Adam Lambert and the Basics of a Singer’s Voice : Breathing and Support

“Singing is a sensory-motor phenomenon that requires particular physical skills. When these skills are developed in a sensitive performer, singing becomes an art.” – Meribeth A. Bunch, Ph.D. (Consultant in Voice, Associated Professor, University of Delaware, USA)

A singer, much as anyone involved in any activity in life, whilst performing, is engaged on two basic levels: the outer performance that the singer allows the audience to see, hear and experience, and the inner performance, that allows the singer to mentally direct and monitor his performance.

The outer performance, the performance that the audience experiences, takes years to master. The singer’s preparation usually requires the singer to take singing lessons, practise scales and vocalises daily, learn and develop songs for their repertoire, rehearse regularly with an accompanist, take dance or movement lessons, acting lessons, and invest in lessons in performance skill and stage craft, etc. Simultaneously, however, whilst engaged in the performance on this outer level, the singer is also engrossed in an inner performance, no less important, but much harder to see and if noticed at all, instantly forgotten.

This inner performance, again on two levels, takes place firstly in the mind of the singer where the obstacles are issues of self-doubt, anxiety, nervousness, fear of failure, lapses in concentration, distraction, etc. The physical impact on a singer is debilitating to say the least, and might include problems such as feeling sick, increased heartbeat, tension, loss of breath, dry mouth, inability to see or hear clearly, etc., all incapacitating and something which most performers have to deal with each time they perform, to a lesser or larger degree. The second part of this inner performance has to do with being a witness, “standing beside oneself” and being one’s own director as it were, in order to constantly monitor your performance.

Thus these two performances, the outer and the inner performances, have considerable impact on each other. All performers recognize the mental challenge and strength it takes to perform, and can recognize their capacity for getting in their own way. In fact, it is virtually impossible to participate in any activity without engaging both on an outer and inner level simultaneously, which is why most people can relate somewhat to what performers experience. The deciding factor between the success or failure of the outer performance, providing that everything necessary had been done to ensure it’s triumph, depends almost entirely on the inner performance.

For a performer, the most surprising element of the inner performance is not the things that go badly when the mind decides to have a running commentary on every mistake, every wrong note, every phrase on which your breathing let you down, every nuance that didn’t quite work, every lyric forgotten, every high or low note not quite reached, but the fact that it is almost impossible to remember much about the times when everything went well. Then there is only the sense of things falling into place, feelings of joy, of elation, of becoming the emotional aspect of the music through the textures, colours, shapes and passion in and for the music, an experience of the magic of the music and the performance, and an exchange of energy with the audience – all performers experience this from time-to-time. It happens only, however, when the performer is physically very relaxed and mentally alert and aware, but too absorbed in the moment to be running any mental commentary. Even more bizarrely, singers often perform better when they are slightly ill, or tired or in a mood where they don’t care whether or not they sound good, and completely relaxed, perhaps when performing for close friends – in other words, when their own mind gets out of their way.

The sounds singers make depend on many factors because the human vocal instrument is an organic one, it is constantly evolving, and therefore affected by everything, from the singer’s diet, travel – especially air travel – the amount of sleep or water they had that day, how fatigued they are, and even the humidity or lack thereof in the venue as well as the temperature both outside and inside the venue. The singer’s voice is also affected by their moods and emotions, the repertoire, how comfortable they feel with the band or orchestra, the amount of rehearsal they’ve had, the attitudes of the backstage people around them, the audience’s vibe and response, etc. Even simple things like their clothes and their footwear can have a fairly dramatic impact on a singer’s performance.

