The majority of singers that come to me have learned some way to support their voice from previous teachers. But almost all of them exclusively use abdominal support to do the critically important job of controlling the outflow of air from the lungs through the tiny, fragile vocal cords. These singers were not taking advantage of utilizing the other two areas of the body and that form the triumvirate of vocal support.
It has long been known that the number three is special. J. S. Bach and many other composers have used it heavily when composing music, many world religions have three deities or one deity divided into three parts and the human body itself has the number three occurring with great regularity in its physical organization (see here). Three is the minimum number of legs needed to support any sort of workable stool, table, etc. Therefore, it is not surprising that the ideal breath management system for singing (or vocal support) is composed of three areas of the body – the abdominal wall, the back and the sternum.
There are important advantages to having three areas involved in breath management. Distributing the required work helps prevent muscle fatigue and gives the singer more vocal stamina. The amount of work can be finely adjusted between the three, allowing for finer levels of vocal control. And having three points of support creates a triangle, each point reinforcing and balancing the other.
Two important areas of support that most singers are unaware of are the back and the sternum. The back I am referring to here is not the entire back, but a specific pair of muscles called the serratus posterior inferior. This pair is located in a layer of muscles called the intermediate muscles of the back. The intermediate muscles lie underneath the superficial layer of large back muscles that you can feel underneath your skin. The serratus posterior inferior muscles begin at the spine towards the bottom of the rib cage and continue down into the lower back over about four vertebrae. Largely rectangular in shape, they expand upwards and outwards away from the spine (in a northwesterly direction on the left-hand side and northeasterly direction on the right-hand side) to insert into the bottom few ribs themselves at the outside edge of the back.
The serratus posterior inferior are specifically designed to lower the ribs during expiration. That means it is relaxing and lengthening on inspiration to allow the ribs to expand upwards and outwards and working and shortening on expiration to bring the ribs back down. By taking advantage of the unique function of this pair of muscles, singers can slow the rate the ribs are lowered during singing and be able to control another aspect of the breathing mechanism and thereby, the breath management system.
To do so, singers need to be able to relax and expand in the lower rib cage upon inhalation, but not expand too much. Overexpansion makes it more difficult to engage the serratus posterior inferior muscles on exhalation when singing – an easy expansion is all that is required. As the lungs make their elegant transition from inhalation to exhalation, singers should take advantage of the innate function of the serratus posterior inferior muscles by consciously engaging them and expanding them directly outwards, slowing and controlling the rate at which the rib cage is lowered and the rate at which the breath exits the lungs.
Getting in touch with the serratus posterior inferior muscles can be a challenge for many singers, especially men. They can seem very remote and inaccessible at first, but be patient with yourself. These are muscles that no one normally tries to control on a daily basis, so learning to control them is a process.
Visualizing the location of these muscles is the first step. Next, put your arms behind your back with the backs of your hands on their approximate location. (You can find the bottom of your rib cage by poking around in the abdominal region and sides and then follow it around.) Finally, simply gently ask those muscles to work and expand outward when exhaling. It will feel like active work, but it shouldn’t feel terribly difficult. You don’t want to completely suspend the movement of the rib cage, just slow it down! Keep focusing on outward expansion and you will at some point begin to feel the muscles respond to your requests.
After you have experienced this specific activation of the serratus posterior inferior muscles, it is time to work on refining the coordination. Making sure that the muscle pair is relaxed when inhaling, keep gently encouraging the muscles to expand outwards consistently during the entire exhalation with the stretchy feeling of trying to pull on a very thick, new rubber band. When taking the next breath, completely release the muscles (though it can help to think that the muscles are releasing back inwards towards the spine, they are actually releasing upwards and outwards with the movement of the ribs) and then start engaging and expanding over again on the next exhalation.
With practice and persistence, singers are able to experience the engaged, consistent, outward expansion of this pair of muscles and apply it as part of their breath management system for singing. This allows for many amazing vocal benefits other than superior breath resistance. It is definitely worth the work required to attain this additional part of the triumvirate of vocal support.
P.S. In case you were unconvinced of the importance of the number three, I actually used it as an organizational concept in this very article. The majority of the paragraphs consist of exactly three sentences and several ideas I put forth I supported with three arguments. Use of three in this way gives a sense of balance and order to which our minds instinctively respond, perhaps because our own bodies themselves are organized around the same numerical concept.
The third crucial part of the triumvirate is the sternum. Like the back muscles, it is also significantly less utilized and rarely taught as an important part of support. When it is addressed, singers are merely told to raise their sternum, which leads them to lift the sternum in an upward direction (towards the ceiling). This elongates the front of the torso, creating a stretch in the muscles of the entire abdominal wall and adding unnecessary tension exactly where there needs to be relaxation for a low inhalation when singing.
