Take a “breather”

By Mary McDonald Klimek, Estill Voice International Vice- President 

breathing singing

My Apple Watch reminds me to breathe several times a day.  Does it think I might forget?

It is so busy tracking my daily activities and urging me to do more, that I truly appreciate it when the tapping on my wrist is asking me to slow down and simply BREATHE.

My breath and I have a complex relationship with just a bit of “history”.  After all, we’ve been co-habiting this body for 70 years.   I LOVE my breath.   It tells me when I am healthy; it tells me when something is out of balance.  But our relationship hasn’t always been easy.  I am deeply grateful that finally we have worked out our differences and become the best of friends!    Finally?   Yes, because for almost 30 years our relationship was adversarial.  What put us in this pickle?  My desire to SING!

My first not-teacher (I was judged to be too young for formal study) asked me to belly-breathe.   This was presented as a challenge of utmost importance.  It was a lot of effort… until I was sitting at my desk in Latin class one afternoon and noticed that I was belly-breathing without even thinking about it.  My next Teacher had me on the floor with a pile of books on my tummy; the one after that had me start every tone with a little punch to the gut; the next taught relentless rib cage expansion…  By the time I met Jo Estill, my breath and I were not playing together nicely!  The more I struggled to breathe “correctly”, the more difficult it became to sing a long phrase, restrain my vibrato, hold out those long notes that appear in the midst of runs in a Bach aria…  My inner voice was saying the very things what I would hear decades later from my voice therapy patients in clinic: “I know I’m not getting enough breath/using my breath the way I should/supporting from my diaphragm”.   The breath was definitely the problem, not me!

I wasn’t ready to face the fact that my breath and I were in a dysfunctional relationship.  Sound familiar?  I feel empathy for all who are trapped in dysfunctional respiratory cycles.  Should we start a Support Group?   (Pun intended, of course!)

My first course with Jo Estill

The first morning of my first course with Jo Estill, she put up a graph of lung volumes (Residual, Expiratory Reserve, Resting Expiratory, Inspiratory Reserve) with volume traces of quiet breathing, speech breathing.  She moved on to the Relaxation Pressure Curve (listen to her lecture from “In Her Own Words” available for donation to the Estill Education Fund).  Next came an exercise that sounded a lot like exercises I had done in many a voice studio and choral warm-up before:  “Fill your lungs with breath and exhale __*__  for as long as you possibly can!”  In some studios the * instruction was “with just enough breath to float a downy feather above your palm”, in others it was a “shhhh” or a “ssss”.   The “as long as you possibly can” was always a fixture of the exercise and never failed to make me anxious.  In choral warm-ups, it felt like a competition to be the last singer hissing.

With Jo Estill, on that morning, it was all about Finding a New Way!   She asked us to take a big breath and hiss very quietly, locating the sensations of muscle effort at the start of the exhalation… and a second or two later… and another second or two later…, and so forth and so on, until all of the breath ran out.  I had a stunning realization: “Supporting my breath with one muscle strategy all the time makes NO SENSE!”   High in the lung volume I needed to hold it back, in mid lung volume I could simply release it, in low lung volumes I had to tighten my lower abdominal muscles to squeeze it out!   Jo Estill’s solution, to “let the breath free vary with what it meets on the way out”, seemed both logical AND fantastical.

What do I suggest as a “re-boot” for a dysfunctional respiratory cycle?  Exhale to Resting Expiratory Level (REL) and WAIT for your next breath.

If REL is new to you, here are step-by-step instructions: 

1.  Take in a comfortable (low Effort) breath and then LET the breath escape from your lungs without any pushing or pressing.  No stopwatch required.
2.  When the air pressure in your lungs falls to match Atmospheric Air Pressure, outward flow will cease and your glottis (space between the true vocal folds) will remain open.  No need to “hold”.
3.  Wait for it, give your body time, and it will breathe itself when it needs to.   Sometimes this will happen immediately; other times you may be surprised by seconds of “resting”.   No outcome is right nor wrong.
4.  Experience the “gesture of breath” during this inhalation.   Yes, what do you feel?  What do you hear?  What do you see?  Include feeling for emotions as well as the where and how the body is moving.  Cover your ears to amplify breath sounds as you inhale.  What you see can be a visualization in the mind’s eye.   The gesture might be too small to see!   No mirror required.

Atoning for my questionable sense of humor in the running word play of “dysfunctional relationships with breathing”, I offer an advisory:  If you have asthma, an anxiety disorder, chronic pain, or any illness or injury almost anywhere in your body, you may find this supposedly simple task not possible… YET!   Even if you are in good working order, you may find it challenging.  For some people, skillful practice will be required.  For others, it may “click” right away.  Patience and a non-judgmental mind are always helpful.

Our exquisite bodies can be relied upon to make obvious and subtle adjustments in how we are breathing as we sleep, wake, walk, run, face dangers, relax…  Now that I no longer lock up my rib and tummy muscles, I can feel the ebb and flow of all sorts of muscle activity as I Siren through my range, speak, sing.   Earlier I wrote of realizing that using one strategy to “support the voice” all the time makes absolutely no sense.  Try to use the same breath flow rate all the time is equally misguided.   I sit back and marvel at the different rates of exhalation I experience as I speak and sing in different voice qualities.

Oooops!  There it goes again!   My Apple Watch is tapping me.   Time to breathe!

About the Author

Mary McDonald KlimekMary McDonald Klimek, MM, MS-CCC/SLP, has been a professional musician and voice teacher for over 45 years. She served as Senior Speech Pathologist at the Voice and Speech Laboratory at Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary in Boston, Massachusetts, for nearly 14 years providing voice therapy services to professional voice users.  Ms. Klimek has lectured internationally on topics of interest to voice therapists and her articles have been published in several voice therapy textbooks.

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