Those of us who have been following the uber talented singer, Adam Lambert and his Glam Nation Tour around America and the world, are familiar with the fact that each show, even though set and choreographed, has been slightly different from the others, primarily because of Adam’s astounding ability to improvise music and movement anew at each performance. This has been no mean feat when you consider that he performed more than a hundred shows over a six-month period whilst giving numerous interviews and participating in meet and greets with fans before every show! Of course there were times when he was tired and times when he was ill, but his performances just became better and better as the tour forged ahead – perhaps proving that he too, was able to improve his performance when slightly ill or tired. But one thing was clear from the very beginning: Adam Lambert, the consummate professional, classically trained musician, cares very much at all times, about how he sounds – a reassuring fact, although his dedicated fans would certainly have encouraged him to feel as though he was singing to friends. And this, his first headlining tour, must have been testing at times, as he performed in a variety of venues, some of which were clearly better equipped to deal with his sound system requirements than others.

It has been a revelation and exciting beyond words, however, to experience this journey with such an extraordinarily talented performer and vocal master as Adam Lambert. It has also been enormously enlightening to witness some of his inner performances, because his enormous success has its roots, most likely, in the fact that Adam seems to have given himself permission to fail. He evidently has no fear of the stage and releasing himself from the fear of failure: the biggest fear plaguing all performers, Adam has freed himself to focus his attention one hundred percent on the making of music and on communicating so effectively with his audience. He has courageously displayed an exceptional ability to be acutely aware of every aspect of his performance, yet, truly free – the most difficult achievement for any performer. It is his willingness to let go of the need to hold on to a specific technique (except for those all-important basic techniques that support his voice so well), or a particular genre of music, or any notion of “how it has to be done”, despite criticism, together with his willingness to be apparently “lost” in the music and in his performance, which allows his continued growth as a fluid, dynamic singer and a remarkable performer.

Long before Adam embarked on the inner performance’s journey, however, he first had to work hard on the outer performance, because that is primarily what the audience comes to see and experience. And for every singer, that journey starts with breathing for singing. That is, breathing that supports the vocal instrument, which is, in some ways, not too different than the breathing techniques required for all wind instruments, one of which is the human vocal instrument. Learning the correct breathing techniques for good voice support, however, can take years. But breathing is all-important for singers – it is the canvas upon which the voice’s pictures will be painted and therefore the “smoother” it is, the better the pictures will be.

“…breath is like the liaison between the excitement of feeling and the physiological effects. The trained singer especially feels this, since he must form the tone on the breath as a modulating process – and his success – apart from the mastering of the basic techniques – is qualitatively dependent upon requirements in the area of the soul.” Friz Winckel, Music, Sound and Sensation: A Modern Exposition. Mr. Winckel is a physicist who worked in the field of experimental voice and speech research, with a particular interest in the analysis of the human singing voice.

Firstly, therefore, Adam would have had to learn how to breathe rapidly and deeply by relaxing the vocal tract, offering low resistance to the incoming air. He would have had to learn to breathe only through his mouth, raising the soft palate whilst keeping the tongue, vocal muscles and abdominal muscles relaxed. As for most singers, in order to discover the wide airway that is needed, he most likely would have been told to “feel the incoming air creating a cold spot high on the back of the throat.” And he would have had to learn to exhale slowly and evenly, in a long breath, whilst singing notes or phrases.

To begin to support his voice, however, he would have had to learn to keep his rib cage out and open: in the same position as when breathing in for as long as possible. At the same time, he would have to keep the diaphragm expanding continually until the end of the phrase, whilst simultaneously lifting the pelvic muscles to support the voice. This is the only way to support tone and is rather difficult to master.

From The Science and Art of Singing by Lisa Roma, the world-renowned Swedish dramatic soprano, Birgit Nilsson, is quoted as saying: “One has to be conscious of support. Vocal cords you almost have to forget. They make the sound, but like the violinist, you must have…the sounding board (she pointed to a spot on her forehead an inch or two above her eyes). If one forgets the support it’s like a flower without roots, after a while it begins to fade. It’s the same thing with the voice. I hear so many young singers completely singing without the support. They’re singing from the chest and up, and it doesn’t sound well…I feel the higher the note goes, the lower the support. The support is as low as possible.”

