Kashu-do (歌手道): Leaning On the Breath: An Attempt at a Scientific Explanation

I believe Jack Livigni’s new blog is going to force me to deal directly with the equivocal terminology used by the great Italian Masters.  I believe there is great wisdom to be found in this code but there is danger when these words are taken literally.  There is always a balancing element that often goes unmentioned in this code. Probably because those who use this language with understanding take certain elements for granted.  Jack’s newest interview with the celebrated tenor, Salvatore Fisichella is filled with gems that must be cultivated.  I decided to take on “Leaning on the breath,” a term often used by voice teachers because I think it is very misunderstood.

The sensation of leaning the larynx against the breath has important muscular and acoustic ramifications.  First, why does one want to lean on the breath (i.e. push the laryngeal structure against the breath stream)? I would imagine to have a direct connection with the compressed air (by the way, the laryngeal occlusion also causes that compression) such that breath flow is uninterrupted.  Still there are great singers who are diametrically opposed to pushing down on the breath. They insist that the breath should be pulled from above, in the head.
What happens when both sets of singers who have such different approaches sing extremely well? Who is right and who is wrong?

The truth is both sets of singers are right. But it depends greatly on where the singers are in the development of their laryngeal musculature.  This requires clarification although the seeds of this discussion have been planted in many blogposts before this.

I have stated often here that fold depth (what the scientist call contact area) and fold closure (medial pressure quotient) determine pitch.  I take for granted that the resultant fold depth is derived from the antagonism of the CT/Vocalis, giving a certain longitudinal tension. In simple terms, the fold depth is related to the tension along the length of the folds. Both result from the tug-o-war between the two main muscle groups.

In an ideal situation, the fold depth/tension and the medial pressure are perfectly calibrated for the pitch to be sung, whereby medial pressure is exact enough to allow for build up of subglottal pressure and allowing enough time during the opening phase for proper release of the compressed air during each cycle. Too much medial pressure builds great intensity but reduces flow. In such a case, the sound is intense but less present (could sound thin).  This is pressed voice.  If the medial pressure is not enough, then the sound lacks intensity even though a lot of air may be released.  This is breathy phonation.  The important thing to remember is that any change in medial pressure will result in a compensatory change in fold depth/tension in order for the desired pitch to be constant.

If our ideal is the perfect fold posture in terms of contact area and medial pressure, how does leaning on the breath come into play?

In Jack’s interview with Fisichella, it would seems the Maestro speaks of leaning on the breath and lowering the larynx as one event. Jack cautions that these are two separate functions and should not be confused.  I must disagree because I think they are related.  It is true that one can lower the larynx during inhalation while the glottis is open.  There is no pressure involved in this action as air is passing unopposed down the glottal opening.  However, in the case of leaning on the breath, the lowering of the larynx is happening during phonation.  This is the distinction that should be taken into account.

Why lower the larynx while phonating then?

Laryngeal depth is crucial to the acoustics of the vocal tract and has a direct effect in terms of formant dynamics.  In the passaggio, a high larynx makes the transition from first Formant (F1) to second  Formant (F2) dominance in the tenor voice nearly impossible.  The lowered larynx lowers the frequency of F1 to allow F2 to take over as pitch rises around  F4 (not formant 4 but the pitch one fourth above middle C).  For the tenor in particular (although females deal with this in the lower passaggio and lower voice males slightly lower than that), the transition around F4 to second formant dominance requires a very specific balance.  It is important to understand the following:

Laryngeal depth is directly related to fold depth, which is related to medial pressure, which is related to subglottal pressure, which when to high causes the larynx to climb.  The proper default laryngeal position should be the result of balance between the laryngeal depressors and levitators, given that pressure flow balance is maintained in the vocal fold posture.  The vocal fold posture depends primarily on the CT/Vocalis antagonism.  If the folds’ contact area is too small, there will be excess medial pressure to compensate for pitch (since less contact area would raise the pitch and increased medial pressure lower it).

Therefore, in the case of slightly pressed phonation, a sensitive singer would lean on the breath (push the larynx downward against the breath) to both lower the larynx and induce greater flow.  This would have a direct effect on changing the dynamic relationship between CT and Vocalis.  In essence, this is a compensatory measure for a fold posture that is slightly thin and pressed.  I have not yet heard a singer who had ideal fold posture on every single note in the voice.  But lighter voices get close, because they require less air pressure to accomplish balanced phonation.

It is to say that this leaning on the larynx which is necessary for many singers is not necessary when the default fold posture is ideal, because the default posture would instill flow phonation which would result in the larynx achieving ideal depth without help from the back of the tongue.  Not so easy for dramatic voices, but achievable over time.

