“Breath is welcome here”

“Breath is welcome here”

A few months ago, I was talking to one of my students, Erin McManus, about allowing the abdominal muscles to release on inhalation to receive the breath, and I believe that I used the term “welcome the breath.” Erin then smiled beatifically, as she is wont to do, and indicated her abdominal area with a gentle motion and said, “Breath is welcome here.”

Of course, you don’t breathe into the belly. The diaphragm is the dividing line between the respiratory and the digestive system, or, as the late Jean Westerman Gregg said, “between the vitals and the vittles.” (I have used that line ever since I first heard it in 1997, at my very first NATS workshop.) You breathe into your lungs, and as a result of the descent of the diaphragm, your viscera (i.e., guts) are pushed down and your stomach expands outward somewhat. More importantly, your ribs expand. If you are freakishly long-waisted, as am I, you may not find that there’s a great deal of outward expansion. If you are short-waisted, you may find that there’s a LOT of outward expansion.

But you can’t just push out your belly and expect the air to come in. You have to allow the air to enter your body by inhaling quietly, through your nose or mouth, depending on the circumstances, by aligning yourself efficiently so that you aren’t compressing your innards, and by allowing your abdominal muscles, particularly the abdominal floor, to release. Whether it is a sip of air or a deep intake of air, the key element is that of release. A noisy inhalation is inherently high and tense and is distracting. It’s not efficient.

An exercise I do frequently with beginning students is to have them blow out all the air and wait until their bodies need air. And when that moment comes, inhale – but just allow it to happen voluntarily, rather than consciously suck in air. What happens? Is there sound? Where do you feel expansion? Where do you feel release? Is it weird? (Someone said it was weird once, so now I ask.)

Enjoy this video of Nathan Gunn and William Burden singing the famous duet from Pearlfishers and notice how they receive the breath. (It helps that they’re shirtless. In so many ways.)

“Welcome the breath.” Indeed.

“From Shrill to Potato-y”: How I Got Back on the Chiaroscuro Trail

“From Shrill to Potato-y”: How I Got Back on the Chiaroscuro Trail

Nearly 8 years ago, I gave my first classical recital in a long time. I was in Milwaukee and teaching at Carroll University in Waukesha, and I had the opportunity to do a recital. So I prepared a full program, hired a fabulous pianist, and started taking lessons with Connie Haas again, after not having had regular lessons (or really done any year-round singing) for over 10 years.

During my lessons, Connie was telling me that my resonance was not as balanced as it could be. And I wasn’t really buying it, because that had never been an issue for me during the time I was at Peabody and singing in the DC metropolitan area. I knew that the recital was coming harder for me than it would have earlier, but I attributed that to my not having done one for a long time.

When the recital was over, I wasn’t pleased. I had hired the late, great sound engineer Daniel Gnader to record it, but didn’t listen to it until over 3 months later, on January 1, 2012. I listened to it with the idea that I would be able to pull something from it for a demo recording.

I was not pleased. (This is putting it mildly. I was weeping copious tears.) And then my friend Carolina got online and asked how I was, and I said, “I just listened to my recital from September and I sound like poop.” (I didn’t say poop.) She said, “Oh, come on, it can’t be that bad. Send me a clip.” I sent her one. She didn’t think it was bad. I sent her another. She said, “Oh. On that one, you run the gamut from shrill to potato-y.” I asked if by “potato-y,” she meant as though I was singing with a large serving of potatoes in my mouth. She confirmed that was, in fact, what she meant.

This meant that Connie had been right all along. My resonance was out of balance. At times my sound was too bright. At other times, it was too dark. Because I had not had an ear and someone to guide me back on the Chiaroscuro Trail (which sounds like the coolest trail in a national park), I had been too cocky to accept it. And I had not been practicing regularly.

I went back to Connie and told her I was ready to work and fix it. And I did.

I needed someone to tell me the truth about where my singing was at that point. Connie did. Carolina did. And, finally, my own ears did. So I had to do something about it.

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I won’t say that “You run the gamut from shrill to potato-y” was necessarily positive, but it sure was specific. I didn’t feel like Carolina was telling me that I sucked, but that I needed to address a resonance issue that had arisen. Connie gave me the next step – work on being mindful of where my tongue was and of the shape of my vocal tract. Work on the awareness of the tone quality and what it felt like when the sound was right.

Awareness, mindfulness, and acceptance are all things you need to have as a singer.

As a teacher, I will tell you honestly what you do well and what you need to work on. I will give you the tools to expand upon your strengths. I will not tear you down, but I will tell you what your next step should be, whether we’re going to have to focus on breath, resonance, articulation, or registration, or some combination thereof.

Your job, as a student, will be to accept and implement those steps, and to be aware of what it feels like when you’re doing the work and what it feels like when you’re not.

I’m up to that challenge. I’m confident that all my students, past, present, and future, are as well.