Why breathe in the McClosky way?
As a singer and voice teacher, I think breath is the most important thing to learn and teach. When the breath is working well, many other things work well without much additional attention.
This way of breathing goes back several centuries as “appoggio” breathing. I hesitate to use this term, since it has been used by others for different ways of breathing. Many singers think they have to take in huge amounts of breath, but that is not the main issue. In order to have a fairly steady and long exhalation to sing musical phrases, the challenge is how to expel air slowly and evenly.
We can use the intercostals (muscles between the ribs) but we get a high shallow breath; most sources agree that this is inappropriate for singing. We can use the abdominals to take a lower breath; this alone is not enough. What is especially useful for singing is to use the diaphragm, a muscle that divides the body horizontally, to provide some resistance during exhalation and thus make the exhalation longer and more even in pressure. Unfortunately, we are not able to directly feel the diaphragm (except with hiccups, a spasm of the diaphragm), but we can contract the diaphragm where it is connected around its edges, to the ribs, by expanding the ribcage. This is how we access the diaphragm for breathing in singing. The abdominal muscles provide the energy to take in and expel the air, and the diaphragm, through the moderate but steady elevation of the ribcage, provides some resistance to keep all the air from coming out at once. To my knowledge, this particular way of using these muscles is unique to singers.
Here’s the video:
Tips on how to do the McClosky breath.
Try first to take only moderate breaths; most of the time, this is enough anyway.
Look in a mirror and watch for something around the ribcage area that lets you see if you are moving or holding the ribs still. I find that horizontal stripes, a necklace, or a printed logo in the chest area will make movement more obvious. Stand so your chest is lined up with the lower edge of a mirror and see if more or less is visible during inhalation and exhalation. If you have only a full-length mirror, put a music stand in front of you so you can judge if the chest is rising and falling (which it should not).
Experiment with holding the chest a little higher or a little lower. You need to find a position you can maintain and that allows your abdominals to move freely.
Some people have trouble relaxing their abdominal wall enough to take a filling breath. You should feel pressure against your waistband as you inhale. If you do not, you might try some total body relaxation exercises to learn to release the belly. You can just lie on your back, for example, and pay attention to your quiet breathing. The waistband area should move. See if you can tune in to this movement and exaggerate it slightly.
Many singers are surprised at how little strength or physical effort is needed in this method of breathing. The feeling most report is buoyancy or “flow.” There is no stoppage or so-called “anchoring” of the breath. We breathe in; we breathe out while producing sound.
Next blogpost: combining the McClosky Relaxation Exercises and Breathing.