After the basic breathing and voice support techniques had been mastered, Adam would go on to employ the techniques we can see him using today. Like all classically trained singers, he breathes with his entire torso. Of course we see clearly only his chest moving as it expands passively whilst the air is moving through it, because that is what we expect to see. But actually, he is breathing into his abdomen, his back and his sides, much as if his body was a barrel that expands equally in all directions as he breathes in. Thus Adam is “breathing” in as low down into his body as possible. This is very important for good sound production, because singers use muscles all the way down into their genital area (root chakra) to support their voice. All three pairs of the broad, flat sheets of muscle; the external and internal oblique muscles and the transversus abdominis – the most powerful muscles controlling breathing – are attached to the rib cage, making a complete tube from back to front. Only the external oblique has no attachment to the back bone, but rather reinforces the front and sides of this tube. This trio of muscle pairs are attached to the pelvis, and to the pelvic diaphragm at the floor of the pelvis, which is also formed by muscles. The pelvic diaphragm must contract during singing in order to maintain abdominal pressure, which opposes the diaphragm. Sometimes it is even necessary to clench the buttocks for further support.

If the breathing is too high in the body, therefore, then no matter how hard these muscles work, vocal support will be non-existent. In addition, a very important reason for “breathing” low into the body is to eliminate tension in the upper body, ensuring that voice production is free from obstruction. And any tension in the neck, shoulders and the chest gives a false sense of fullness, which will lead a singer to believe they have taken in enough air, and only when they begin to sing, comes the realization that in fact, too little air has been taken in and not enough air is available to complete the phrase.

Below are some examples of Adam breathing perfectly for singing:

“A very short time (200-300 milliseconds, Wilder 1979) before the act of singing a phrase, a pattern of coordinated activity is initiated in the muscles of respiration… The singer’s ability to initiate this complex process can only come after desirable patterns have been so practised that they become habitual and unconscious… This is accomplished by trial, error and performing experience. Once this process is acquired and programmed the artist can take command of the act of singing. He can only develop fully as an artist when the muscular control has become an unconscious reflex and his concentration is devoted to interpretation.” – Meribeth A. Bunch, Ph.D., Dynamics of the Singing Voice (1982)

Mastery and use of the lower abdominal, as well as lower back muscular control during performance, however, often tends to lead to sexual arousal in the singer. How can it not when the muscles into the genital area are being stimulated? This is a completely natural and normal response by the body and not something over which the singer has any control.

According to the neuroscientist and former rock music producer, Prof. Daniel Levitin, music activates the brain area responsible for feeling pleasure, excitement and satisfaction. “Music has been shown to cause activity in brain circuits associated with physical reactions, such as sweating, sexual arousal, and ‘shivers down the spine.‘”

From the website, Darwin vs. the Machine, NY, an article had been posted called The Rockstar Effect – Singing Produces the Same Chemicals as Sex (June 2010). Quoted from Integrative physiological and behavioral science : the official journal of the Pavlovian Society 2003 vol. 38 (1) pp. 65-74 – Does singing promote well-being?: An empirical study of professional and amateur singers during a singing lesson, by Christina Grape, Maria Sandgren, Lars-Olof Hansson, Mats Ericson, Töres Theorell, National Institute for Psychosocial Factors and Health, Stockholm, Sweden. “Further studies have revealed a statistically significant link between singing, and the release of the neurotransmitter, Oxytocin in the brain. Oxytocin is called the “trust hormone” and when released, the user experiences a feeling of well-being and trust. The same chemical is produced during sex, and has to do with establishing an emotional link between the individuals…We love the feeling this chemical produces, which is why American Idol is one of the most popular shows of all time…”

The sexual arousal experienced by singers during performing is completely normal, and very common, although with female singers it is not quite as apparent. American mezzo soprano, Frederica von Stade, said: “We don’t see the instrument…so much is in the imagination and what you can do with it…Singing and sex are two forms of expression that come from inside the body.”

Internationally acclaimed singer/actress, Dame Julie Andrews, DBE, who expected never to sing again after an operation on her vocal cords in 1997 left them damaged, has found new techniques to manage her music. In her biography, Home, she says singing is “as addictive as opium” and “like sex before the moment of climax”.