It is my belief that the sensation of substance and anchoring we associate with the chest voice is directly related to fold depth (contact area) and therefore with Vocalis activity.  When this sensation of chest voice is maintained, the folds achieve appropriate depth for balanced flow phonation and the larynx descends to appropriate depth.  Doing exercises on the [i] vowel with a sensation of chest engagement prevents the back of the tongue from helping in the process. Maintaining the brilliance of [i] in other vowels (particularly the [a]) helps instill an approach to a lower larynx based on intrinsic muscle dynamics without compensatory help by the tongue.

That still does not answer the question why the singers who advocate leaning on the larynx and those who do not are both correct.

In my experience, when muscles are being trained to change their function (in this case changing the balance of activity between CT and Vocalis), effort is required to get them to achieve the desired balance.  As the muscles are trained, less and less effort is required.  When fold posture has been achieved and the new muscular dynamic is stable, the singer can trust the sensation to occur by itself.  In the beginning of training tenors who once sang as baritones or sopranos who were trained as mezzos or developing fullness in the higher coloratura range, greater vocalis activity is necessary to undo the tendency to press because of too small a contact area (fold depth).  In the beginning, the singers try to engage the chest connection and it feels effortful to do so (a muscular effort resulting in glottal balance and freedom).  Not only must the Vocalis increase its activity, but the CT must become stronger to maintain appropriate longitudinal tension and length of the folds.  When this new balance becomes trained, the singer does not have to do so much work. Eventually, there is no work involved. Balanced flow phonation is the result without any more muscular work. The singers who have achieved this (and some do so because of great speaking habits from childhood on), do not feel the need to help the larynx in any way.  They experience only the flow of voice resulting from excellent breathing technique and a larynx prepared to transform subglottal pressure into transglottal flow and supraglottal energy.  They might even caution against leaning on the larynx. More dramatic voices that must sing repertoire that require greater sound pressure (volume), such as the bigger Verdi, Puccini and Wagner must develop even stronger laryngeal stability and throughout their career they may need to lean on the breath a bit to assure proper laryngeal depth.

We are not machines. Therefore even the greatest singers will occasionally compensate a little to achieve balance in the moment.  Yet we must be aware of the ideal, which is to be able to achieve flow (that sensation of head voice) without having to manage the larynx at the same time.  In my own development over the past three years, I have become able to perform a diminuendo on relatively high notes.  It is much more difficult to begin a note softly in the right laryngeal balance, such that would allow the ability to crescendo and diminuendo.  Some days I can achieve this, some days not.  Being able to document the different stages of strength is what I had hoped to do with my own voice had my computer and back-up data not been stolen in New York a year ago.  I hope I will be able to do this with a student someday as I am too far into my own training.

To summarize, when the voice has been balanced throughout, the need to lean on the breath becomes unnecessary but we are not machines and particularly with respect to dramatic voices, there may always be a need to compensate a little on certain notes to achieve the correct sensation of flow phonation.

© 10/22/2010

10 thoughts on “Kashu-do (歌手道): Leaning On the Breath: An Attempt at a Scientific Explanation

Add yours

  1. I agree with what you're saying. I think you're hitting the source of confusion exactly. I think another piece of the puzzle, however, is the vocal onset. When Garcia talks about a (GENTLE!) coup de la glotte, or glottal attack, I think he's addressing this same issue of the larynx resisting the air pressure. I suspect part of the reason different singers have different opinions about leaning on the breath is because they have different closed quotients. In line with what you're saying, the more heavy the voice and high the closed quotient, the more you would expect the leaning on the breath to be an important part of their strategy.
    So another way of saying the above is, the more brilliant and breath-efficient you want to make your tone, the more muscle tone you will need and the more you will feel like you have to resist the air pressure by leaning on your larynx.
    What I don't know is to what extent these vocal weights are volitional and to what extent they are God-given and it's our job to find the right balance. Obviously some voices are bigger than others, but I think we have quite a bit of leeway on how vigorously we wish to use them as well.
    Klaus Georg


  2. The term “leaning on the breath” describes a sensation and may therefore be hard to define in more precise terms. Nevertheless, I would like to suggest a somewhat different interpretation than the one you express in your post.

    An important effect of practicing with the use of occlusions, such as lip trills, zzs, vs, drinking straws etc., is that it is impossible to squeeze the folds too much together without losing the continuous production of sound. Thus, the occlusion exercises are easy on the folds although a substantial breath support is needed to sustain the sound. When removing the occlusion while trying to maintain the same feeling of easiness on the folds combined with a strong support, something else has to replace the occlusion mechanism. I think there is nothing else but an epilaryngial narrowing that can do this. This narrowing provides a resonance tube that produces a strong singer's formant and, at the same time, an inertial load that helps boosting the lower harmonics and lowers the phonation threshold so that the folds do not need to be squeezed.

