Air Flow vs. Air Pressure (and Classical vs. Popular Singing)

Yes, I still take voice lessons.  In fact, I take lessons from my other teacher, Kristin Henry.  She is a more classically oriented teacher than I am (although, to be fair, she kills at funk and R&B too).

In my lessons, we are working on the epic closing song for my debut set with AdrienneO this Thursday night.  The vocal style that best matches the emotion of the song is a more epic, classical approach than anything I have ever sung before.  I have no problem reaching any of the notes in this (very rangy!) song, but hitting them with the right tone and release is illuminating a big difference between classical and popular singing:  air flow vs. air pressure.

As a popular-music singer, I tend to sing with a good deal of air pressure to provide the air support for my voice.  Think about the compression and apparent tension you hear in popular-music voices, from Aretha Franklin to Kelly Clarkson to Bruno Mars to Enrique Iglesias.  To put it simply, there’s a lot of air pressure there.  It may sound like tension, but I think of it more as compression.  The air is literally pressurized between the diaphragm and the vocal cords.  This results in a more belty, brighter, and “tighter” feel and tone.

Compare this sound to classical singers; for example, Lea Salonga singing I Dreamed a Dream.  There is a freedom and release in classical singing that you don’t hear as often as popular styles.  There are lots of reasons for this, of course, but the main one I am focusing on today is air flow.

I have no problem hitting a high F with pressurized air.  But it sounds like too much of a belting voice for this epic song.  I have to let off the pressure and compression, and add air flow instead.  Then the note pops on it own. 

If you tend to sing with a lot of air pressure and want to sing with more air flow, here are some ideas for how to get there:

Do high-range vocal exercises with light, hooty sounds that are completely oriented in the head, not mixed in to the chest much – if at all.  (You need to have a clear released head voice in the first place to have something to work with.)  Fortunately, the majority of at-home singing programs have plenty of these kinds of exercises.

Try “sitting” against a wall, knees bent, back against the wall, and singing there.  (This works well with some people, and not so well with some guys who have really muscular backs or shoulders.)

Try sitting on a chair, legs resting up on a high chair or stool.  This works really well for me, because it makes it very hard to over-exert my abs.

The main idea is that instead of highly compressed air making its way out through your vocal cords like air squeaking out of an overblown balloon, you want to provide a consistent, gentle flow of air.  When you do this, it’s easier to get a beautiful, released vibrato and clearer resonance, because a lot of other muscles in your throat and mouth can relax as well.