Breathing, an Analogy by Dr. Scott McCoy

Some of the most recurring comments I hear from students in their first lesson with me go something like, “I need to fix my breath, “I’m trying to figure out my breathing, “I need more support and more breath,” and my favorite, “My last teacher worked with me on my breath primarily and I just need more of that.”

My favorite analogy about breathing comes from Dr. Scott McCoy, professor of voice and pedagogy at the Ohio State University.

“I think it is reasonable to say that singers and singing teachers often fixate on breathing. This occurs in response to the fact that breath is the power source of our instrument, just as it is for a trumpet, flute, or clarinet. And as with other instruments, additional parts are involved in the creation of musical sounds. Along with our power source, we have a vibrator (vocal folds), a resonator (vocal tract), and a means of articulation…

These four elements-power source, vibrator, resonator, and articulator-must work in synchronicity, mutually reinforcing each other to produce our best sound. How is it, then, that problems with the vibrator or resonator can be corrected by altering the power source? Let’s pause for an analogy…”

He compares singing to driving a car. Breath is the gas that fills the tank, and subsequently fuels the car. In this analogy, the engine is the phonation system, and the steering wheel is our articulators (mouth and tongue). With this in place, saying

“One who knows how to breathe, knows how to sing,”

is like saying,

“He who knows how to fill up the fuel tank knows how to drive the car.”

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Can’t accelerate? Better check the fuel tank! Is the steering wheel pulling a hard right? You probably filled up the fuel tank wrong. Can’t get past second gear? You obviously need different fuel!

Silly right? Keep this in mind when you’re struggling with some vocal issue, like nasality, getting though your bridges, staying on pitch, or discomfort in high notes. Consider that one of the other singing systems (phonation or resonation) is perhaps out of whack. All three systems, respiration included, need to be in balance to achieve excellent, comfortable singing.

What to Expect in a Voice Lesson

What do you even DO in a voice lesson?

In my studio, I like to spend the first lesson getting to know you. What’s your singing background? What goals do you have as a vocalist? Have you had lessons before?

Next, I like to see how your voice is functioning, right at this moment. I’ll take you through a simple 5-tone exercise on “AH,” just so I can hear what’s going on. Afterwards, I’ll let you know what I’m hearing in the functionality in your voice and give you exercises specific to your needs.

Lastly, let’s get to some music! We’ll start to apply the techniques we’re learning to song.

Your voice lessons is just that, YOURS. Lessons with me are personally tailored to your needs.

 

Making Progress

We sometimes think of making progress as a slow and steady climb. If we’re working hard consistently, then surely we should be reaping rewards on a similarly consistent basis.

I’ve found that’s not usually how progress works. A few weeks ago one of my most regular clients was in for her weekly lesson. We’d been plugging away at this one particular song for weeks, making subtle improvements each time, but to her frustration, she still couldn’t sing it quite how she wished to. But in this lesson, after weeks of practicing, she had a breakthrough. Something ‘clicked.’ The muscle memory had finally developed, a newfound strength was discovered, and she sang the crap out of this song. It was amazing! It was magical!

Why does it sometimes take weeks and weeks or months and months of doing the same good things to reap the desired result? More often than not, progress is achieved in minor breakthroughs after longer periods of plateaus. This is why it’s so crucial to not give up in that interim doldrums space of practicing with no visible progress. A swimmer may work for a year to increase their time in the 100M freestyle by only second. Why would we as vocalists expect to achieve vocal progress without putting in the necessary time?

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If you’re studying with a good teacher, in your very first lesson with them you may see incredible results. It may feel like more progress or insight than you have ever had before. However, the following lessons may not feel like the same exhilarating high you had in that first lesson. In fact, it may feel a lot more like work.

Some singers are surprised to hear that singing takes work! It actually is work! Training muscle fibers, brain synapses, and channeling emotional energy to create a beautiful and consistent sound is just as much work as training for the 100 meter freestyle. Once a singer agrees to this process, the process of work, time, effort, and dedication, studying voice becomes much more enjoyable. This is when we realize that good singing is a journey of mastery. There is no finish line.

If this topic interests you, I highly recommend reading George Leonard’s book, Mastery, which completely changed the way I think about learning and progress in every area of my life.