Swedish Soprano, Elisabeth Anna Söderström, CBE, said in her autobiography, In My Own Key (1979) “How can I describe the ecstasy you feel when every fibre in your body vibrates on the same wave length as the notes, when a high C-sharp suddenly sparkles in front of you as if a sun had appeared in the auditorium…It is an intense desire to be allowed to share the worlds of beauty from which I myself derive such endless stimulation.”

And on SingersSing.com, Welsh recording artist, Duffy, describes how she feels like she is having sex every time she sings her 2008 hit song, “Mercy”.

Shelley Winters, Oscar nominated American actress said of her experience working with Marlon Brando in the stage production of “A Streetcar Named Desire “- 1951 “There was an electrical charge and almost an animal scent he projected over the footlights that made it impossible for the audience to think or watch the other performers on the stage. All you could do was feel, the sexual arousal was so complete. I don’t believe that quality can be learned; it’s just there, primitive and compelling. The only time I experienced a similar reaction was when I saw Elvis Presley perform in Las Vegas.”

Male singers can find sexual arousal highly embarrassing, as it is easier to witness. Adam Lambert, unlike most other male singers, however, seems to revel in this natural situation, and uses his arousal on stage to his advantage during his performances, rather than shying away from it or trying to hide it. And as a result, his performances are characteristically honest and uniquely charged with sexual energy – one of the most powerfully creative energies of the human body. It is, after all, our gate-way to participating in the co-creation of life – and something everyone can relate to.

During an interview in Malaysia, he said: “My performance will probably still have a lot of ’vibe’ about it. It’s not really something I can control…” (1:11)

How wonderful it must be to have the courage to be that free as a performer, both with your voice and your body – in other words, with your entire instrument. And how wonderful for us, the audience, to be that freedom’s grateful recipient!

We do not own the copyright to any of the pictures, music or videos presented in this programme, only copyright on all scripts presented here, and no copyright infringement is intended.  Pictures of Adam Lambert kindly supplied by Grrr_girl.                                                                                 

This blog is offered to invite comments and discussion on the work presented by The Sound Bath.

About soundbath

I loved singing from a very young age and first performed in public when just seven years old. As a child, living as we did, on a farm in the middle of the Kalahari Desert - the place of my birth - we had no television and my mother played records by Mario Lanza, Guiseppe Di Stephano, Beniamino Gigli, Franco Corelli, Jussi Bjorling, Enrico Caruso and other well-known Italian opera tenors, day in and day out. I adored this music and their beautiful voices, and was convinced I would be a tenor when I grew up. But the small matter of being born a girl, shattered that dream! I trained as a soprano instead, and have been fortunate enough to sing all over the world, enjoying some wonderful moments along the way, including being invited to Buckingham Palace by Queen Elizabeth II in recognition of my contribution to the music, economy and culture of the UK.
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14 Responses to Adam Lambert and the Basics of a Singer’s Voice : Breathing and Support

  1. 4evrmomof4 says:

    Thank you for enhancing our understanding of Adam’s vocal gifts. Thank you also for your wonderful show that provide additional insight into Adam’s vocal technique as part of his interpretation of music.

    I really appreciate the knowledge you have provided.

  2. magsmagenta says:

    Thanks :)

  3. Janice says:

    Very interesting .
    Thank you from someone who had no clue why he stands out from any other singer. I just love his voice. Always perfect.

  4. Victoria Parker says:

    Once in twenty five years we have a master voice and Adam has come to us…I feel so lucky to have the privilege of hearing and seeing Adam perform and just love every moment of it.

  5. Scorpios4adam says:

    Thank you for your well informed article enlightening us on breathing techniques.
    Adam has mentioned “an exchange of energy with the audience” for the meaning behind
    his Infinity tattoo. As an audience member, I feel it is the reason I had to go to so many concerts. I get an absolute high when I am in his presence, and I’ve talked to others who get it also. I can feel the energy in the air, it is palpable. I’ve never had that happen with any one else.

