Singing With 'Warm Air'

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I had an email this week from the Lead section leader of a ladies barbershop chorus, asking the following questions:

Hi Liz
I wonder if you can help me. Our M.D. has asked me to get my Leads to sing with warm air. Can you tell me how to do this? Also, I have a Lead who has some vibrato in her voice. Do I put her in the middle of the section or is there some way I can help her to reduce this?

Now, these weren’t questions that could be answered in just a word or two, and besides my guess is that my correspondent is not the only person in the world who’ll ever want to know the answers to them. So, I’m answering them here – warm air today, and vibrato in a couple of days when I’ve worked up the courage to tackle it. (Is there any more contentious subject in the world of choral singing?!)

The idea of singing with ‘warm air’ is really a metaphor, rather than a direct instruction.

It’s a way of getting a richer, warmer sound by changing the way you set up the voice to sing. If you think about, all the air you sing with is warm, because it’s been inside your body. (Unless you’re dead, I guess, in which case you’re lucky to be singing at all … hmm, the Singing Zombies sounds like a good name for a quartet … I digress.) But thinking about warming the air up as you breathe in is a good way both to get you musically connected with the idea of warmth, and to get the body ready to produce a warm sound.

We can think about this by contrasting with a ‘snatch breath’. Go on, do a couple of those, to demonstrate to yourself. You’ll notice that it may be quite noisy, as a result of a narrow throat, and it probably sits quite high in the chest. It tends to leave your larynx quite high, which will produce a bright sound (not necessarily a bad thing, but you need the flexibility to vary the sound quality according to the needs of the music), and often introduces constriction into the sound too (nearly always a bad thing).

If, instead, you think about taking the breath in slowly so that you can warm it up (go on, try that too), you’ll find that you are both opening your throat up more and breathing much more deeply. This removes constriction, resulting in a quieter breath and freer tone, increases the resonating space in your throat, and helps engage your vocal support. So that’s win-win-win so far, and as an added bonus, your larynx will probably be lower and possibly even a little tilted forward, and thus ready to produce a warmer sound at source.

So, the musical director who asks you to sing with a ‘warm breath’ actually wants you to relax, open your throat, breathe deeply, drop and tilt your larynx and aim for the artistic goal of a warm sound. However, that’s too much to think about all at once, so he uses the metaphor as a short-hand. And you’ll find that, once you’ve managed to connect with what the metaphor is getting at, your imagination will get on the case and make all the physical changes for you, so that you can concentrate on the music.

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