Understanding Support in Singing

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Support is a term that we hear about almost everywhere in the vocal world. By some, it is even considered the holy grail of singing—a remedy to every vocal problem.

Then there are others who don’t seem to care for support at all.

Let’s take a closer look at what this concept of support is all about.

What does the term support mean?

The concept of support goes back to the Italian term appoggio, which derives from the word appoggiare. In English, it means “to back up” or “to support.”

It was used to refer to the feeling that the voice seems to work all on its own, when the singer doesn’t have to use any effort to produce it. It’s like a magical force supporting the voice.

Over time, though, due to different influences—especially from the German singing schools—the idea of support became more about having to support the voice through the activity of the diaphragm while exhaling.

That’s why today, support (in most cases) is associated nearly exclusively with breathing.

So support has evolved from a description of a desirable vocal condition to a means to get to this condition. But not every etymological development is a step in the right direction.

There are two traps that have come up due to this change in what support means that you want to avoid.

Trap #1: Support is only about breathing

The feeling of the voice being supported has very little to do with breathing. A little later, we’ll address the role of breathing in this context. But first, let’s give you a better understanding of what creates support if it isn’t just breathing.

From watching our video in the Start Here section, you should already know that sound is created when the vocal folds are set into vibration through an airstream from the lungs. (If this is news to you, please watch this video here before you continue to read this blog.)

What drives the vocal folds is the amount of air (or airflow) that makes it through them while you sing. In order for singing to work well, the airflow needs to be within a certain range: neither too much nor too little.

If you manage to keep the airflow within that optimum range, your voice will feel supported. That’s it. Pretty easy, isn’t it?

Well, one would think so, but the advice you’ll find on how to achieve this can be pretty misleading.

The people in the “support is all about breathing” camp believe that the vocal folds are totally passive in this process. According to their theory, if you push air up from your lungs, the vocal folds will let the right amount of air pass through, so no need to worry about optimum airflow.

But in reality, nothing could be further from the truth.

The vocal folds have the ability to act like a valve that regulates how much air gets through during phonation. And experience shows that as they change pitch, many singers don’t manage to keep vocal fold closure the same and the airflow balanced. Instead, they have the tendency to close the valve either too hard or too soft.

You may also have encountered this problem in your own voice. If too much air gets through, the sound is breathy and the voice feels weak and unstable. If too little air escapes, the tone sounds pressed or strained and singing takes a lot of effort.

So what you have to learn if you want to sing with support isn’t just better breathing, but how to regulate the airflow through your vocal folds. This task involves coordinating how hard your vocal folds close as you sing through your range and vocal passages.

Trap #2: You need to push with your diaphragm as you exhale

Contrary to what most people think, the important part about breathing in singing happens on the inhale, before you sing. It is about creating good starting conditions for a balance between your vocal folds and the airstream.

You want to avoid taking a high (clavicular) breath, because it will likely force you to close the vocal folds pretty hard so that they keep the air from escaping your body.

Why is that? As gravity pulls your ribcage back down (which you had to lift for taking a high breath), the weight of your ribcage presses on the lungs. This in turn pushes the air out of your lungs.

Remember how the vocal folds can act like a valve? In order to keep the air inside, the valve has to close by adducting hard. With that much adduction, you start out your singing with pretty bad conditions for finding balanced airflow.

On the other hand, when you take a low diaphragmatic breath, you don’t have this problem—the ribcage doesn’t press on the lungs.

So all you have to do with your breathing in order to find support is make sure you take a low diaphragmatic breath.

Please don’t fall for the idea that you have to actively push the air out with your diaphragm as you sing. If you are still alive (you must be if you’re reading this!), your exhaling works perfectly fine.

Balanced airflow and support don’t depend on how much air you push out of your lungs, but rather on whether the closure of the vocal folds is in balance with that airstream.

So if you create too much air pressure by trying to push air out, it becomes much more unlikely that you’ll find balanced airflow. Instead, your vocal folds will either close much harder to resist the pressure or just give up and burst open. This is when you hear a break or yodel.

But what if you still feel the diaphragm working when you sing? Does that mean you’re doing it all wrong? Certainly not! If you’ve achieved balanced airflow, it’s perfectly fine to feel your diaphragm working.

The point is that you shouldn’t try to push with the diaphragm in order to get support.

Beniamino Gigli, one of the greatest tenors of all time, had this to say on the matter:

“As soon as I commence to sing, I forget all about the diaphragm and ribs, all about the breathing machinery and its action, and sing on the accumulated air right underneath the larynx.”

What’s the takeaway?

Support isn’t only about breathing. It’s a condition that you find if you manage to control your airflow and balance it. You do so by learning to coordinate how hard your vocal folds close over the airstream from your lungs.

By inhaling the right way, you create optimal conditions for finding balanced airflow. Suboptimal breathing won’t result in balanced airflow, thus making support impossible.

If you are interested in some practical exercises to find balanced airflow, check our video on this topic.

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Photo of Andreas Grussl
Voice instructor, vocal producer and lawyer, Andreas Grussl runs a very successful voice studio in his hometown of Graz, the second biggest city in Austria.

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