Get Under It
“This is ridiculous. I’m just moving my gut in and out.”
I thought this many times as an aspiring singer.
Patience, young Jedi.
I’ve always wondered whether I would have had a bigger stage career if I had believed what my high school teacher told me about breathing. But it just didn’t make sense to me. My belly, my gut was SO FAR away from my voice. I felt zero connection between the two, as though they were two vastly different continents separated by a great ocean. How could something so totally disconnected from my voice have any effect on my singing?
Any spiritual journey begins with faith in God the Father, the Creator who lovingly molded the universe. But we have no sensory contact with this entity. God the Father feels far away. He feels like he’s so big and grand and perfect and omni-whatever, that how can He possibly nod in my direction for my stupid nightly prayers? But we don’t pray because we get some sensory feedback on our efforts. We pray because we believe. We pray because we have faith.
So far, all I have talked about in this “God the Father” element of singing (low breath) is the inhalation. But there’s a whole other side on this highway. There’s the part of breathing when you actually make sound. That is, the exhalation. To exhale while singing, you have two choices. You can just release the air to flop around the room like a limpid balloon, or you can find what we in the singing community like to call “support.”
Put your hand on your belly with your thumb on your belly button. Unless you have an inordinately long abdomen, your palm should be resting over the part of your body where you want to feel your support.
Low, remember? Lower than you think possible.
And yes, I mean FEEL. This whole singing thing is about feeling. To make your most beautiful sound, you have to feel the production of your voice, not hear it. I often tell my students to try to engage a muscle between their hip bones. I’m not exaggerating. THAT LOW. If you’re feeling your support just under your ribs, you’re trying to support with your diaphragm and you’re too high. You must will a muscle to contract below (not behind) your belly button right before you begin singing, every time you breathe.
For a while, you might feel like it is all very ridiculous, and you are just moving your gut in and out. But the human brain is no idiot. It will, in time, put the two together. If you continue to activate the lower abs, eventually your voice will connect to that support and one day you won’t be content singing without it.
Now, everyone experiences this low abdominal support in a unique sensory manner. Some say it feels like the muscle is more spread out and reaches up to their belly button. Some tell me it feels deep inside, as though in the middle of their body. Some tell me it’s further in the back and close to the rump. I’ve heard a variety of descriptions from my students over the years including everything from catching a baseball, to lifting a piano, to giving birth. To me, it feels like a pull. It feels like my lower abdominal muscle is pulling at the tone. I can't describe how you will feel it, but when it's right, it’s like magic. It’s like someone freed a beautiful animal to roam about the studio in colorful resonant tones. When you get it right, it should feel easy, yet powerful.
Now, young students who try to force this connection to happen quickly, will often conjure depths of tension in totally unrelated body parts. This effort to “support” your sound does not give you permission to launch into a battle of tension. In singing, tension is like sin. It’s our little way of coping with the problem and it spreads through our lives polluting everything, but solving nothing and only making things worse. You’re allowed to contract a muscle. ONE. In one very precise and distinct part of your body. The more relaxed the rest of your body is, the more beautiful your sound will be. Get under it. Not all over and around it. Under it.
You can see how St. Augustine was right, of course. The physical act of singing is a mirror of prayer that employs not just the mind and the heart, but the created body. First, we have faith that if we make the space bigger inside us, the air (Grace) will flow in. Then we dig to the deepest most intimate parts of ourselves to pray. Deep, not just surface. We have faith that the very low, previously subconscious muscle that feels totally disconnected from our voices, will in fact come through and power the sound out bigger, better and freer than we could have imagined before.
I love the moment when a student hears their real voice for the first time. Unknowingly, their face will light up with a surreal recognition. As C.S Lewis said in Screwtape: (I paraphrase) ‘Oh yes, of course. This is how it always was. This is how it’s supposed to be.’ I always wish I could hold onto that moment for them forever. To keep reminding them of the “this is how it’s supposed to be” feeling. “This is singing.”
But the other guy, who my friend Barb calls crazy-legs, is always right on the singer’s heels. Huh. I wonder why... And the student's luminous expression usually fades quickly into, “Are you sure I’m not shouting? It’s so loud!”
“Does it feel like you’re shouting?”
“Well, no. But it’s so loud.”
“It doesn’t sound loud. It sounds like you mean it.”
And get under it.