So, what has to happen with the sternum instead and why is the sternum important when it isn’t even a muscle like the other parts of the triumvirate? Those are excellent questions that I will address here. True, the sternum is not a muscle. It is the long bone attaching to the top seven pairs of ribs in the middle of the front of the body via cartilage and also articulates with the collarbones (clavicles). The sternum itself is not one bone, but two bones fused together with a very small portion of cartilage at the bottom. So when we singers refer to the sternum, we are not referring to the entire sternum, but instead to the very top, triangular portion of it called the manubrium (which means handle in Latin).
The manubrium, and indeed the entire sternum, are attached to various different muscles. The important muscles for our purposes are the pair of pectoralis major muscles (pectorals) that lie across the entire breast area in the layer of muscles just above and on either side of the sternum, inserting into both the sides and top of almost the entire sternum. Only the very top portion of the manubrium where it articulates with the collarbones and the very bottom part of cartilage at the very bottom do not attach with the pectoralis major muscles on both sides. That gives the sternum the ability to affect the pectoralis major muscles quite easily, which is extremely helpful for singing.
When thinking that the manubrium is very slightly moving either directly forward (straight ahead) or directly backwards (behind) when singing, the entire sternum moves ever so slightly and the pair of pectoralis major muscles gets activated as a result, giving a great deal of added stability to the front of the upper torso. Famous singers like Kirsten Flagstad have described this as feeling as if they had a breastplate on when singing and could literally lean into it.
Getting the manubrium to activate the pectoralis majors in this important way is not difficult. However, it does take a little patience for singers to achieve. The movement is quite subtle, but it is movement, consistent and energetic. The choice of direction of this delicate movement is up to the singer. Some people can only feel the activation when thinking the manubrium is moving slightly forward, others can only feel it when thinking it is moving backwards and some are successful thinking in either direction. Experiment to find out what works best for you and then stick with it. Make sure to keep the movement subtle. You want to feel activation only in the upper chest area, not in the abdominal wall itself.
The advantages to using the manubrium in this way to activate the pectorals becomes clearer when looking at the triumvirate as a whole. For breath resistance, the abdominal wall tightens and gradually comes in, helping control the rate of the rise of the diaphragm. The back muscles widen and expand gradually outwards to help control the rate at which the expanded rib cage lowers. Thus far, everything is moving and nothing is stable, even though the abdominal wall and back are on different sides of the body and each can use the energy occurring in the other area to resist against.
When you add the final piece of the puzzle, the sternum activating the pectorals, the whole picture changes. Suddenly, there is a stable part against which both of the other areas can resist. The two parts turn into three and the shape becomes a triangle, an extremely strong, basic geometric shape, which encompasses a majority of the torso, including both the front and back of the body. This balances the breath management system amazingly by sharing the work to be done over a much wider area.
There is a special relationship between the serratus posterior inferior muscles of the back and the pectorals. The activation of the pectorals via the manubrium helps the serratus posterior inferior muscles stretch outward more actively and the stretching serratus posterior inferior muscles help the pectoralis major muscles activate. Each consistently reinforces the other, offering a sense of stability and giving the singer a range of energetic options for low, middle and high notes.
Both the serratus posterior inferior and the pectoralis major muscles benefit the work of the abdominal wall by creating a stronger platform against which to resist. After all, it is much easier to control a gradual, inward pull when there is something to pull against. It is almost as if the more static serratus posterior inferior and the pectoralis major muscles create between their two points a stable, angled wall through the plane of the body (because the serratus posterior inferior muscles are stretching, but with a smaller, overall excursion than the abdominals) and the abdominals therefore have a much larger, sturdier area against which to pull.
The beauty of this triumvirate triangle is that the stability is located at the top of the torso, where there is significantly less motion required and the movement control is located at the bottom, where the rib cage has the ability to expand and the real work of breath resistance is done. Because there are more muscles working, the work can be distributed much more evenly and accurately. Each set of muscles can be trained to do exactly what it needs to do without performing double duty and infringing on the work of the other muscles. Singers end up feeling as if they are doing less work as a result. In reality, they are exerting the same amount of effort, but the work is being shared. A system of this type is much more efficient and can be maintained over an entire opera performance or a very long rehearsal.
Using the triumvirate of vocal support versus only abdominal support offers numerous advantages to singers. The stability of the shared work of the triumvirate is a more complete system of vocal support or breath resistance, which drastically improves sound quality. It is the ideal toward which all singers should strive and is achievable with correct instruction and practice.