Since resigning my post as the organist and choirmaster for an Episcopal church, I’ve been singing for mere pleasure. But lately (maybe because I have more time for self-reflection) I’m noticing a couple of troubling things about my voice. After practices lasting more than two hours, I sound half an octave higher when I speak. That can’t be good. I must be tense.
The other issue is my ability to sustain a phrase. I run out of breath too quickly.
That was clear the other day as I was swimming laps in a college pool where a concrete wall dividing the lanes didn’t extend to the bottom of the floor. There was a four-foot gap between the bottom of the divider and the floor of the pool, and in an impulsive, slightly stupid moment of self-daring, I dove down to swim under the wall to the other side. It was deeper than I’d anticipated, and I suffered a flash of anxiety when the top of my head brushed the wall over me. I kept swimming. My lungs felt like they were going to burst. When I broke the surface on the other side, I gasped. A visibly annoyed lifeguard told me not to do that again. It wasn’t safe, she said.
From my point of view, it shouldn’t have been that hard.
So I turned to singer Renee Fleming’s autobiography, and I was delighted to see she and I are in the same boat, so to speak. She describes breathing difficulties and range problems, too. In “The Inner Voice” Fleming wrote that she learned new techniques by studying old videos of famous singers.
“Watching Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, live, in a series of concerts at Carnegie Hall helped me to understand further the importance of chest expansion," she wrote. "He looked like a pigeon when he sang late in his career, with this chest puffed up to the extreme.”
OK, I should look like a pigeon?
The other advice she offered involves extending spaghetti out of your forehead, or at least imagining that you can do this while singing.
“Aim the sound mentally into the two slight indentations on either side of the nostrils.”
I’m not sure I can do that.
What I need is help, and so I’m attending a breathing class this weekend at the Hochstein School of Music and Dance. According to the flyer, the teacher promises to cover breathing poses, movement, perception, flexibility, communication, and spiritual topics such as wholeness, awareness and the integration of body, soul, and mind.
All in one hour! All I need is a few bucks and a yoga mat!
Afterward, I'll pass on any helpful tips to you -- and to Renee, of course.