Dear Mike, Laura and Vocalisters:
A most interesting discussion has ensued under the title of "mike's
imagery" but which has essentially been about comparing sensations of
breath pressure while singing.
In my own teaching I have found it more effective to have the student
become aware of the basic mechanics of the breath mechanism, that is,
how it functions, and then extracting from the student his or her own
sensations when using the breath in an anatomically efficient manner.
The control of breath while singing is similar to the control of
breath we experience when we blow a gentle stream of warm, moist
breath on our glasses prior to wiping them clean. In this act we
automatically engage the balancing (antagonistic) muscles of the
breath mechanism (diaphragm, intercostals, etc) in a natural way and
I have never found a student who could not accomplish this within a
An awareness of the sensation of breath suspension that occurs during
the process of providing a gentle warm, moist breath is the same
sensation that a singer should have while phonating efficiently.
The amount of breath pressure needed to begin phonation is not large.
In normal speech we provide such phonation pressure without giving it
a thought. This is referred to as the "threshold pressure" for
phonation. The singer can easily experience and practice correct
threshold pressure through onset (beginning the tone) exercises that
are neither glottal nor breathy but somewhere in the middle ground
between these extremes. If the singer is unable to achieve a
balanced onset of tone, that singer has not met the first hurdle of
functionally efficient phonation. Only through the achievement of a
balanced onset is the singer or the teacher able to ascertain
accurately that phonation is healthy and efficient.
A correctly phonated singing tone has a natural balance of partials
that can be easily manipulated by the singer through adjustments in
the vocal tract. This approach of first developing an efficient
phonation followed by a studied adjustment of the vocal tract through
vowel formation is contradicted by the more common approach of
singers who choose to first make vocal tract adjustments to correct
for faulty phonation. I recently saw a Christmas show by Martha
Stewart on which Charlotte Church performed. Her singing was an
excellent example of the latter approach; she made numerous vocal
tract adjustments in an attempt to correct her faulty phonation but
the tone produced by the inefficient phonation could not be corrected
nor covered up.
Terms used to describe sensations are not useless but they are most
inaccurate because they describe the indescribable. Our sensations
can only be experienced and are not easily described or discussed.
No one seems satisfied with their telling of a dream. "You had to be
there" is a common rejoinder.
For this reason I usually avoid using such terms as mentioned in the
"mike's imagery" thread not because they are wrong but because I
prefer to attempt to find language that is more universal and,
perhaps, understandable. I even avoid terms that seem to describe
the process such as "singing on the breath" because they often give a
picture that is inaccurate or silly. But it is possible to encourage
students to create a process that is similar to their everyday use of
the body such as providing a warm, moist breath and build an
understanding of the singing breath from such an experienced
For what it is worth.
Lloyd W. Hanson, DMA
Professor of Voice and Vocal Pedagogy, Emeritus
Director of Opera-Theatre, 1987-1997
College of Fine Arts (formerly, School of Performing Arts)
Northern Arizona University