Often people ask me what is the most common singer problem that I encounter as a voice teacher. Invariably, I answer “unbalanced subglottal air pressure.” From grad school-trained opera singers to karaoke enthusiasts, 99% of the students who walk into my studio try to sing with too much pressure in their chests. In my experience, almost every singing problem is related to the urge to increase the pressure in the chest while singing. It tenses up your throat and makes singing a constant struggle.
The feeling of one’s subglottal air pressure is the feeling of emptiness or fullness in the upper chest right under the throat. Right now, while you are reading this with your casual neutral breath, your subglottal air pressure is probably equal to the pressure in the room, so your upper chest feels empty. To produce a good and a healthy sound while singing, it is necessary to maintain this feeling of emptiness while inhaling, after inhaling, and when singing.
There are medical devices which measure the subglottal air pressure; however, most of them require a needle inserted into the throat. We don’t want to go that far, do we?
If you want to make sure that you sing with a balanced pressure in your upper chest, you have to develop a keen sensitivity to the neutral, easy feeling of the empty chest and to the overwhelming heaviness of the “full chest”.
To explore this, without changing anything, observe how your chest feels empty and your throat feels neutral and open while reading this. After you spend a moment learning this feeling try to observe the opposite; take a huge gasping breath and trap it in your chest as though you are holding your breath under water. You should feel the extra pressure in your chest.
Now go back to your empty chest and observe the neutral feeling again. After a moment, try inhaling and exhaling tiny breaths without disturbing that neutral feel of emptiness in your chest. Check if you close your airways in your throat after an inhale, if you do, relax your throat so the air going in and out doesn’t engage a swallowing reflex. Like in your daily life, the breath should bypass your throat without engaging any muscle movement.
Once you master the feeling of the neutral chest and the disengaged, open throat you may venture ahead and practice taking longer inhales. In doing so, please remember a few important points:
At this stage every time you take a breath, your familiarity and comfort with this neutral feeling is going to increase. Normally, your brain does not register that you took a breath unless you pressurize the breath in your upper chest, the wrong way for singing. Each time you repeat the exercise, returning to the neutral, empty chest, you will reinforce that it is a good or healthy feeling – not wrong or unhealthy. If you repeatedly practice keeping a neutral, empty feeling chest, correctly, you may feel that you do not have much air in you even after a perfectly good inhale. This is a feeling that takes getting accustomed to.
In fact, after a perfect inhale, you may feel weakness in your voice and your body because increased subglottal air pressure gives us a false feeling of strength. If you try to push something heavy across the room, you would probably catch yourself holding your breath and creating pressure in your chest because somehow we associate it with feats of strength. However, your voice can be effortlessly strong when your throat is open, your chest is relaxed, and your vocal highway is open.
When you are in the right breath, you will also experience that your voice will happen in a place deeper in your body. It may feel shaky or uncomfortable the first few tries but it will settle down. Don’t let that weird you out; instead concentrate in the wonderfully easy feeling of singing with a free, neutral throat.
It may feel safe and strong when we sing with an unbalanced subglottal air pressure, however, this feeling is deceiving and so far from the truth. Basically your body has to narrow the exit and try to push more air to increase the pressure in the chest.
These are a few problems originating from this urge:
Many forms of throat tension
Use of false vocal chords
Over use of arytenoids
Pushing the sound
Tense abdominal muscles
The list goes on…
It took me seven years to learn the freedom of a balanced air pressure. Over and over throughout my singing education, we were told not to inhale high in our chest. It didn’t make sense until one day in grad school, while on lost in thought about the breath on the way to my lesson, and I thought to myself: “I should be able to take a big breath and still be able to talk comfortably.” When I tried that, with a lot of luck, I ended up taking the perfect singing breath for the first time, ever. EUREKA! This thinking was confirmed when, at my lesson, after a few phrases of singing my teacher stopped me, looking all confused said: “That’s it… Now… How. Did. You. Do. It???” Fortunately, I know can answer that question for my students.
Unbalanced subglottal air pressure is one of the first things I address in my lessons. With precise and persistent instruction I have 100% success ratio teaching the correct breath. Once the student learns the feeling of the empty chest, it takes about a few weeks to see major improvement in breath and in singing freely.