    Thus, I suggest that the “leaning on the breath” is the sensation of resistance from the epilaryngial narrowing and associated inertial loading. If the folds are kept as non-squeezing as in the occlusion exercises, the feeling can be that it is somehow the sound that is resisted in the region above th larynx (but not at the fold level) instead of at the mouth as in the occlusion exercise.

    This interpretation of the term “leaning on the breath” would explain the quote (by Ligni) They stated that this laryngeal leaning produces high, metallic resonance . That is, this metallic resonance would be the effect of the epilaryngial resonator.



  3. Dear Klaus,

    I do agree there is some leeway but not very much I suspect. Too thin a production would cause stiffness and a heavy production would tend to be ineffcient. I also think there are limits to how dramatic a voice can get. Kraus can never become Corelli. However when a singer has true efficiency, whether lyric or dramatic, they can produce a great amount of sound pressure. Often lyrics, like Björling among tenors had a lot more presence in the hall than more dramatic colleagues.

    I don't think any of this is God-given in the true sense. Perhaps God-given in so far that the singer was given the environment and cultural setting that encouraged such development. As a teacher I try to create such an environement in the studio that leads to the kind of glottal balance that fosters easier singing.


  4. The term “leaning on the breath” describes a sensation and may therefore be difficult to define in more precise terms. Nevertheless, I would like to suggest a somewhat different interpretation than the one you express in your post; one that is related to air resonance.

    An important effect of practicing singing using occlusions, such as lip trills, zz's, v's, drinking straws etc., is that it is impossible to squeeze the folds too much together. Thus, the occlusion exercises are easy on the folds although a substantial support is needed to sustain the sound. When removing the occlusion while trying to maintain the same feeling of easiness on the folds combined with a strong breath support, something else has to replace the occlusion at the mouth. I think there is nothing else but an epilaryngial narrowing that can achieve this. This narrowing provides a resonance mechanism that produces the singer's formant and, at the same time, an inertial load that may help boosting the lower harmonics. Thus, I suggest that the “leaning on the breath” is the sensation of acoustic resistance from the epilaryngial narrowing. If the folds are kept non-squeezing, as in the occlusion exercises, the feeling can be that it is somehow the sound that is resisted in the region just above the larynx. The physical background to this feeling could simply be a high sound intensity below the narrowing. This interpretation is in line with what Ligni wrote: They stated that this laryngeal leaning produces high, metallic resonance.



  5. Martin,

    This is an important component. Squillo is a result of not only the narrowing of the epylarynx but also a widening of the pharynx to produce that 1:6, 1:7…ratio that is necessary. In the case of the Italian singers, I would be willing to gamble that they begin with the epylaryngeal narrowing as a default. Italians simply speak with that kind of “twang” in the sound.

    What they often need in order to achieve the squillo is the other part–the pharyngeal widening, which depends to a great extent on the depth of the larynx. My instinct is that the average Italian tenor might begin his singing with a pressed sound (Corelli's caprino for instance) and eventually develop the balance of breath pressure and flow necessary for a floating low larynx.

    I would imagine the missing link for such singers is the laryngeal position which when achieved might feel like leaning on the breath to achieve support, airflow, laryngeal depth, which in turn would produce the 1:6 ratio for the squillo, given that the epylaryngeal narrowing was already there (which I suspect is the case).



  6. You are right, of course!

    A “twang” in the sound is the resonance effect of what acousticians call an acoustic impedance mismatch; an epilaryngeal narrowing followed by a sudden expansion into the pharynx causes reflections and a resonator at the singer's formant frequencies. The expansion is always there no matter what, but the “twang” may not be of the operatic kind if the expansion area is too small. A lowered larynx and an expanded pharynx in combination with the epilaryngeal narrowing will create an operatic kind of twang, I believe.

    However, my point was that feeling of “leaning on the breath” could be a feeling of this acoustic resonance rather than an action at the fold level.


  7. Very good points! I address thise in my recent post “Appoggio and Low Larynx” at http://www.tenortalkblog.com

    There is a difference between singing with a low larynx and singing with a low larynx with appoggio. Singing with a low larynx actually tends to diminish appoggio, especially if driven too far.



  8. Dear Jean-Ronald,

    Thank you for another wonderful post!
    Do you believe that keeping the space of “open intercostal muscles” also helps to keep the larynx down without the help of the tongue?
    Thanks 🙂


  9. Dear Math Flair, this contention is supported by empirical studies! What is not guaranteed is whether the larynx remains in a low position once phonation begins. That would depend on onset and phonation posture as well as continued breath compression.


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