Well, that’s got to be a typo. Kristin is clearly on the hooch. She obviously intended to write an article on Breathing for Singing, but she got the title of her own blog wrong.
Did I? Oh, did I?
One day, I had a first lesson with a new student. I was having him vocalize on raspberries, an exercise most of my students claim that I employ as a special sort of sadistic torture against them. While I admit that I do in fact find their discomfort to be one of the exercise’s many benefits, and am extremely appreciative of the collection of DNA I have acquired from spit samples all over my computer screen, I actually use raspberries to encourage proper airflow ratios in singing. If you can sustain a melodic phrase on a raspberry, you are doing pretty well managing your air. (Another interesting side benefit of raspberries, is that they somehow enable me to smell whatever the student has consumed in the past 12 or so hours with alarming accuracy and specificity. “Did you happen to ingest some kind of fruit-infused vodka earlier today?…I thought so.”)
Anyway, this new student was absolutely rocking this exercise on his first attempt, which I rarely see. Most new students struggle with this novel concept of a conscious coordination of air with phonation, so I was very excited by his success. “You have absolutely awesome lungs!” I extolled.
He stared at me incredulously, then suddenly threw his head back and laughed out loud. (This was a surprising response from someone I had quickly identified in the hallway outside my studio as “An Introvert,” and with whom I had – till now – been using my quietest energy so as not to devastate him with my extreme Extroversion.) He shook his head and said, “I missed most of my junior year of high school with health issues. I have horrible asthma.”
I considered this. “Well. Not when you sing, you don’t.”
My student then related how his asthma could be set off by pretty much anything, and that he also suffered from anxiety, which I’m starting to realize goes along quite often with chronic asthma. Imagine ho-hummingly going along with your day, suddenly not being able to take in any air, and not knowing where your next breath is coming from. However, he had discovered that one preventative activity that seemed to keep his asthma largely in check, was taking long walks outside with his iPod, during which he sang along with his favorite songs. He loved singing, and was in my studio to hone his craft – possibly even to use in venues in the great indoors.
So why was singing so beneficial to my student? And why were his otherwise besieged lungs so happy while he was doing it?
Maybe I should start with why breathing is so important to our overall health. For that, I turn to the work of Dr. Leon Chaitow, a doctor of Osteopathy that has dedicated the last two decades of his life to studying Breathing Pattern Disorders. After a stressful and hurried business trip, Dr. Chaitow started experiencing seizures and stroke symptoms, and ended up in the hospital for a week under observation. The symptoms had completely subsided, and attempts at a diagnosis were fruitless, until a neurologist hooked him up to an EKG and told him to breathe rapidly for two minutes; within 30 seconds, all of the symptoms reappeared. The problem was hyperventilation. The neurologist sent Dr. Chaitow home with the following discharge instructions: learn how to breathe.
According to Dr. Chaitow’s research, while only 10% of the population has been formally diagnosed with hyperventilation syndrome, many more of us may have a subtle breathing pattern disorder that involves upper-chest over-breathing, upsetting the balance between the intake of oxygen and the elimination of carbon dioxide. In our fast-paced world of go-go-go, we tend to pay little attention to our respiration, and default to a more rapid, shallow, quick-grab of the minimum of air needed to keep go-go-going. This pattern of exhaling for a substantially longer time than your inhalations results in deficient levels of CO2 in the body, leading to a spike in the blood’s pH balance called “respiratory alkalosis.” Which, according to Dr. Chaitow, is the equivalent of a whole-body poo-storm.
When the body is in a state of respiratory alkalosis, processes begin to break down. Feelings of anxiety cause even faster breathing, the smooth muscles around blood vessels constrict, ensuing in the initiation of the Bohr effect, in which red blood cells bind more tightly to the oxygen they are transporting. All of this prevents adequate blood flow and oxygenation to the entire body, which adversely affects the general health of the entire body at a foundational level – with implications on mood, digestion, mental clarity, pain threshold, energy level, balance, kidney function, cardiac and respiratory health, and overall homeostasis. To alleviate this situation, Dr. Chaitow recommends incorporating activities into your life that are structured around lower thoracic breathing with balanced inhalations and exhalations, in order to create new breathing habits to replace the old ones. These include yoga, swimming, and…drum roll, please…singing! That’s a relief, because I’m sure you were wondering how I was going to tie all of this back in.
As an avid enthusiast of all three of these practices, I can speak to why these are valid therapies, at least from my own experience. Yoga focuses on maintaining an even breath pattern through often-strenuous poses – you are regularly instructed to move from one position to the next only on your inhalations and exhalations. Many of my teachers go so far as to aver that the true practice of yoga is the breathwork, not the poses; the asanas exist primarily to allow you to perfect your breath.
As for my swimming, I should provide full disclosure: I swim with a snorkel. I don’t do it because I’m lazy. I do it because I have so few chances in life to balance my inhalations with my exhalations. I swim my 1.367 miles, systematically and fully inhaling and exhaling, treating my swim like a Walking Meditation practice. I sport my snorkel unapologetically, even while the prototypical Boulder 80-year old triathletes with 6% body fat literally swim laps around me. I feel confident with my snorkel, because I leave the pool with the same increased heart rate and cardio experience that they do, only I have not strained my neck by constantly turning my head to breathe, and I feel balanced and full in my breath and my entire body. Take that, octogenarian Ironmen.
But I admit, I had to think through why singing is considered to be such an effective rehabilitation for respiration. After all, within the framework of a song, you are often required to take a quick breath on a quarter or eighth note rest, and make it last for several bars of music; inhalations are rarely balanced to exhalations. And yet, when I find myself in a stressful situation, I go directly and subconsciously to humming to relieve my tension. This drives my family absolutely crazy, and makes for a rather less strong position when engaged in arguments; instead of going in for the kill, I suddenly stop fighting and launch into a closed-mouth rendition of whatever insipid pop song I last heard on the radio, or from my daughter’s taste-dubious iTunes playlist.
I have to assume that the reason why singing is so effective is that in order to produce an effectual tone, you have to train your body to fully, deeply, and groundedly inhale with speed and efficiency, and then manage that breath over the course of your phonation, whether you are required to sing for four bars or fourteen. In short, I theorize that the benefit of singing for breathing is not necessarily that your inhalations and exhalations are absolutely even in length, but that your breathing is slower, conscious, and purposeful. You create respiratory balance by learning to manage your breath.
So how’s that asthmatic student of mine? Two years later, I’m happy to say that he’s still taking lessons, and keeping his chronic respiratory issues largely at bay. He excels at singing the long lyrical melodies that most people have to work hard at executing, in a gorgeous, graceful, easy tenor voice. I call him my Irish Tenor, and when he argues that his heritage is actually English and Scottish, I argue back that most certainly an Irish milkman was delivering his wares to a great-great-great grandmother somewhere in his lineage. In addition, and even more to my delight, he continues to work to overcome anxiety, and has registered in college where he is taking music and theater classes, and experiencing success. In fact, although he is a little shy about sharing his extraordinary talent, he was recently ferreted out while casually singing show tunes between classes with some friends, who were amazed and thrilled to discover his beautiful voice. That afternoon, his impressed friends, who apparently had not stopped talking about him the whole day, demanded that he perform for their entire class. So he took a deep breath. And he sang.