, the inhale becomes loud like I am gasping. When I trust my breath, the inhale is nearly silent and naturally more calm and efficient.
I often explain singing like we are patting our heads and rubbing our bellies...but we also have 6 other arms that are expected to do things as well. There is a LOT going on...this is why we start with the breath. It is a tangible experience that acts as the foundation for the rest of vocal technique.
I am an artist by nature, so writing about, practicing, and teaching vocal technique sometimes feels bizarrely scientific for me. However, what I have learned is that if I have efficient vocal technique, then my tools for artistry expand exponentially!
So let's breathe together this week. All it takes is 5 minutes a day to start changing old breathing habits. I recommend lying on your back with hands on the stomach. Experiment with how big the belly can get on the inhale, and how far you can suck the belly in on the exhale. Notice when the abdominals want to clench, and see if you can use the hands to guide the belly to stretch in and up instead.
I bet if we all practice breathing this week, we will not only feel more calm, but we will be more efficient, loving and trusting in our daily lives. Once we learn how to breathe and allow our diaphragms to work in the most efficient way, breathing truly becomes the tangible part of singing that we can rely on. No matter where we are singing or what we are singing, we can trust that our breath will be there for us.