For centuries, breath work has been one of the defining hallmarks of voice training. However, today’s musical theatre performers are frequently faced with some very unique breathing demands that other types of singers simply are not. Should these unique demands affect the type of breath training they receive in the voice studio? Maybe– maybe not. It depends on who you ask. Below, I have compiled a list of four things that I believe musical theatre singer-actors should know about breathing in the context of their singing. Of course, there are many other considerations not addressed here, but I hope this post provides some helpful insights on the subject to performers and teachers.
1. A traditional, diaphragmatic breathing method can help singers achieve a low larynx. In order to demonstrate this, place your thumb and index finger on either side of your upper neck. Now, take a deep, low breath. Do you feel the position of your larynx drop somewhat? For classical singing and legit musical theatre singing, a somewhat low laryngeal position can be beneficial to help achieve a warm, rich vocal tone quality (though the larynx should never be forcibly held down). However, multiple studies have shown that belting actually requires a higher, speech-level laryngeal position. Does this mean musical theatre belters shouldn’t take low breaths? Not necessarily, but they should be cognizant of how their breathing habits affect the position of their larynx. For example, if you find it difficult to belt out a particular note in a song after taking a low breath, try breathing a bit higher into your lower rib cage instead (aka thoracic breathing). You don’t have to make this adjustment all the time in your singing– and perhaps you shouldn’t– but it may help in specific instances.
2. True belting restricts airflow. This can be a tough concept for singers to wrap their minds around. After all, doesn’t belting require a great deal of air and ‘support’? The situation is a bit more complicated than that. Performers need to remember that the vocal folds control airflow (not the other way around). When belting, the folds become thick and short and stay pressed together for long periods of time. This means that a relatively small amount of air is able to escape through the space between the folds (aka the glottis). Do you see the dilemma? Singers are often told to utilize a great deal of air support when belting, but that approach can actually backfire by causing a tremendous amount of sub-glottic pressure (aka built-up air pressure below the vocal folds). Unfortunately, more air is not always the answer to our singing problems, and here is a good example. This may also explain why musical theatre belters don’t always experience the same sensation of ‘singing on the breath’ that many classical singers do.
3. Breathing requirements for dancing and singing aren’t always in sync. In many cases, dancers are trained to pull in their abdominal muscles in order to create a strong ‘core’ for movement. This may seem counterproductive to singers who have been taught to take low, expansive diaphramatic breaths at all times. The solution here is not always simple, and compromise is often necessary. When dancing and singing at the same time, performers may need to implement a higher breathing method than they would normally utilize. This does NOT mean you should start taking high, shallow breaths into your upper chest (aka clavicular breathing). That breathing method is extremely inefficient. Instead, try breathing into your lower rib cage (aka thoracic breathing, as mentioned above). Many performers find this method to be efficient enough when dancing and singing. Again, though, every person and situation is different– which leads me to…
4. Different body types may utilize different breathing methods efficiently. There was an interesting study published in Journal of Singing a few years ago where the author examined the relationship between body types and breathing methods for singing. Without getting into too much detail, she found that singers with different body types do indeed implement various breathing methods successfully. What does that mean for us? Well, for one thing, it means that a traditional, low breathing method is not necessarily the most efficient method for every single performer. We must remember that every person’s body is different, and every vocal style has different breathing requirements. Therefore, a one-size-fits-all approach to breathing training may not be the most beneficial approach. My advice: figure out what works best for you, and don’t be afraid to experiment with different breathing methods if/when the situation requires it.