Sunday, June 7, 2009

Think. Breathe. Suspend. Sing. Release.

How learning to sing can teach us how to live

        Think. Breathe. Suspend. Sing. Release. 

    Those are the five essential steps in singing. Sounds simple enough, and yet, after 20 years of voice lessons and over 10 years of singing opera professionally, I am far from being perfect. With each practice session, I have worked towards perfecting these five steps, so that I may produce my sound more beautifully and efficiently. In the process I have begun to realize that these five steps can be applied in many facets of life.
    Whether you’re standing on the stage singing high C’s, or sailing the high seas on a fishing boat, whether you’re going for your black belt in karate or belting out a show tune on Broadway, mastering these five steps can make the song and dance of anybody’s life more melodious. 


    Even before you begin to sing, even before you take that first breath to enable you to sing, you have to think. Am I singing an A vowel, or an E? An O or an U? Or how about an I? Each one of these vowels requires a different position in the mouth. What is the mood of the phrase I am about to sing? It could be joyous or triumphant, disastrous or tragic.

    Maybe you’re going to confront your boss today about that raise you’ve been asking for. If it’s raining, you consider taking an umbrella with you. Prepare yourself mentally and physically for the task at hand.


    To sing a musical phrase, I need to ascertain just how much breath is required to sufficiently sustain the voice throughout. Too many breaths can be just as detrimental as too few. So, I portray my emotion, form my mouth in the shape of the vowel, progressively contract my internal intercostal muscles in combination with my oblique abdominal muscles -- I mean, breathe -- and start the process of singing.

    Breathing is something we do subconsciously. To be aware of the breath, however, is to live in the moment. Managing the breath gives you more control over the present situation -- before diving into a pool, calming ourselves down when we’re nervous or upset. A simple breath works wonders.


    When I inhale, my vocal cords move apart (abduct), and when I begin to sing, they come together (adduct), and that precious moment between those two junctures is called suspension. It’s when the muscles work together in opposing directions to set the vibratory cycle in motion. Dynamic equilibrium. It sets everything up for success. 

    Without suspension -- well, let’s just say a slack tightrope is every funambulist’s nightmare. It’s the suspenseful (pun intended) moment when the acrobat takes her first step on the highwire with her frilly umbrella in one hand and concentration in the other. It’s the exact point in which gravity takes over, forcing the ball you just threw straight up in the air to come back down again. It’s the instant in which you activate your leg muscles in order to parachute out of a plane. It’s the moment of turning the door knob (after you’ve taken a deep breath, of course) to walk in your house and tell your spouse that you didn’t get the raise. The point of no return.


    This is it. This is the moment you’ve spent an entire nanosecond preparing for. Noise is emanating from your body. You are phonating. You are singing. You are alive. You’re flying in the air, you’re under the big top above a cheering circus audience. You’re having that conversation.

    Sustainment of tone is life itself. It’s how and what you do with it that counts. Think of the hamster running in his wheel. If he stops, even for a split second, he loses his momentum and it’s all over. All that preparation for naught. So sit back, enjoy the sound of your voice, and don’t stop until you...


    No matter whether I taper off a phrase gingerly or finish with a smashingly loud consonant, swoon for a smelly tenor or skip offstage with the ballet, there’s only one thing I must do to release a tone: breathe. Sound familiar? You got it. With a fleeting moment to think about the next phrase, the whole process starts all over again. 

   Releasing a tone is a wonderful opportunity to recover from all that has gone before. Each successive breath offers a new chance to improve, or even to fail. Louder, faster, softer, slower. Think. Breathe. Suspend. Sing. Release. This microcosmic phenomenon of five steps containing practically everything anyone really needs to know, occurs hundreds of times within any one opera before the conductor puts down his baton, and millions and millions of times within any one lifetime before joining the choir invisible. Hopefully. 

    Think. Breathe. Suspend. Sing. Release. Think. Breathe. Suspend. Sing. Release. Think. Breathe. Suspend. Sing. Release....

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