Nobody “Nose” The Trouble I’ve Seen

Nobody “Nose” The Trouble I’ve Seen

Are your breathing habits making it harder for you to sing?

taken from www.tips.life

                                                                                                                     taken from www.tips.life


          No matter what kind of singing you do, you know how important exhalation is as a source of power for your voice. Diaphragmatic and abdominal muscle coordination determine how much and how fast we exhale when singing. More importantly, our vocal folds require a minimum amount of air pressure from below them just to vibrate and produce sound- this is called “threshold pressure.” (We will come back to this term later)

          But what of the air that is coming in? How can the way we inhale impact our singing? Studies suggest as singers we have to be concerned about more than just how much air we are able to take in with each breath. The reason? Our breathing patterns are dehydrating our voices.

          Let’s take a closer look.

          There are only three possible ways we as humans can inhale: through the nose, through the mouth, or through the nose and mouth simultaneously. About 90% of healthy adults breathe through their nose at rest. This is not surprising because there are several physiological benefits to breathing in through the nose: air is warmed to body temperature, moisture is added, potentially harmful particles and bacteria are removed, and relaxing chemical reactions are stimulated. However, due to the narrow anatomy of the nasal passage, when pressure builds to a certain point (by narrowing due to congestion, or an increase in airflow), it is no longer advantageous for us to breathe exclusively through our noses.

          This is when most people switch to oral breathing. During speech breathing for example, the average airflow during inhalation is quadrupled compared to when we are at rest. If we tried to take air in at this rate through our nose, the air would be met with a very high resistance (like trying to suck a triple-thick milkshake through a cocktail straw). So, for efficiency sake we incorporate the larger oral airway (in conjunction with the nasal passage) to accommodate this increased demand. When singing, this demand for rapid airflow with each inhalation is increased and as a result, singers depend on a greater proportion of oral breathing.

          The issue of this change to oral breathing, is that we lose many of the benefits we had with nasal breathing, including the addition of moisture to the inspired air. Consequently, the air inhaled orally has a much lower level of moisture when compared to air inhaled nasally. This means that the moist linings of the throat (called the sol layer) begin to dry out with each oral inhale. As the sol layer becomes dry, the protective mucous in the throat and vocal folds becomes thicker and harder to clear (Singer + dry throat and phlegm = BAD). More to the point, this reduction in the sol layer has been linked in many studies to an increase in threshold pressure after only 15 minutes of oral breathing. In contrast, nasal inhalation results in a lowered threshold pressure.

          If you remember from above, threshold pressure is the minimum amount of pressure required to get the vocal folds to vibrate. If this pressure increases (as it does following oral inhalation), the amount of pressure required to vibrate the vocal folds increases, which means- singing takes more effort. If this pressure decreases (as it does with a deep breath in through the nose), less pressure is required to vibrate the vocal folds and thus, less effort.

          The result of increased threshold pressure for singers? Harder initial onsets, more effort to keep the vocal folds vibrating freely during singing, and difficulty smoothly modifying volume (i.e. messa di voce). In short, oral inhalation gradually makes it harder and harder to use our voices without increasing effort. This means that left unchecked, high levels of tension, or even worse- damage to our voices- is not far behind.


If you are a singer, here are some tips to consider:

          1) Monitor your breathing at rest and low intensity moments during a rehearsal or performance- if you sing for more than a few minutes at a time, try and ensure you incorporate some nasal inhalation during brief pauses or when walking backstage between stage right and stage left. This will help lower your threshold pressure and get you ready for a confident start on your next entry.

          2) Although as performers we often do not control the venue in which we perform, we can often control where we practice and rehearse. Make sure humidity is regulated (studies demonstrated these detrimental effects on the vocal folds in ambient humidity of up to 35%!). This means avoiding overly air-conditioned or dry spaces. Caveat: overly high humidity paired with high ambient temperatures can be harmful to the voice as well, so be sure to keep humidity at a moderate level.

          3) Phrase longer and more vocally demanding pieces to allow for occasional nasal inhalation. This means you will need to take a more deliberate inhale, which will take more time!

          4) Perhaps most importantly, studies reported nasal inhalation had less of a positive effect in participants who had a history of being prone to vocal attrition (perception of vocal fatigue, discomfort, and throat dryness). So practice good vocal hygiene habits and make sure you are talking to your voice teacher or voice therapist about these kinds of qualities in your voice as soon as they arise.

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