Bernice: A Study in Breath and Singing

Opera singer

by Stever, for Jacque Chambers

September 20, 1994

Her face quivers, as the world moves into slow motion. The lips begin to part, ample cheeks swaying like a half-eaten Christmas pudding, forgotten and dormant for months in the rear of the refrigerator. The jowls shake in joyful anticipation. I begin to wince. Bernice is preparing to sing.

Sound is simple enough: it is the vibration of air waves. In the typical human, air passes from the lungs, through the neck, into the larynx and over the vocal chords. The chords vibrate with the passing air, and the vibration creates sound. Unfortunately, Bernice is not a typical human.

Bernice begins where most women leave off. Consider the lower back. The diaphragm encircles the body with a band of muscle. When the portion spanning the back is sturdy, it holds the back still, creating an air reservoir. Strong back muscles control air flow up, generating subtley pure high tones as air trickles past the vocal chords. Bernice, alas, has no such muscles. Her back long ago collapsed under ample folds of fat. On a good day, she can support a column of air just vigorous enough to emit a wheezing raspberry, vaguely suggestive of alley cats on a hot summer’s night.

Alley cats know their limits, however. They control their pitch. Breath, you see, travels through the vocal chords to produce tone. When the chords are open, a lot of air passes through, sounding low tones. High tones are produced with the chords more and more closed. Too much air bursts them open, destroying the sound. The higher the tone, the more delicate the stream of air must be. Alley cats stay well within their range of control. Not so, Bernice.

Bernice has always had a problem with control. In 1988 she gained 250 pounds in a show of solidarity with Oprah Winfrey. Somehow, however, Oprah shed the weight; Bernice kept it. She fancies it makes her seem an operatic Diva. On occasion, she drapes herself with lace remnants from Garment District dumpsters, and dances about her studio. Bitter experience has taught her that there are limits to the tensile strength of a hardwood floor.

Her dancing relaxes her, which is good. The air must flow from the reservoir in the back up through the throat and into the mouth. For resonance and tone, the throat and tongue must be relaxed. Since the rear of the tongue can easily block the breath, relaxation is key. After a five to ten minute routine, Bernice is as relaxed as a 55-gallon drum of melted butter. Her tongue, however, can still cause problems; rosebud lips are cute, but don’t open wide enough to give the tongue anywhere to go.

No matter. Bernice will happily direct her breath elsewhere. She knows, as do we all, that resonating cavities in the skull fill out the sound. The breath must travel directly up, and resonate above the soft palette in the back of the throat. When the sound is directed just so, the resonance increases and, with connection of the diaphragm, sound comes forth.

Bernice is true to this principle; she knows the danger of directing her song forward into the lips. The sound is flat, that way. She knows she must direct it elsewhere to obtain a resonant tone. The only regret is her slight confusion of resonant and nasal. She proclaims herself an Artiste of sound, bouncing her voice off the hard palate, over the tongue, and out through the sinus cavities. Explanations of the opening of the soft palate, the relaxation of the tongue, and the support of the diaphragm worry her not. Pieces of paper with felt pen writing frame her vanity mirror with confidence: “My muse is with me always.” She has dotted the “i”‘s with tiny hearts.

Suddenly time resumes. The lips draw back, allowing the tip of the compact, pink tongue to dart forward. She opens her mouth and draws a huge breath into her upper chest. (We once tried to explain to her that breath simply flows into her body’s vacuum, should she develop support from her diaphragm. She nodded sagely and reached for another Twinkie.) Her bosom trembles, as she bursts into song. The happy refrain shakes the house, as car alarms begin to go off around the neighborhood. “Happy Birthday to you!” she belts forth. “Happy Birthday to you! Happy BIRTHDAY, Dear Stever…” It’s going to be a long birthday party.

© Copyright 1997, Stever Robbins.