    • magsmagenta says:

      I feel that too, the exchange of energy and it’s the mark of a true performer, the only place I’ve found it before to the extent that I’ve found it with Adam is with Iron Maiden, I’ve been following them for nearly 30 years. That’s one reason Adam is so special to me is that I never thought I’d find it again with someone else.

      • soundbath says:

        Yes, the energy surrounding him is particularly strong – I agree! Of course, most stage performers, in particular, have a strong presence, but I, too, have never come across anything quite like Adam’s energy!

  6. Glambert303 says:

    Boring article and you don’t address that the ‘singer’ has a ‘reaction’ immediately after kissing the bass player… How about an article on body language and how real life people have real life relationships… Watch those videos again!

  7. soundbath says:

    Thank you everyone, not only for taking the time to read my blog, but also for leaving such lovely comments – I hope that you’ll come with me on my journey as I continue to explore Adam’s astonishing voice.

    Glambert303, please understand that my specialism is voice and that I am trying to help others understand how amazing it is what Adam is doing with his voice – I do not profess to be an expert in body language – perhaps it is something you might like to write about?

  8. cassie says:

    Angelina,
    You are always so gracious. I never find your articles boring. I only have one complaint about them….. they leave me wanting more. I end up with so many follow up questions. For example, you say that correct breathing becomes second nature to the seasoned, trained singer. So, I am assuming that Adam doesn’t have to think about it at all? Or does he sometimes get a little sloppy? He usually sings great legato lines, but occasionally I hear him break them up and take an extra breath where he doesn’t usually. Do you hear that as well?
    Also, several people have asked me why we can hear pronounced breathing at certain times and in certain songs, but not in others? Is he intentionally making the breathing audible as part of the interpretation?
    And what about his breath support when he is moving and dancing all around the stage? It seems that many pop singers these days lip-sync while dancing because their breath support can’t sustain good tone while moving. I would think that the bouncing, moving, bending down, bending over all would have serious impact on breath support, but it doesn’t seem to interfere with Adam hitting the notes smack on pitch or sustaining a note or line. And, he doesn’t even look out of breath at the end.

    See, I could ask questions all day long. I love your generosity in sharing your knowledge with us. Thanks a bunch.

    • soundbath says:

      Hi Cassie,

      Thank you so much for your wonderful compliments and kind words. I’m so glad you asked questions – I’d love for this to be a place where we can all explore the world’s oldest musical instrument, the human vocal instrument and everything that surrounds it, which helps to create some of the worlds’ greatest art.

      Yes, breath control for singing does become second nature to seasoned, trained singers, but that doesn’t mean we never think of it again – in fact, we think of it more – not necessarily about the mechanics of it as beginner-singers have to do, but rather how to use our breath to enhance our interpretation of a song. ( Sometimes I compare it to driving a car when I teach. When you first learn to drive, you have to concentrate on the mechanics of the physical act of driving, but once that’s mastered and ingrained, you end up thinking and concentrating on the best way to get to your destination – and so it is with breathing for singing, too.)

      I know what you mean about Adam sometimes breathing where he doesn’t usually and I suspect he’s often doing it deliberately – we all know how he likes to experiment and change things up all the time, but, as happens even to the best opera singers, we sometimes get distracted for a moment and then find we didn’t take in enough breath to get us to the end of the phrase we’d set up for ourselves. I have certainly witnessed Adam doing that in front of me during a live performance – so he is human after all! :) But he clearly hides a third lung, because no matter how little breath he has left, I have never, ever heard him breathe in the middle of a word, something which ‘normal’ pop singers often have to resort to doing. It is a testament to his classical singing techniques and training, his good taste, and his astonishing discipline, perfectionist and professionalism.

