Valerie Nicolosi Niemerg
Lecture 7 - It Ain't Pretty
Updated: Oct 2, 2022
It wasn’t until I’d been at Eastman four years that I figured out something was wrong. I was having some test lessons with a new private teacher, and although I’d come far, singing was always a bit of a fight.
“Why can’t you get through that phrase?” Maloy asked me when we first got started together. “It’s not that long.”
“I never have enough air. I’m always running out.”
“Show me how you breathe,” he said. When I did, he looked at my abdomen with a twisted countenance and slowly rose from his chair. “Do it again.” Confusion covering his features, he approached me. “I’m going to put my hand on you,” he said and rested his palm on my abdomen, a necessary awkwardness if you’re going to learn to breathe as a singer. “What are you doing there?” he said frustrated, after I tried again several times. “It should be expanding and I’m not feeling it come out at all.”
“Wait. What should be expanding?”
“Your gut! It’s not coming out at all.”
“Well of course not!” I said, horrified. “I’m sucking it in!”
Ah...Sucking it in...
You see, I have this aunt. Somewhere in the annals of every one of our stories, I suspect there is an “aunt.” Mine was a very good person, took me in, really adopted me, even helped pay for Eastman. But no one is perfect, and her thing was skinny. The whole world could be falling apart but it was all okay as long as you were skinny. My entire life she had tried to infuse me with a decent sense of self-respect by encouraging me not to grow fat, overeat, and most of all, to always maintain a “gutless” appearance by living my life in a perpetual state of “sucking.”
“Valerie, suck that gut in! Do you want people to see you have a belly?”
A protruding belly was the anathema of beauty (she worked in the fashion industry), and in her family, a mortal sin. I avoided allowing my gut to relax in public as much as I avoided foul language or immodest clothing. I mean, I really had it in my head that it was “wrong” to not constantly be tightening your abs and pulling your stomach back towards your spine.
Funny thing about singing. Whatever weirdness you have in your own personal story. It’s coming out. There’s no place to hide in singing. Problems you don’t even know you have, will gradually reveal themselves and be assigned immediate confrontation in order to get your fifty bucks worth.
Everybody’s got a gut-suck problem. Oh, you may not have my bizarre delusion about constantly holding in your belly, but you’ve got something. I guarantee it. Whatever baggage you’re carrying around, your voice teacher is going to find it and attack it like a parent picking out a splinter with a needle.
Once I had a student with a gorgeous voice that never got beyond her nose because she simply would not open her mouth. After a year or so of trying to drop her jaw, she admitted that she had to wear orthodontics for over four years as a teenager, and the elastics held her mouth shut.
Another student was always curling her lower lip over her bottom teeth. Again, for years I worked to make her aware of this habit until one day she told me that she was born with terrible deformed teeth which they couldn’t get fixed until she was older. So, she learned to constantly wrap her lower lip over to hide them.
One female student simply could not access her head voice, despite the myriad of silly sounds I was forcing her to make every week. Finally, she admitted that her husband had a hearing deficiency inhibiting his ability to discern higher frequencies. He couldn’t understand her when she spoke in a higher pitch, so for years she purposely spoke with a low a voice.
Doesn’t this sound a bit familiar? How many times have I sat outside Confession getting ready, memorizing my list of grievances but in reality, unaware of my biggest problems? I make that list of sins, but more deeply, I go to Confession understanding that His Mercy will find and forgive all those other sins that I don’t even know about. Being a Catholic is a lifestyle designed like voice lessons. It will eventually reveal the truth: the reality of our souls and our utter dependance on God’s mercy. Then our instructor, Christ, will confront our dark little problems and refuse to accept them no matter how many times we falter.
“You’re sucking your gut in?” Maloy asked me. “What in heck are you doing that for?”
“To look thin.” I said, as though that were the most obvious thing in the whole world. I might just as well have added a “Duh.”
“Well, you have to pick,” he said after some eye rolling and forehead rubbing. “You can either look thin or sing. But you can’t do both.”
It’s ain’t pretty.
Let me explain. The idea is to get the air into your lungs LOW. Lower than you usually need it. So as a good little singer, you want to learn to contract the diaphragm and the lower intercostals without really expanding the upper half of your torso very much.
You know all those breathing muscles I talked about in the last post? Well, here’s another anatomy question:
How many ways can a muscle (any muscle) contract?
3) What does contract mean?
One. Almost every physical action in your body has two muscles. One to get you there, and another to get you back. Do a bicep curl. You use one muscle to extend the arm and a second muscle to lift it back.
However, in breathing, you’ve only got one. The intercostals, that is, the muscles on your ribs contract and make the lungs expand, creating a vacuum etc. etc. Right, we covered all that last week. But there is NOT a second set of muscles to help you power that air out.
Power the air out?
Breathing for singing must be different from breathing while sitting at your computer. You need more air to sustain the longer phrases, and you need to send the air out faster to set the vocal folds vibrating. How can you send the air out faster, if the only muscles you have for breathing are designed to take air in?
The answer? When God wants you to sing, he wants all of you. Not just the lungs, not just the throat. St. Augustine said singing was praying twice, and I can tell you why. Because singing involves all of you. Not just your mouth. We’re going to use parts not just reserved for usual communication or the daily in and out of air.
To sing, you’re going to engage your abdominal muscles to power that air out. The abs can do it. You don’t usually use your abs to breathe, but you must use your abs for singing. However, your abs can only help if the air ends up in the lower quadrant of your lungs.
This is why the word “diaphragm” gets thrown around a lot by amateur singers. But you don’t sing with your diaphragm. You breathe in with you diaphragm. You inhale with your diaphragm. A muscle can only do one thing, remember? If you try to sing with just your diaphragm, you’ll feel like a balloon that someone filled up and then sent flying around the room.
Breathe in with your diaphragm but sing with your abs. Lower baby. Lower.
Location, location, location.
For this reason, when you inhale to sing you should feel your gut extend away from your body. It ain’t pretty, understand? Get over it. Believe me, if I can get over it, you can. Basically, I am telling you to stick your gut out when you inhale.
Wait, stick my gut out? ON STAGE?? In my pretty dress??? I’m already not the skinniest girl at the school and now you’re telling me to look fat on purpose?
A cut to my vanity?
Letting go of old, unhealthy ideas and habits?
Building my voice based on faith and trust?
That’ll be another fifty dollars, please.