Recent Questions From Readers:

Dear Readers,

Your most frequently asked question is, "What is breath support?" Because of this, I have answered the following FAQs about breath support before moving on to the other questions. I am very grateful for all your of questions, for they are an important opportunity and challenge for continual clarification in the discussion of vocal technique.

What is breath support?

I have answered this question in detail in my book and also on this website. But it always deserves and demands an explanation in every new context. Breath support is the air pressure directly below the vocal cords. To regulate this air pressure, we learn to control the breath. We do not consciously "support" with the throat muscles, but with our abdominal muscles. These muscles indirectly influence the respiratory organs and the vocal muscles in the larynx. We learn to control our breath and the amount of air pressure by dosing the air, not too much and not too little but according to the music we are singing. This breath control allows for the proper adjustment of the muscles of the larynx and the necessary vibration of the vocal cords. A correctly supported tone vibrates freely, is capable of development, and can be sung in a musical context with the tones which come before and after.

How do you support correctly?

This is the crucial question which has produced many conflicting answers and caused much confusion among voice teachers and students. For clarification, I will answer by explaining the following steps in learning to support properly:

Further explanation of this breath technique and instructions for practicing it through musical examples can be found in my book.

I am writing a paper on breath technique for my pedagogy class and have the following questions: Does one support by pulling the belly in or by pushing out? Where does one think the tone when "placing" before an attack?

S. F.

Dear S.,

"Belly out or belly in?" is a FAQ. I think the question might be better formulated, "How does one feel the breath, and how can I control it?" One can feel the flanks, the back muscles expand in breathing, and one can feel the abdominal muscles when one contracts them inwards or by pushing outwards. However, in order to control the breath, we must concentrate on those muscles that we can best feel and consciously control: the abdominal muscles. The breath impulses and proper tone development are activated by these muscles. Since tone development should be a product of inalare la voce, or thinking the tone attack inwards, the tone attack and breath impulse function best when coordinated with an inward contraction of the abdominal muscles.

Attempts to "place" the tone usually means concentration on some area of the face. Occasionally it helps to "think high" or "put the tone in the mask," but it is best to concentrate on following the steps for a supported tone attack, as described above. Attempts to force the voice into some imaginary or anatomical place usually gives unsatisfactory results. By properly coordinating the tonal attack with the breath, you will increase your chances enormously of having your voice "sit" in the proper place!

Good luck with your paper!

I am criticized for "oversupporting" in my singing. What does that mean?

M. T.

Dear M.,

If your critic is hearing a pressed, forced or tight tone, he is right to point it out. But the question is not one of supporting too much, but of supporting correctly. Therefore the solution is to learn to use the proper muscles and to avoid using the improper ones. The amount of support, not too much or too little, is controlled through regulating the breath. Many advanced singers use some degree of unnecessary throat tension. Because they may feel their bodies strongly involved in their singing, they believe they are supporting properly. They too, must learn that muscle strength in the body and the vocal mechanism are only working optimally when they are properly coordinated with the breath.

What can I, as a young singer, do to get over my stage fright?

S. H.

Dear S.,

The best cure for stage nerves, for professionals as well as beginners, is a good vocal technique. When one has something concrete to think about and to do, that is applying a breath technique to the music, the nerves in the head and the body are concentrated on and directed to the necessary priorities. Being somewhat nervous before a performance is normal and probably needed for the extra adrenalin it delivers. Famous singers are also nervous, but they learn to control their nerves. Singing in front of an audience needs to be practiced. If you don't have enough opportunity to do this, you might suggest to your voice teacher to organize informal class recitals, you can volunteer to sing a solo at someone's private party or for a church service.

What can a singer do when he is asked to perform in an impossible, badly staged production?

K. H.

Dear K.,

Besides suffer, he needs to ask himself if he is able sing his role so that the story or drama can be commuicated through the music and text to the audience. Naturally what is considered possible or impossible is contentious, even among singers themselves. However, most singers agree that they are faced with the problem that theater and stage directors, as well as the reviewers, seldom give the art of singing the priority it deserves. Most singers try to sing and interpret the role as well as they can and deserve much praise for saving many an impossibly-staged production from being a total flop! But, singers must also have the courage to say, "No thanks" when they feel that their artistic principles and integrity are being sacrificed.

