The act of singing happens, of course, as we exhale. But ask any singer, “how do you breathe for singing,” and they’ll 99% of the time talking about inhalation, and precious little on what the sensation should be during and just before the tone (exhalation) begins.
James McKinney describes what the Italians call “appoggio” beautifully: “Perhaps the best way to gain control of the exhalation process is to try to maintain the expansion around the middle of the body... while the diaphragm slowly begins to release its tension. This expansion will decrease in size as breath is expended, but should do this so gradually that the singer still feels expanded throughout the phrase.”
He describes this feeling of expansion as “suspension,” and goes on to quote Van Christy: “The feeling of holding back the breath is essential to establish “suspension,” and continues through the attack and the entire phrase following. When posture is correct, and all the muscles function properly in singing, there is a feeling of flexible, expansive openness in the body.”
Importantly: when in the suspension phase, the glottis stays open. If we were to close it, then there would be all sorts of pressure behind the onset. Yuck.
So how do we set up this delightful feeling of expansion? It requires that we practice 4-part breathing. Most singers practice 3-part breathing: 1. Inhale 2. Exhale (sing) 3. Recover. But this plan leaves out what should be the 2nd step: suspension!
So, our 4-part breath should be:
To practice this skill, we have to breathe earlier than many are accustomed to. When watching any singer, I can’t help but breathe with them; it’s the voice teacher’s curse, I suppose. Interestingly, when watching professional singers, I nearly always breathe at the same time as them. When watching pre-professional singers, I nearly always breathe before they do… They’re waiting til too late, and then they don’t have time to either take in a high-quality breath or nearly enough time to set up suspension. Here’s an exercise to map this skill and to reinforce it. [“B” means “breathe” and “S” means “suspend.”]
Examples abound in the repertoire, of course. One outstanding example is Handel’s “Endless pleasure” from Semele. Here’s what Handel wrote:
Here’s a plan to sing it with suspension.
If a singer habitually sings on their suspension, then the sensation is that one is singing off of the “interest” instead of singing off of the “principal.” In other words, singing off of the “principal” feels like the sound is originating from the vocal folds themselves (this is very tiring), while singing off of the “interest” feels as if the sound is originating from the appoggio muscles, the muscles of suspension. That is the proper way to sing, and will lead to much, much greater vocal stamina.
Kyle Ferrill teaches voice and vocal pedagogy at the University of Memphis, SongFest, and the Interlochen Arts Camp, and performs around the country, primarily in art song and oratorio.