The Respiratory System
The respiratory system is essential for life, speech and singing as the larynx and respiratory system work together to create vocalization. Sound is generated in the larynx, and that is where pitch and volume are manipulated but in order to produce sounds with our voice, we need air and the right amount of pressure air below the vocal folds (the glottis).
1. Elements of the Respiratory System:
- Upper Airways: consisting of your nose, mouth, and back of the throat that fill with air when you breathe in.
- Glottis: This is the space between your vocal folds (which are inside your larynx). The larynx is covered by a flap of cartilage called the epiglottis which blocks food and other things from getting into your lungs
As air passes through your glottis it enters a tube in your throat that connects to the lungs. This tube is your trachea. Your trachea is exclusively for air. Food goes down a separate tube called your esophagus.
- Lungs: You have two lungs. A right one and a left one. Each lung is shaped like an upside down tree.
- Blood and Tissues: Your blood carries the oxygen to your tissues. Your tissues take the needed oxygen out of your blood and put the unneeded carbon dioxide waste they have created into your blood. Your blood then carries the carbon dioxide waste back to your lungs to be breathed out.
2. The role of the Diaphragm in Respiration:
The diaphragm, is a dome shaped muscle that separates the chest cavity from the abdominal cavity. The lungs sit on top of the diaphragm. During inspiration, the Diaphragm contracts, pulls downward, and expands the volume of the thoracic cavity. Contraction of the external intercostal muscles elevate the ribs and sternum. Thus, both muscles cause the lungs to expand. This in turn decreases the alveolar pressure in the lungs, creating a partial vacuum which pulls air into the lungs.
When the diaphragm relaxes the muscle compresses upward, which reduces the volume of the thoracic cavity, increases the alveolar pressure, and causes air to flow out of the lungs.
A very commonly used term in vocal pedagogy is ‘breathing from the diaphragm’. Take note, however, that during singing, the diaphragm is not consciously engaged, nor is it used to drive air upward for the expiration of breath. The diaphragm itself is actually passive during singing, which occurs during the exhalation phase of breathing, and we do not exert active control over its movements. (In breath management for singing, we learn to actively control the muscles that interact with the diaphragm and that support its actions.)
3. Respiration and Singing
In order for us to produce speech sounds, a minimum amount of 3-5 cm H2O of subglottal air pressure is required. This amount increases accordingly for conversational speech and singing.
There are two important aspects of breath management: 1) regulating the amount of air that is pushed past the vocal folds, including the pace at which the air is allowed out of the lungs, and 2) ensuring that the stream of air is steady.
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