      I too have been asked about his audible breathing – Adam’s breath control is astonishing and he certainly knows how to breathe ‘correctly‘ for singing, but as we’ve established, he’s human, so as with the best opera singers, in very fast songs, it is not always possible to breathe inaudibly because you have to keep up with the tempo of the song, so that might be one reason people can hear him breathing. But as long as it doesn’t distract, I personally don’t see anything wrong with it – it happens to great opera singers too. But something that has fascinated me from the beginning, is indeed the fact that he uses his breath and breathing as elements of his interpretation of the songs he’s singing – and that’s rather difficult to do – it takes great concentration and you have to have very, very strong muscles! :)

      As far as moving and dancing is concerned – again, it is because of his perfect breathing and voice control techniques that he is able to do so.

      There is a perception that opera singers are static when they perform – but actually we too move rather more than people might expect: we dance, have love scenes, fight, jump off castles, die, etc., and operatic singing is very physical – one can lose weight during an opera! :)

      Musical theatre singers move around the stage even more – a good example might be Adam’s performance in Wicked, so this is where superb breath and voice control techniques play their part in making it look so easy, but in fact it is rather more difficult than it appears. Pop singers who have to lip synch in order to dance, has to do so because they have very little to no breath and voice control techniques in their tool box, whereas Adam’s is comparable to some of the great opera singers. He is therefore, unique in today’s pop music world, because as far as I know, there are no other trained singers currently out there doing what he’s doing. But many people who listen to Adam‘s music, may perhaps not be used to seeing a trained singer in action, especially if they don’t also regularly attend opera or musical theatre shows. So he would be even more astonishing to them.

      The fact that he makes it all look so easy, is his artistry.

      I hope that helps? :)

  9. funbunn40 says:

    I’ve also been facsinated by Adam’s amazing breath control and how he seems to effortlessly hold long powerful notes. The physical aspects were surprising and how extensive the training and how long it tmust take for it to become an automatic response. Adam instinctively can change notes on songs he sings night after night without ever compromising his performance. On Ellen’s show he improvised some notes for the 12 days of Christmas on the spur of the moment that was incredible. Ellen was amazed and said he could have easily gone on for 15 minutes with no problem, sounding fantastic. That ability can’t be learned. Adam doesn’t need 24 dancers on stage, distracting from his voice. He could be alone, just singing acapella and i would be thoroughly entertained. His 4 dancers on his GNT enhanced and framed him well. He was always easily the main focus, like a magnet, drawing us in, keeping us close. Once you’ve seen him live, you want more, never having enough, knowing the performance will end and grieving the end. He is my drug of choice, the most exciting man I’ve ever seen!

  10. soundbath says:

    Hi funbunn40,

    Thank you so much for your great comments here, too – I appreciate it enormously. And I agree, Adam is indeed a most exciting performer!

    Thank you for reminding us about his wonderful performance on Ellen. You’re so right about Adam being able to improvise notes without compromising his performance, but I’m not so sure that it is necessarily all instinctive, and my reason for saying it is that those coloratura runs (riffs) that he does so easily, are in fact an integral part of classical singing training – it has to do with singing scales for hours every day. In an interview, when asked what he sings at home, Adam answered that he sings scales. I knew then that we were dealing with a very serious musician and singer. But please remember that there are many, many different kinds of scales and not what most people might imagine – singing up and down scales. Actually singers seldom sing only those. And I would be very surprised if Adam did! :)

  11. laurieb says:

    I know Im late to the party but my god, all the techniques singers have to go through just to sing (properly) I almost cant breathe just thinking about it. I have always felt that Adam is a very special singer/performer .He has captured my heart in a way I cannot describe.I really enjoy your commentary about Adam and how special his voice and technique is.I listened to the recordings you have done for the Sound Bath many times and cant wait for more about Adam and the wonder that is his voice. I dont understand why the music industry doesnt recognize this and promote it.How sad that we live in a world where someone so gifted is not recognized properly. I am hoping that album number 2 will showcase this talent more.. I am just learning about technique and what goes into performing because of Adam and people like you. Thank-you for loving Adam and sharing with us.

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