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June/July 2013

by Caitlin Smith

Finding Your Voice: The Breathaholic and the Pusher

by Caitlin Smith

Finding Your Voice: The Breathaholic and the Pusher

We might as well face it, we’re addicted to air. Not ‘air that keeps us alive’, rather, a desperate unquenchable full-blown addiction to having full lungs at all times! We subconsciously think we need huge amounts of breath to sing with. We’ve bought into a myth that our voices are fuelled by air the same way a car engine guzzles gasoline. We’re terrified of having an empty tank.

Actually, we’re more like guitars than bagpipes. We make sound by resonating sound inside our bodies rather than ‘pushing air’ outwards. Excess air takes away power, dries out the throat, deadens expression and creates a massive, supposed need to PUSH. Because breathiness doesn’t give us the power and control we crave, we push. Pushing hurts, and an unquestioned, destructive, addictive cycle begins.

Unless we’re addicted to love, most addictions aren’t good for us. An alcoholic ‘thinks’ she needs a drink to calm her nerves, when really the hangover makes her more depressed and frazzled. We think we need ‘air’ and ‘push’ to sing with, when it’s the LAST thing we need – even in minute amounts.

Typically we don’t acknowledge addictions until it’s too late. We may only notice a problem when singing for prolonged periods… and suffering.

I grew up with a book called The Diggingest Dog. In sum, a dog is bought from a pet shop by little Sammy Brown to work on the family farm. Sammy and all the other farm dogs are disgusted to discover that The Diggingest Dog doesn’t dig! He tries and tries and he just can’t do it.

Why? Because he was raised in a pet shop, on a hard cold stone floor and never felt dirt under his paws. Once he cracks it though, he really does live up to his name. And so it is with good vocal technique. We can’t expect to know, or use, something we’ve never had.

As a teacher, I don’t expect students to easily grasp new concepts. We’ll make the same mistakes over and over again because we don’t know alternatives, or can’t even conceive that there are any. I feared using twang because it seemed so foreign and illogical. We’d rather stick with the familiar and habitual than embrace the unknown – even in circumstances of life or death. We might practice a technique warming up but not use it singing (the same way a smoker might own, but avoid reading Allen Carr’s Stop Smoking book). Confucius say, “He who says he knows but does not do, does not know”.”

Most addicts don’t realise they have a problem. Once diagnosed, we have to admit to it and take responsibility for our path to recovery. It’s quite difficult for our ‘ego’ to admit that we’re doing something wrong. It’s especially difficult to give something up if we’ve been praised for using it. Sure enough – breathiness can be sexy and push can make you loud.

We punish ourselves for not knowing what we couldn’t possibly have known. It’s rare to learn good voice production at school. Instead we’re told we need Olympic swimmers’ lung capacities and the force of lumberjacks chopping down trees when singing. ‘Vocal Technique’ is presented as something mysterious and difficult that takes years to learn – sucking the ‘natural’ life and soul out of the voice. It’s easier to stay stuck than to do the work.

No-one tells us that girls’ voices break as well as boys (albeit later in puberty). Very little support is given to this significant physical/vocal/life transition. From ages 12 to 19, we notice a ‘change’. Our intuitive remedy is to use more air and push harder to reach the high notes we easily reached when we were kids. This is when the addiction emerges.

There’s shame experiencing difficulty with things we were once effortlessly good at. Smooth transitions, blending registers and deepening the voice aren’t taught. We can consider ourselves ‘failures’ or ‘freaks’. We internalise and personalise any problems we encounter and make up all sorts of crazy reasons ‘why’ it happens to us. We consider ourselves ‘exceptional’ when really, we’re just human.

Like any addict, we deny our addiction and its effects. Without body awareness, we don’t sense breathiness or push – even when it’s recorded and played back to us. We don’t realise we’re taking sneaky little sly-grogging breaths in the middle of phrases… or even WORDS! We pre-empt, panic, think we’ll ‘run out’ and take top-up breaths all over the text. We’d never do that while speaking.

It’s hard to diagnose a breathiness/push addiction if our idols are addicted too. Plenty of mainstream artists are destructively-breathy, or hit rock-bottom with repeated voice loss. Adele suffered hemorrhaged vocal cords on account of her ‘addiction’. We copy sounds not realising HOW sound is made. We presume rough, screaming rock or metal voices are pushed rather than ‘twangy’ and open. We’ll say, “See? She’s doing it,”” the same way our culture normalises (even encourages) binge drinking.

As addicts do, we deny the consequences of our addiction. We choose to ignore tension, strain and hurt – even hide the evidence. Breathiness and push take away control of pitch, tone and dynamics. We get sore, dry throats, voice loss even nodules and blame tiredness, overwork or drugs rather than the real culprit. Singing requires ‘physical honesty’ (just as songwriting necessitates ‘emotional honesty’). If you experience strain, hoarseness or discomfort during or after singing – you’re a breath/push addict.

Okay then Amy, let’s talk rehab. Kicking an addiction is often way easier and quicker than imagined. The benefits of going cold turkey are instantaneous. Once we have a taste of the ease and effortlessness of singing as we experienced it as children, we won’t want to return to our over-compensatory, misguided and outmoded default setting.

Truth is, we feel worlds better when we’re rid of toxic substances and damaging behaviours. We sound 1000 times stronger, rougher, bigger and more beautiful using open-ness and twang than strain and breathiness. Trust me, once you’ve tasted good technique, you’ll never go back to being a breathaholic, or a pusher.

Twitter: @BraveCaitlin

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