Have you ever been told by a teacher, coach or fellow singer that you need to ‘support more’?
Do they actually know what they mean by support?
When you are being told to support more, is your natural instinct to grunt more effort from the ‘tummy’ or ‘from the diaphragm’ when you are singing?
This is a common habit that I see time and time again and it is of absolutely no value.
A note to actors and speakers
Before I begin, I would like to note that anyone who uses their voice on a daily basis will also benefit from this article. If you listen to Kirsten Flagstad and Jonas Kaufman in the videos posted later in the article, you will understand that some form of singer and support training results in a beautiful spoken sound.
What is support?
Support is the correct co-ordination of interconstal (rib), back and abdominal muscles working simultaneously to ensure a steady flow of air as you sing, it is that simple. When you exhale, the muscles contracting are your internal intercostal (rib) muscles. Your diaphragm is relaxing as you are exhaling, because to let your lungs fill with air, it must have already contracted. So your support muscles (the abdominals and back muscles) are working together with your intercostals to keep your rib-cage in an optimal position to allow for a steady flow of air. You will not gain more support by trying to squeeze your abdomen as if to defalcate or to perform a crunch.
In short: Your support is trying to stop your diaphragm from relaxing too fast and aids the ribs in staying open for as long as possible. You will feel this instantly if you exhale on a long ‘ssssssss’ (hissing) sound until you run out of air. Notice how the air escapes steadily and consistently and the sensation of ‘support’ comes from the abdomen (which will be the most noticeable) as well as the side, back and ribs if you are more experienced.
How do I do this?
You should be doing very similar exercizes to the following if you wish to further engage ‘support’. Your knees should always have a slight bend throughout all these exercizes:
- Huging the tree: This is one that I learnt from David L Jones and from a masterclass I had with an Italian/Swedish method teacher. You should stand with a straight spine that uses a natural S-shape curve and there should be an imaginary straight line from tail-bone to the back of the head at all times (so the head should never jut forward and your bottom should never point backwards. The singer should open their arms as if they are going to hug a large tree. This will create a circular shape. When you go to sing an exercize or practice your breathing on a ‘sssss’, you should push your hands together in a prayer-like fashion or you can simply bring them closer together.
You should immediately feel your obliques and back muscles engage. They will not be clenching as if to squeeze, but they will feel extremely active, as if they are stretched elastic supporting your breath.
Optional: Bend your legs more as you sing, but always keep your spine-head straight. you may bend forward, but this cannot interfere with your straight spine.
- Exclamations (laugh, bah, weeee, zzzzz): This exercize is very simple. Place the medial sides of your hands just above the hips where the tissue is soft, but not quite where the ribs begin. It will be as if you are chopping your sides but with the inside part of your hands (Index finger and thumb).
Begin with “bah” or “boy” and exclaim them in a comfortable pitch. You will immediately notice your external oblique muscles (side muscles) kick your hands away. Move onto a voiced “zzzzzz” which will sound like you are revving a car. The same thing should happen. Finally, try a ‘goofy’ (as opposed to harsh) sounding laugh and ‘weeee’ (which will sound like ‘wiiiih’). I choose to begin with the “b” and “zzz” first to connect the obliques with healthy sub-glottal pressure – a fancy way of saying healthy “oomph”. The goofy sound of the ‘hah’ or ‘wee’ connects your oblique support to a lowered larynx during phonation.
Examples of people who naturally talk with connected support are opera singer Kirsten Flagstad and chef Julia Childs. Listen to the way Kirsten Flagstad speaks in this interview. The sound is full-bodied, melodic and almost ‘hooty’:
Similarly if you listen to Julia Childs speak you will get the same effect:
To a lesser extent, Jonas Kaufman has moments of this quality as he speaks in this interview:
3. The Reach:
I learnt this one from my own voice teacher.
Begin in a similar position to exercize 1. With straight arms, reach upwards. Your hands should not be straight above your head but slightly in front of it. Tilt your head up slightly and with your eyes, look up at the hands. Push your trunk up towards your hands as well – this will cause your pelvis to tilt back. Then, move your pelvis forward so it is not sticking back. Bring your arms down without shifting anything else. You may tilt your head towards the front of the room.
You should immediately notice a broadness across your shoulders and collar bone, and a very strong sense that your trunk is balancing underneath your skull, held up by your abdominal and rib muscles.
This is the essential position that MUST exist for support to even factor into your singing. Whether you are sitting, standing or lying down, your body must be in strong alignment during phonation.
4. Floor Exercizes
This is another exercize that David L Jones advocates for. You should lie on your front, hands on forehead to keep the head slightly raised from the floor. Very simply, make a hissing noise on ‘ssssss’. You should notice that your abdominal muscles, particularly the area near your tummy button and groin, will ‘bounce’. This is caused by the external oblique muscles pulling on the abdominal aponeurosis (essentially, the outermost layer that holds all of your lower abdomen together).
The second floor exercize is done on your back. Your knees are bend and feet are flat on the floor. You may have a book on your abdomen. You will similarly hiss. As you hiss, you should lower the small of your back into the floor. You will feel your external oblique muscles and back muscles engage to support the breath.
Myth: Sit ups or defecation
Students are often told that they should approach singing like they are doing a sit-up, crunch, or if they are going to the toilet. This is an extremely damaging approach. Firstly, it engages the rectus abdominus (the SQUEEZE muscles) which does not at all support the steady stream of air. Quite the opposite, it has the tendency to over-pressurize the air. And secondly, if the singer engages the rectus abdominus too much, they will not leave room for a relaxed inwards breath. Instead their diaphragm will not contract and they will lose valuable air.
When you are ever told by somebody to support more, ALWAYS ask them what they actually mean. They should know EXACTLY what support is. It should go something like this:
Support is the regulation of the steady stream of air leaving the lungs by your postural (oblique, back and rib) muscles that work as one unit. The notion of support should never be separate from an awareness of a lowered larynx and a healthy sub-glottal (oomph) pressure.
One final note: Breathing in is NOT support. It is release, which is a completely different kettle of fish. Support and release work similarly to a relay race: One will occur, followed immediately and smoothly by the other. Please find my article on breath and support for more details.
Have a wonderful day and I look forward to writing next week’s article!