What is Breath Support Anyways?
You may have people telling you that you need to support your sound more when you sing. Or you may just have trouble sounding full and healthy in your higher register. Either way, breath support is a mysterious concept that many people have trouble explaining as well as understanding. Many singers will say that respiration is the powerhouse for the voice and that bad support can be the root of many singing problems. This is because, if the support mechanism is weak or just not active, then other muscles like the jaw, tongue, or throat try to compensate when you sing. They are not built for this, however, and ultimately they can’t take the pressure and it hurts! There are ways to strengthen your support mechanism, but it is more important to develop the right feeling first by getting in touch with your internal abdominal and lower back muscles.
In order to get a clear picture of what the feeling of a supported sound is like, we have to separate it from other breathing attributes. Breath control has to do with how you manage the release of your air as you sing a phrase. So an example of bad breath control would be using all of your air in the beginning of a phrase and not having enough for the end. Nobody wants to watch you suffocate on stage!
Breath support, on the other hand, has more to do with how you resist that air you tanked up on in order to sing higher or lower throughout the phrase. As an exercise, try releasing a lot of air very quickly by saying tsss. Don’t let the air stream get choppy, keep it even, relaxed and fluid. Take another breath and imagine that when you release a lot of air at once you are singing low. Now try releasing only a tiny stream of air. It will help if you try to and keep your ribcage expanded through the entire breath. While this exercise also works breath control, you may start to feel your inner abdominal and lower back muscles engaging to resist letting out your air quickly. Imagine you are singing high and continue to release LESS air by RESISTING the airflow with those muscles. You are creating intra-abdominal pressure required for producing high frequencies. Now, switch back and forth from releasing a lot of air to resisting the air. Find those muscles engaging and relaxing and pulse them back and forth. In this way you are exercising your support muscles!
Now the important question is how this particular exercise transfers to actual singing. While you sing, every note and even vowel is going to need a different amount of air resistance. Even the low notes need resistance, it’s just harder to notice. This is because it’s often easier for the body to support these notes and it does so all the time when we speak. Also, you definitely CAN over support a note as well; in fact, the body can create a substantial amount more pressure than necessary for singing. If there is pain, then walk away, give it time, and try again later more gently than before. Once the initial strength is there, it’s eventually more about awareness and coordination than anything else. If you practice this a little every day, then you will be on the path to seemingly effortless and evenly balanced singing!