Vocal technique with Claycomb - Appoggio

Laura Claycomb. Photo: Sergio Vallente

‏So, what is support? I have been chasing this elusive beast my entire life

Appoggio is the most difficult part of the components of vocal technique to explain, although it is the backbone of everything. There is a lovely article on the appoggio online here, and this article does it better and more thoroughly than I can. You can also check out the "Breathing Gym" on Youtube if you want to wake up your breathing muscles and work on your intake. (But please be careful to keep your ribs expanded on the exhalation parts of these exercises!)

‏To boil the appoggio concept down for you here, in singing, we want to suspend and elongate the exhalation part of breathing while keeping the ribs, sternum, et al.. in the position of inhalation, using the transverse abdominalis, the internal and external oblique muscles. This suspension gives a buoyancy or “poise” to the breath flow, and has a stabilizing influence in the body on tone and emission of air flow, although it takes a while to build up this technique. Appoggio keeps you from excessive airflow (hootiness) and over-resistance by the vocal folds (pressing the voice box).

‏First, to figure out breathing, we have to talk body parts. What we know needs to happen physically and what we actually feel can be two totally different animals! Your support should feel like an anchor into the pubic area under your body. Find that spot in the perineum (the area right above the anus) you pull in when you’re stopping the pee (if you’re a woman) or the spot where (if you’re a man) you might feel you are “gathering” your testicles. I’m not quite sure how to explain that in any other way, sorry!

‏This line of support stretches out from this area I call “the spot,” up laterally to the sides of the ribs (the oblique abdominal muscles). When you inhale, you engage the external oblique muscles to expand your ribs. Be aware of the sensation as you expand these oblique muscles upon inhalation, expanding the ribs out and to the sides, and activate the root of these muscles in the “perineum spot” underneath it all to support at the same time, keeping these muscles engaged. Note that these external oblique muscles are involved in expansion, not in compression! The ribs stay as expanded as possible, even while we are exhaling (singing), and the work of the support comes from “the spot” underneath without collapsing the ribs. That spot stays engaged whether we are inhaling or exhaling. The spot is not grabbed or clenched, but engaged.

I do NOT believe that we need to try and actively engage the diaphragm itself: that is impossible. Since the diaphragm is an involuntary muscle itself, I think this gets us into all kinds of problems, as we instinctually pull in our rectus abdominal muscles (the six-pack muscles) and thus, pull in the ribs, closing off the solar plexus. For singing, we don’t need to expel the breath out as quickly as possible - we need to elongate and control that process.

Most teachers teach us to bounce the “diaphragm” (actually, the six-pack muscles), but this is not support - this just makes us close off the breathing mechanism for singing. I tried this for years, and I don’t think anyone really knew what to tell me to engage in order to support.

Interestingly enough, the “bounce” you get in your solar plexus is simply a mechanical nerve reaction to the back pressure from the opening and closing of the vocal folds. So we don’t have to rely on that biofeedback to tell us we are supporting - it is a symptom, not a cause of singing! Good to know, right? Thank you to Sherman Lowe for this gem of a factoid.

Instead, the appoggio is much more a subtle feeling in the body to connect to the support. I like to explain the diaphragm as just a thin piece of meat or gristle. It is the connecting muscles and the core muscles in the middle of the body that anchor around its sides and up through the middle that we can control, rather than the diaphragm itself. Your diaphragm, in “resting position,” is curved UP, which means it has exhaled. It wants to exhale. So we have to control/impede this exhalation as best we can by connecting to the muscles around the edge and in the center of the diaphragm. Please read the article above on appoggio.

‏Closure of vocal folds

The other side of the coin in technique to the pressure of the air coming from beneath is the resistance it gets from the vocal folds. For me, the secret (if there is any) of high notes (after placement, which is in our last installment) is the compression of the vocal folds vs. the compression of the support underneath it. The trick is to get the closure of the vocal folds correct and constant - which of course depends on having support or appoggio. The vocal folds need to be closed and resting together before the onset of the note: not slammed or squashed together, but balanced between the two extremes of floppy (allowing superfluous air through) or slammed together (pressed pressure). The flow of the breath and the slight back-pressure it creates against these closed vocal folds (what I call a “clean cord” as well) gives you the perfect onset to a note - not fuzzy, but not glottal. You are singing with the edges of the vocal folds in contact with each other at all times, not blowing air through “open” or “floppy” cords, giving that horrible airy sound.

To give the feeling of this closure, I have students make soft glottal “ah, ah, ah” sounds so that they can feel the edges of their vocal folds come together (and, most importantly, the connection with their support that this takes!!); then I have them try to get the same closure of the vocal folds but without the initial glottal (and so much pressure). Norma Newton always talked about taking the “hhh” out of the sound - that sound of an open vocal fold that we want to avoid. The onset of any sound must have a contact of edge of vocal folds and at the same time the correct placement and support. I worked for years in the beginning with Mrs. Moore on onsets - not too glottal, not too airy. This nailed the support-before-onset-of-the-note “trick” that helped me pull a pianissimo high note seemingly out of thin air. Some people find it helpful to feel as if they are slightly inhaling the sound instead of blowing the breath as they emit their first sounds. Of course, that lines up with the whole idea of appoggio, in keeping the feeling of the intake of the breath as you are expelling the breath.

Watch Laura's appoggio lesson with demonstrations: