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Breathe: A Primer for Singers

by | Feb 4, 2022 | Anatomy, Exercises, Technique, Voice

It’s difficult to overstate how important breathing is to the process of singing (or speaking!). But, if we break the action of singing down to its simplest components, it is a function of just two pillars: controlled intake and release of breath, coupled with carefully shaping the vocal tract based on the desired effects. By bringing the vocal folds together through a series of tiny muscular coordinations (and by the power of the Bernoulli effect), we create phonation (sound), but if the breathing system is working efficiently, this part happens largely without your conscious thought. It may surprise singers to realize how few nerve endings actually exist within their voiceboxes! Essentially, you cannot feel your vocal folds at all, but rather anything you perceive as coming from your “voice” is more likely related to how you are using your breath apparatus or manipulating the area around your voicebox up and through the area above to your mouth (your “vocal tract”).

So let’s examine more closely the first system we need to coordinate for efficient speech or singing: your breath. We’re all familiar with the action of breathing, despite its existence as a largely involuntary function. Because we don’t often devote a lot of attention to our breathing (and because we’re generally breathing with the goal of survival, not artistry), most of us have a hard time identifying how to control the breath cycle efficiently at first. Since singing (and speaking, though to a lesser degree) require longer exhales compared to our inhales, the process can feel awkward for new singers/voice actors. By drawing your attention to a few specific movements or sensations, let’s break this down and make it feel more natural!

First of all, take a look at this animation of a deep breath under x-ray. Notice the HUGE expansion of the chest cavity! It’s as though the ribs swing open and the other organs retreat to allow the lungs to fill up. It’s true that our ribs are hinged on our spine and, by way of contraction in the intercostal muscles (the muscles between the ribs), they lift open and out to accommodate a nice open “barrel” breath. This is the goal!

Now, before we start looking for that elusive “barrel” breath, take a second to adjust your posture. Any slumping forward will impede your chest cavity from expansion, so we’ll want to keep your sternum lifted and your shoulders relaxed. Of course, if someone says to you “sit up straight”, you might find yourself jerking your shoulders back and creating tension that is difficult for your body to hold for long. Instead, try raising your arms straight up over your head next to your ears, and slowly lowering them straight out to the side and down to hang from loosely floating shoulders. You may now notice that your sternum is lifted and your shoulder blades are free. In singing lessons, your teacher may ask you to visualize the shoulder blades dripping down your back– this is the feeling we are going for!

Once you’ve found an open and relaxed posture, we’re ready to talk about your insides! If you’ve heard the phrase “diaphragmatic breath” and puzzled over what that looks like, you’re not alone. Essentially, all breaths are “diaphragmatic”! The diaphragm is the primary muscle that controls inhalation. From it’s cupped position underneath your lungs, it creates a barrier between the lungs and all the other organs in your trunk. Connected to your lowest ribs all the way around, the diaphragm can be thought of as a “platform” to “support” from (your teacher may use other words for this idea, but the goal is always the same– rely on keeping the “work” in this general area, not up around your shoulders and throat). From this point of connection, your diaphragm’s natural cupped shape contracts downward, pushing the other guts out of the way to draw air into your lungs. When this action is exaggerated (like in this animation) you may even notice your tummy popping out. Important: your abs shouldn’t squeeze (side abs may squeeze– tension in your obliques and transverse abdominis is OK)! Rather, think “short and wide” breaths, as opposed to the “tall and narrow” gasps (you know the ones… shoulders rising, abs squeezing – no good!) that you might be working to counteract. If you’re really wanting to pinpoint the areas of work, look no further than your obliques and transverse abdominis– the engagement in your core should be more like the flex you feel when you cough or laugh, not like doing a crunch.

Note that different styles of singing talk about “breath support” in different ways. The bel canto ideal of “appoggio” means leaning into the expansion of your intercostal muscles (between the ribs), pushing down and out, and resisting letting the ribs close down to a resting posture until the very end of the phrase; while totally necessary for opera singing, this might be overkill for the average pop/CCM singer, but it doesn’t hurt to experiment! All bodies are different so finding what works for you is key; some variation of “appoggio” may feel right for you. The only true rule is keeping tension lower in your body– never around your throat or shoulders. Using visualization may help you find the right placement for focusing your breath energy: imagine drawing your breath all the way down to your hips, or try to feel your cartilage as spacers between your bones keeping you floating and open… sounds totally loony, but for some singers, these nonsense ideas are key!

From the point of inhalation, efficiency comes from staying in motion. Remember, once you breath in, you must breathe out, and so the cycle continues. Make it your job as an efficient singer or speaker to notice and avoid any moments of holding your breath. As an experiment, take a deep breath now and hold it. When you relax to release it, do you get a steady leak of breath (like we want in order to sustain long phrases/sentences and avoid gasping for the next inhale)? Or, more likely, a rush of wind leaving you? With conscious control, you may be able to open/release air slowly, but let’s be honest, in the heat of the moment (i.e. performance or recording!) should you need that much attention on your breath? No, let’s instead make consistent ease flow of air the default setting for your voice! Consciously creating healthy habits is the name of the game.

Here are some great breath awareness/control exercises you can incorporate into your practice routines:

    • Circle breath stretch (not to be confused with circular breathing): Hang like a ragdoll, bent at the waist. Keep arms and neck hanging loosely down in front of you. Slowly rise, one vertebrae at a time and focus on breathing into your lower back, filling up gradually until you have a sense of “fullness” in the chest. Pay attention to the stretch between your ribs! Exhale forcefully and bend back to start. Repeat, slowly and with intention, 6-10 times.
    • Hissing for variable lengths: Take a deep breath, filling up from the point of your lowest rib. Hiss out on an energetic “s” sound. Notice the way this feels when its a short phrase (4-8 counts) vs. a longer phrase (12-16 counts). Gradually train longer and slower with practice.
    • Lip trills/buzzes: Commonly used as a vocal warm-up, rethink this popular favorite as more of a warm-up for your body than for your voice! By obstructing your exhale with closed lips, you create some back pressure to lean again. Feel the tension in your ribcage and sides (not your abs or throat!).

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