Your breath is the foundation of a beautiful sound. How often do you notice yourself hearing your friends breathe? Unless you both have just completed an hour of Cross-Fit, probably not very often. Why then, do some singers make an audible gasp when taking in breath to sing?
The sound of someone gasping is defined as, “the strain to take a deep breath.” To put the complexity of your body mechanisms attempting to function together simply: You are fighting yourself! One of the most obvious- and loudest- ways to check if your breathing is… messed up… is to record yourself and see if you gasp between phrases for air. Sorry to say guys, this absolutely needs to be addressed.
Because a gasp is the result of tension in your body, the solution is to release this tension.
However, your body considers these tensions essential to existence; without habitual tensions, your body believes it cannot produce the action you are demanding of it: standing, walking, sitting down, and of course, singing. For this reason, stopping yourself from gasping is not a matter of merely telling yourself not to do it. Rather, you must use Alexander Technique and personalized vocal exercises to change the way your body supports itself while strengthening intercostal muscles (also called the singer’s support).
Now you ask me:
But, isn’t it enough to just practice singing and it will go away on its own?
I wish I could tell you yes! But, I also would by lying if I said definitively no!
And herein lies the frustrating truth about singing: No two bodies are the same, no two singing journeys are the same, and the speed at which you and Bob beside you progress are highly dependent on the extremity of your natural habits and whether your teacher understands exactly what your body needs. Let’s look at Bob first.
A Singing Case Study: Bob v. You
Bob has some nasty habits: His posture involves pulling his neck forward and down while his shoulders slump forward, and back curves over. As a result, his voice is compressed and his throat must work extra hard to create sound- this is why Bob finds it difficult to talk for extended lengths of time and gasps when he takes a quick breath. Bob is going to have to change his posture entirely if he hopes to sing without pain and use his voice in a healthy way. Bob understands that he cannot use strength of will to force a good sound out of a twisted instrument and so goes to work with an Alexander Technique teacher for 8 weeks. He spends time learning how to change his relationship with his body so that when he goes to sing, he can ask of it what he needs to support and play with sound.
Now lets maybe look at you? You are commended often on your posture, you exhume a regal air and are known for being able to project across large halls. It seems that all you need to work on is loosening some tension in your chest (likely established from holding that posture without an awareness of the space that should exist within your sternum and back even when standing straight!) But luckily, you are not nearly as twisted as Bob. You take singing lessons focused solely on scales, trills, and sighs without any specific body work or Alexander Technique, but your teacher mentions you are a bit stiff and should try yoga. A few months later, you are a better singer with less tension and have achieved the goals you set out to: This is a possible outcome! Alas, the story could easily go the other way, where the absence of body work has actually made you even tighter, and now you have lost your ability to project across large halls.
Bob, who incorporated both body work and vocal exercises into his learning, now has a job as a voice over artist for Disney.
So, What Should You do To Ensure You Improve And Stop Gasping?
Don’t leave anything to luck. Treat your body like a cellist treats his cello- keep it in top condition and watch for any broken strings. Work with a voice teacher who has training in Alexander Technique or another form of body work or complement your training with your current voice teacher by doing sessions with an Alexander Technician.
When you go into the practice room, go in as a detective. Spend time just breathing and preparing to sing- before you make sound, see where in your body you feel tight. Make notes and take this to your teacher. Lessons and practice times should be exploratory. No one is inside your body but you, and if you try to improve as a singer by simply repeating the same act over and over again, you are neglecting the most obvious and yet forgotten fact:
Your body is your instrument.
Be like Bob.