No, that’s not the opening of a joke…
In fact, fun as it is, operatic singing is by no means easy, and opera is not ONLY about singing.*
An opera singer is expected to be (ideally, in equal measures) a musician, a linguist, an athlete (let’s not kid ourselves, opera is an endurance sport in many ways), an actor, a movement artist (no, you can’t just stand there and do nothing, even standing still can have artistry) and let’s not forget the ‘making nice sound with the voice ‘ bit…
“There is a saying in the Neverland that, every time you breathe, a grown-up dies.”
― J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan
Despite wishing death on adults (though that quote is more about the eternal child living…), one hopes, that in normal everyday life, you tick along not thinking about your breathing. At all. That’s because the autonomic nervous system takes care of that for you.
When a singer begins training, usually, one of the first things addressed is breathing, or rather getting control of one’s breathing. This involves the manipulation of some muscles, the relaxation of others, and essentially overriding the autonomic nervous system’s default settings for breathing (or homeostasis, if you like fancy science words).
Having recently started studying with new teacher myself, we went back to the beginning in our first few sessions, as she wanted to check my understanding of how I was using my breath, breath management and the muscles involved in managing the whole show.
As we started discussing the language around breathing and what’s often referred to ‘breath support’ (it’s actually not my favourite term as it’s too easy to misinterpret, but I’ll rant about that another time), we talked about the expansion of body that occurs in parts of the thoracic cavity in terms of both capacity and pressure.
And then it hit me, I was applying…
This was the first time I saw, and quite literally felt my science and singing education(s) come together.
When breathing for operatic singing (or just, you know, respiration), we’re applying PHYSICS, which is so exciting, and specifically for a singer, it’s a deliberate manipulation of that air pressure and rate of expenditure of the respiratory gasses (c’mon, you KNOW ‘respiratory gasses’ sounds sexy).
So what is Boyle’s Law?
Very simply, the pressure of a given quantity of a gas is inversely proportional to its volume, at a constant temperature, (and actually ONLY works as an ideal, but it’s a good guideline).
So, even more simply put: less volume, more pressure.
Or more specifically: if volume is halved, pressure is doubled.
Why is this important for singing?
To summarise that second video, breathing (deliberately pwith ‘technique’, or not) alters both the pressure and capacity within the thoracic cavity.
When you inhale you increase the volume of gas in the lungs (obvs), and at the same time this decreases the total pressure within the lungs, the pressure OUTSIDE the body is greater at this point.
When you exhale, muscles of the thoracic cavity relax and the pressure resulting from the muscular activity sends the air out, reducing the overall internal volume.
What a singer needs to do when sustaining long singing phrases (or even short ones) is manage and get in control of the amount of air released and the use of both the increase and decrease of pressure.
HOW one does that from a technique perspective is another kettle of fish altogether (and as my disclaimer says, I’m not giving a singing lesson here…). So instead of going down that road, I’ll just leave you with a fierce example of singing with incredible breath control, Montserrat Caballe’s Casta Diva from Bellini’s Norma:
*Disclaimer: this post in no way constitutes vocal instruction, or advice, it’s merely relating my personal collision of opera and science. As such, anything written in this blog is for informational purposes only!