Why does one often hear singers with a kind of "one-sound" voice which is musically uninteresting and impossible to understand, i.e. the text?

B. S.-R.

Dear B.,

You are right in saying that in this case, not only the text but the phrasing suffers. Some singers have gotten used to a certain sound that they identify as "my voice". Using a type of "fixed" adjustment that they consider to be a consistent vowel space, they try to sing every tone in the vocal range and believe they are thereby singing legato. Because the muscle tension is wrong, they neither have the flexibilty to sing pure vowels for text clarity nor to musically shape a phrase. They would be on the right path for vocal consistency with flexibility if they could learn to coordinate the vowels by dosing the breath. This is the only way to achieve good articulation of text and music.

How much can I sing every day without harming my voice?

B. E.

Dear B.,

Of course the answer to this question depends on your vocal technical skills and on the repertoire that you are singing. Bill Evans, the famous jazz pianist said, "It is better to practice one piece 24 hours than 24 pieces in an hour." He's making the point that it is important to be able to concentrate on doing something well by practicing properly. Singers should always warm up and vocalise (using the rules for applying the breath) before practicing their music phrase by phrase. That might on some days be only and hour, and on others with rehearsals and performances, many hours. Singers do need intermissions in their practice routine, and must learn when to take them.

Many readers have asked questions about auditioning:

I have been a voice student for many years, and would like to audition for an agent. My teacher is not sure if I'm ready. My question is, how can I convince her?

A. S.

Dear A.,

If you go to audition, you must convince the agent. If your teacher doesn't think you are ready, then she must convince you with her arguments. It is also a good idea to get other professional opinions and to get feedback in serious performance situations or lesser important auditions before going to sing for the bigger agents.

I'm not sure what I should sing at an audition. How can I know what to choose?

S. O.

Dear S.,

It is always a good idea to first choose the piece that you are the most secure with, the one that you have sung the most and have had the best success with. This piece should show off your voice to the best advantage ( including the high notes) and also show your personality. It is also a good idea to choose a piece from the traditional repertoire. Auditions are not the occasions for singing unknown pieces. To be certain you are chosing from the right repertoire, you might want the advice of your teacher or other singers in your Fach, or vocal category. Usually the auditioner will ask you what you want to sing for the first number. If he/they want to hear a second one, he/they might choose it from your list of audition pieces (perhaps 4-6 pieces). Don't plan on using the first piece just as a warm-up for a bigger, second number. Often there is only the opportunity to sing one piece, so that one must be your best!

I have been taking voice lessons for three years and have never sung in front of an audience. When will I be ready?

J. K. L.

Dear J. K.,

I have included your question along with those concerning auditioning for professional engagement to stress the importance of practicing singing in front of an audience at every stage of vocal development. Because this is a part of vocal studies, the voice teacher should arrange for students to perform for each other, give class recitals regularly and otherwise look for opportunites for students to appear in public. There is often a dificult climate for competing for performance chances in the music schools. Some say this is good preparation for an even more competitive professional life. My opinion is that a school is a developmental training ground for the profession and should not be confused with the profession itself. Schools should be as democratic as possible in giving all singing students a chance to perform. Of course some students will be better or further advanced than others and may, for example, get the bigger parts in the opera scenes. But the chance to experience performing before a public should be given to all. Many a less-than-impressive student has developed into an excellent professional singer. If you are studying privately, you may have to look for opportunities yourself, such as singing solos at church or for the Rotary Club. Some young singers have found good student accompanists and worked up entire solo or duo recital programs to offer for specific events.

I hear that how you look is more important than how you sing at auditions. Is that true?

P. A.

Dear P.,

No. However, the influence of the visual media on the theater profession has increased tremendously over the last couple of decades. Also the influence of those who have more to say about what they see on the stage than what they hear. I appeal in my book to all those who are involved with singing to try to learn more about the art of singing. Of course being on the stage has something to do with how you look, and looks do have marketable value. But in the opera, how the music is sung will always have priority. It is through singing that the singer expresses the feelings of the drama and communicates the story. That is true for singing in concerts, recitals and audtions as well.