The Whispered “Ah” and Controlled Exhalation

We’re excited to announce that Ted Dimon’s whispered “ah” booklet, which was originally published several decades ago, will be republished this fall as an expanded 2nd edition with beautiful, new illustrations and additional, practical procedures for the student of neurodynamics and the Alexander Technique. In anticipation of this release, we’ve included an excerpt below on the controlled exhalation, which is one specific and very important aspect of producing the whispered “ah”. Enjoy!

THE CONTROLLED EXHALATION

Excerpted from “Breathing and the Voice: A Practical Guide to the Whispered ‘Ah;”, by Theodore Dimon
New and revised 2nd edition, to be released this fall.

The most basic element of the whispered “ah” is the controlled exhalation, which as we read earlier is the true foundation for breath support. A simple way of understanding the controlled exhalation is to think of it in terms of not holding the breath. If you lift a heavy object or prepare to speak, you’ll notice that the initial response is to stiffen and hold the breath. If, at the moment you begin to hold the breath, you stop and let the breath out slowly through your lips or teeth, you are performing a controlled exhalation. Controlling the exhalation in this way allows us to shift our attention away from holding or taking breath (which is the universal tendency), and instead to focus on letting the breath out—which is to say, on not stiffening and holding the breath.

The controlled exhalation, then, is first and foremost a re-educational procedure for allowing a free breath flow by letting the breath out instead of holding it, and letting it out slowly instead of collapsing or shortening to exhale. Performed in this way, the controlled exhalation can be experienced in a simple and intuitively direct way that does not involve the complexity of the vocal elements that are involved in a complete whispered “ah.” Most students can directly relate to the concept of not holding the breath, of letting the breath out slowly as a way of gently freeing the ribs; the calming down that accompanies this release is also a pleasurable component that is easy to experience and appreciate.

As discussed earlier, there are several ways of performing a controlled exhalation: blowing through the lips, hissing on an “s” through the teeth, hissing by breathing out through the nostrils (as if you were making an “ng” sound, but whispering), and finally, by whispering. As a re-educational procedure, all of these work; blowing through the lips as if imitating the sound of wind is in many ways the most accessible and least complicated, since it doesn’t involve the throat and is easily appreciated by students.

It is crucial, when performing a controlled exhalation, not to manipulate the breathing in any way. When performing a series of controlled exhalations, the act of thinking about breathing in this way makes many students begin by taking in a big breath and then, during subsequent inhalations, to take a long slow inhalation in preparation for the next exhalation. Breathing in slowly in this way, however, is a form of ‟doing,” and it means we have become subconsciously preoccupied with taking breath—precisely the thing we are trying to avoid. A true controlled exhalation can be performed only when we honestly recognize that we are beginning to take in air, stop when we detect this desire to take the breath and allow a normal breath rhythm to occur again. When we do this, the air will come in relatively quickly, not slowly. That is the only air you need in order to produce a controlled exhalation. It is also useful to remember that the controlled exhalation needs to last only as long as there is available air, and that you are not trying to continue to expel air when it has run out. Simply allow the air to go out and, once it runs out, bring your lips together to allow air to come back into your lungs.

One way to check to see if you have begun to manipulate the breathing is to begin a series of controlled exhalations and to simply to stop in the middle and allow the breath to go in and out normally for several breaths without any attempt to control the exhalation. If, when you again begin to perform a controlled exhalation, you feel yourself taking more air to prepare for the controlled exhalation than you did during normal breathing, then you can be pretty certain you are doing too much. The entire point is to focus not on breathing (which most of tend to do at a subconscious level once we begin to think about exhaling or speaking), but on bodily coordination and on the exhalation, which ensures that we are allowing the proper expansion and contraction of the ribs [this is explained in more detail in another chapter].

Preventing the taking of breath in this way will, at first, result in shallow exhalations that last only a second or two, but there is no need to worry about this. If you insist on producing a long and slow exhalation, you may get a longer out-breath but you will only interfere with the entire process by preparing to take breath and creating tension during the out-breath. Only by preventing the purposeful taking in of breath is it possible to truly let go of the ribs and the diaphragm; this will indirectly result in deeper breathing and a longer exhalation. It also sometimes happens that, as improvements take place, the breathing seems at some point to stop entirely for a period of five or even ten seconds. This means that the diaphragm is relaxing and ascending fully and that the breath is no longer being held; when your breathing resumes and you take in a breath again, a new and less labored breathing pattern will take the place of the older breathing pattern.

It is also useful, when performing controlled exhalations, to make sure you are breathing through the nostrils on the in-breath. During normal breathing and speech we tend to gasp in air through the mouth; allowing air to come in through the nose by consciously preventing the tendency to take the air in through the mouth tends to restore a normal breathing pattern. Whenever we take air in, it should come in through the nose as a rule, even if we are doing a controlled exhalation or speaking out through the mouth.

It is also important, when making this sound, to think of it as communication, as if you are saying the ‟ah” to someone and not simply producing a relaxed sigh. The only way to truly control the exhalation is to have the intention to prolong the out-breath or to produce sound, which activates the reflex action of the ribs and diaphragm and results in an automatic control of the outflow of air. The controlled exhalation is set into motion by our mental intention; as in all vocal communication, we have to be clear what our intention is in order to produce a good result.

Remember that the controlled exhalation is not a breathing exercise in the usual sense of the word but a form of ‟thinking in activity” designed to prevent the harmful habits connected with breathing and vocalization. By establishing the coordinated working of the muscular system as the basis for producing sound, we are in a position to observe and prevent harmful habits, and through this process to establish good habits. To perform the whispered ‟ah” as a breathing exercise is to defeat its very purpose, since thinking of getting breath or manipulating the breath in any way is exactly what we’re trying to get away from.