Interview Breath And The Vocal Folds 4

Breath and the Vocal Folds – a Musical Theatre Perspective (page 4)

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.

…continued from page 3

GK: Hm. Well, first I should say that I have not experienced Catherine’s work directly, only read about it and heard her speak about it.

RC: Right.

GK: What she has written about the mechanical aspect makes sense to me. It seems that her aim is to work the abdominal muscles to exert an expiratory force on the diaphragm—which we know to be passive in expiration—and that has similarities to my own approach in the “diamond of support” that I learned from Janice Chapman.

RC: Right.

GK: And I noted that Fitzmaurice writes about being able to “increase the circumference of the diaphragm during inspiration” by using some of the lower ribs in conjunction with dropping the diaphragm. She also uses the term “structured inspiration/expiration” to clarify the difference between breathing for intention as opposed to the passive action of the diaphragm. I like this because the diaphragm can be under both conscious and non-conscious control, which is important to understand in vocal training.

I think the only area where I might take issue with what Fitzmaurice has written about her work is the implication that we need to engage the transverses abdominis immediately on exhalation because I am not sure that this is necessary. Sometimes, when working with inexperienced clients who simply do not have sufficient subglottic pressure, it is helpful to “pull in and up” right away, but, since the diaphragm is going to relax automatically to effect exhalation, it should not be necessary to engage muscles until the sense of “breath pressure” underneath the vocal folds needs a boost. I teach that the obliques can also be used at this point as well. It’s all a question of balance.

For speaking and singing, the breath use needs to be very flexible and I feel it is important not to give the message that muscles must be switched on all the time. Related to these observations I do have some comments about the Pilates concept of “core stability” which is currently much in vogue. I have noticed a trend, especially when working with dancers, of keeping the “core muscles” engaged the whole time, even during inspiration. Keeping the transverse abdominis engaged during inspiration is likely to inhibit movement of the diaphragm because some of its muscle fibres interdigitate with the transversus abdominis.

RC: So you must release it—on inspiration?

GK: Yes, that’s right.

RC: I also had a question about images that you feel in your teaching are helpful or appropriate to influence the relationship between abdominal wall and the larynx. Do you speak strictly in terms of anatomy and muscular control?

GK: (laughs) No, I don’t. I absolutely don’t! The art of good teaching is being able to convey the message to the students by whatever means are appropriate and available. So, it works for me that a student tells me, for instance, when accessing a nice, strong, “chest voice” or “speech quality” that the sensation is like bouncing on a well-sprung mattress because she can feel how that sensation “supports” her voice. And then if she tells me that, in contrast, a more breathy vocal quality feels like a soft feather bed which she sinks into, then we will use these kinaesthetic cues in her learning process.

I always think that it’s important to go with what the client feels and to work from there, rather than to say—“no, that’s not correct, the physiology doesn’t work like that” or to say “you shouldn’t be feeling that.” That would not be helpful at all.

RC: Absolutely.

GK: In some ways, the most challenging clients are those who truly do not yet feel anything, because their awareness is unawakened. Then you have to work hard to find a way for them to visualize, feel, or listen to their bodies and develop a language from those sensations. I make notes on the language used by individual clients to describe what they are doing with their voices so that I can refer to these in lessons.

RC: Is there anything else you are burning to say about this issue?

GK: No, except to say that I don’t think I would have arrived at this point unless I had been teaching musical theatre singers, because musical theatre is a bit like an amorphous cloud that absorbs lots of other genres…which means the singers are called upon to sing in a lot of different styles. As a teacher you need to work out what to do if someone has a very fixed “default” vocal production and how that impacts on their breath use.

For example: a belter who is used to creating a lot of subglottic pressure and singing with a loud sound, will find it difficult to access more lyrical “legit” vocal styles unless they can allow more breath “flow” in their voice.

Or, on the other hand, a good ‘legit’ singer, coming from a more classical tradition, is more likely to focus on vocal line and beautiful tone. He or she will feel as though they are not using their breath when singing in more contemporary vocal styles that involve speech quality, twang, or belting. They would both have to change their breathing techniques to assist the changes they now want to make with their voice.

RC: Yes, I see.


I want to express my sincere thanks to Gillyanne for taking the time to share her thoughts on breath, a subject of which we in the voice field never seem to tire.

The latest edition of the Voice and Speech Review is now available from the VASTA website or from the Vocal Process MusicalStore.

Rena Cook has coauthored a book with Jane Boston entitled "Breath in Action: The Art of Breath in Vocal and Holistic Practice". The book launches in the UK on November 3, and contains articles on Breath and the Mind, Breath and the Body, Breath and Holistic Practice, and Breath and Performance. With a Foreword by Cicely Berry.