Breath and the Vocal Folds – a Musical Theatre Perspective (page 3)
Last year the Voice and Speech Teachers’ Association in America (VASTA) approached Gillyanne to be interviewed for their bi-annual Voice and Speech Review. The resulting interview with VSR’s Editor-in-Chief Rena Cook has just been published.
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GK: I have continued along that path with my own work of demystifying the process of vocal production. There is a lot more I could say here about how my approach as a teacher has evolved over the last ten years but it is probably not relevant to our discussion about breath and performance. Although Jo’s work didn’t address breathing; I discovered in practice I needed techniques to address breathing issues in many different situations.
I found myself returning to and developing techniques and knowledge I had gained previously.
For example, in order to access healthy “chest register” or “speech quality”, subglottic pressure must be adequate and sustainable. You have to address breathing in order for that to happen.
With some clients you need to focus more on allowing the breath to come into the body—using what has become known as “the elastic recoil” technique—and with some you need to focus more on how to “manage” the breath when sustaining pitch— “the diamond of support.” And then things change in different parts of the range, with different dynamics and also with different voice qualities that come from different “vocal setups.”
In other words, with breath use it is not a case of one size fits all. We need to approach breathing as a “free-variable” in the equation of a particular voice singing a particular phrase, with a particular set of phonemes, in a particular pitch range and using a particular voice quality. And whatever changes are made higher up in the vocal mechanism—and I mean here higher than the wind-pipe—are likely to directly affect or have a knock-on effect on the amount of air that is allowed through the vocal folds.
There are all kinds of potential pressure changes that can be exerted: by the vocal folds themselves, by supraglottic structures, by the tongue and by the articulators. Because in all types of singing there is a degree of sustaining pitch, which in turn implies sustained vocal fold vibration, these variables that I am talking about are often overlooked.
My experience as a teacher is that this challenge cannot be resolved by focusing on breath alone. So I almost never do breathing exercises that do not relate to either unvoiced or voiced sounds. I don’t feel that they inform us much about breath use as singers and speakers. To raise awareness of breathing patterns, yes, to relax physically and mentally, yes, but not as a preparation for phonation. For example, some of the yoga breathing exercises are used for relaxation and also to massage the internal organs and that is a different function of breath.
When it comes to “use of the voice” the way the breath leaves the body is going to change because of those variables I talked about a moment ago. That’s a very specific aspect of breath work that I think deserves further research. As a teacher my practical goal is to raise awareness of different breath patterns in individual students— so that they have a way of working that enables them to be flexible in their breath use, to “free-vary” with it if you like.
RC: Yes, yes. And, you know, it’s all very familiar to me, based on the work I’ve done with you. It’s interesting that really so few teachers other than teachers trained by you, or perhaps by Jo Estill, have that focus on the larynx’s primary control over breath pressure and variability, even over perhaps the abdominals. I mean, it’s a difference in the focus of the vocabulary and how you discuss breath.
GK: Yes, definitely.
RC: So, speaking of the abdominals, I’d like to ask you what are your thoughts about the relationship between the engagement of the transversus abdominis, of the obliques and the larynx, particularly in light of Fitzmaurice work that isolates the breath work right down to the transversus?