As a voice teacher, I see a number of the same mistakes being made time and time again by various singers who come to my studio. These issues crossover to all voice types and are often so small that they are not even caught by teachers and coaches. However, they do make a real impact on technique over time, so it is well-worth raising your awareness level to ensure that you are not making these errors
Breathing too often
It is very easy to start taking too many quick, unnecessary breaths when singing both vocalises and repertoire. This may seem like a harmless issue, but each new breath requires the singer to reset every single muscle involved in vocal technique – breath resistance, oro and pharyngeal space, laryngeal position, etc. Unnecessary breaths make extra work for the singer. It is much harder to reset for quick breaths than slower breaths at the ends of phrases, run the risk of unintentionally losing your hard-earned technique with this bad habit.
Breathing too often is indicative of the fact that a better, deeper and more relaxed breath needs to be taken at the beginning of the phrase. Isolate your breathing patterns to ensure that you have the best coordination possible and are utilizing the strong reflexes of the rib cage to help “breathe your body” for you. Once you have improved your breathing, slowly work the deeper, more relaxed breathing into singing your vocalises and repertoire, stopping and making certain to give yourself enough time to get an ideal breath at the beginning of every phrase. If you still feel the need to take extra breaths to make it through a normal-length phrase, you have support/breath management issues that you should address with an accomplished teacher.
Over-expanding in rib cage
Once singers get introduced to using the rib cage in breathing for singing, it can be tempting to begin over-expanding the rib cage and forget to release the abdominal wall simultaneously. There are two main problems with over-expansion in the rib cage. Firstly, it makes it very difficult to expand in the back when singing, an important part of breath resistance/support, because there is nowhere for the back to expand – it is already too close to its maximum expansion point. Secondly, it increases the tendency to lock in the rib cage, which keeps the air from flowing freely out of the lungs and has a detrimental effect on the resultant tone quality. The abdominal wall has its special role to play in breath resistance/support for the voice, so when it is left out of the equation completely, the tone suffers as a result.
The best type of breathing for singing is always balanced between releasing in the abdominal wall and expanding in the rib cage. One key for you to notice is that it should feel integrated, as if the parts are working in tandem together. If your rib cage and abdominal wall feel like they are working against each other, you should try to find expert help with your breathing.
Not getting rid of excess air before inhalation
The best coordination for breathing is predicated on having the lungs empty enough of air to trigger the breathing reflex, which expands the rib cage automatically. However, many singers use very little of the air in their lungs to sing and then have excess sitting there, taking up the space needed by fresh, oxygenated air. When the lungs sense that they need new, oxygenated air and are unable to bring enough in, a singer feels suffocated. This feeling indicates to the singer that s/he does not have enough air, when the very opposite is true.
It is important to get rid of excess air before taking in the next breath. This can be easily accomplished by doing the cough-off, a technique described by Enrico Caruso of using a quick, abdominal kick inward after a musical phrase is completed. The cough-off expels excess breath, helps stimulate the breathing reflex and prepares the way for a deeper inhalation. It is a tool that you can effectively utilize to ensure surplus, waste air is expelled efficiently.
Attacking the staccato
Another very common mistake that singers make – from beginners to advanced – is attacking the onset of staccato notes with glottal strokes. A staccato simply means that the note is short; nothing more, nothing less. No special onset is required. It is releasing the note rapidly after onset that creates the desired effect. However, the need to make the note short affects singers on a psychological level and often drives them to use unnecessary and unhelpful glottal strokes.
Awareness of this issue is the first step. Then, you must retrain yourself to perform a balanced onset of the vocal cords and release the note quickly afterwards. Singing the notes as part of a legato phrase first can help, as does working on the thin edge function of the cords.
Important – it can be tempting merely to add an “h” in front of staccato notes, in order to ensure that glottal strokes don’t occur, but that is the wrong way to solve the problem. Using an “h” consistently without guidance can lead singers to develop an aspirate onset, just as problematic in the long run as the use of glottal strokes. The ideal is the healthiest coordination of the breath and vocal cords together that is called the balanced onset.
Not energizing entire musical phrase
It is very easy for singers to forget to use enough energy on certain notes in a phrase, while energizing the rest of the notes. The under-energized notes are often pick-ups at the beginning or the final notes at the end. It is also common to under-energize lower pitches, even in the middle of a phrase. These notes are easy for a trained ear to identify, because they don’t have the openness and vibrancy to match the other pitches. Sometimes, the notes even have a different vibrato, coloration or dynamic level. But it can be very challenging for a singer to identify under-energized pitches without assistance.
Working with a knowledgeable teacher or coach can help you identify specifically where you are lacking in energy and allow you to rectify the problem. Once you are more aware of where you are likely to under-energize, it will be easier to work through other repertoire and locate problem spots. Then, it takes concentration to rework your support in a more consistent manner.
In general, it is important to understand that, for the very best singing, support has to be consistent throughout the musical phrase. That means it has to be present from the moment prior to initiating the tone (after inhalation is completed) until the moment after phonation ceases. Picking it up part-way through or supporting only for the high notes will never suffice. That is why it is important that you, the singer, always be aware of your support system and constantly perfect it.
Not keeping support flexible
Yet another error many singers make is to overdo the support. This often happens to those singers who took longer to become active in their support systems and, quite specifically, in men. Once they discover approximately what the muscles are supposed to do, they work too hard, holding the respiratory muscles in place, which locks the outflow of the breath. Since the whole point behind support is to control the continuous, energized outflow of breath to sustain a longe phrase, this over-muscling is counter-productive. Tone emitted using a locked support system can never be as beautiful as it should be and will, in fact, shut down the pharynx and have other detrimental effects on the technique.
You should always try to work in gradations when addressing your support system, making sure to keep everything supple and moving all the time. An organic, balanced coordination of all the elements is the goal. Support needs to be flexible, so that it can subtly change and adapt to the needs to each individual musical phrase. It is an excellent idea to do your best to master reflexive breathing discussed in previous articles. This can then serve as a guide for the best coordination for inhalation, which makes it easier to access the best coordination for singing itself.
By keeping an eye out for these issues when practicing, you will ensure that you do not fall into the common mistakes that trap many an unwary singer!
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