Breathing is the foundation of singing, yet finding consistency and stamina can be quite a challenge. I am well versed in this problem because for many years I struggled to manage my breath. In the beginning it was when I was nervous–the typical shaky, breathy, weak sound that is associated with nerves. Later that shaky, breathy, weak sound showed up when I needed to sing longer phrases, coloratura passages, long melismas, or simply high and sustained singing. All of these technical skills required a well-managed breath. I needed to figure out the breath thing in order to move forward in my technique. It took time, some amazing teachers and a few extra tools along the way, but I succeeded even when I’m nervous.
For the next few weeks I am going to share with you some of my tricks-of-the-trade, including exercises and the tools I use to facilitate breath management. However, before I dive into the ‘tricks’, it’s important for you to know HOW this breathing thing works.
Today we are going to talk about the mechanics of breathing. BORING, I know. However, I firmly believe that understanding HOW it all works is PARAMOUNT for knowing how to MANAGE it. I know there may be some teachers who would disagree with me, but this is my personal philosophy. If you think you work better not knowing, then by all means skip this post. However, if you’ve struggled with managing your breath and you want to understand WHY, read on!
Here is the breath cycle for singing:
INHALE (Breathing in):
- Your brain says “I need oxygen” and sends a message to the diaphragm.
- The diaphragm, which is attached to the bottom of the lungs, contracts and descends creating a vacuum.
- The vacuum draws air into the lungs and the lungs expand.
- The extrinsic intercostal muscles (in between the ribs-on the outside) raise the ribs and spread them apart, expanding the chest cavity.
- The abdominals are at rest on inhalation.
- If you see your belly go out when you inhale, that is your viscera (guts) being displaced by the descent of the diaphragm. It is not your breath. Your breath is in your lungs.
- If your abs are engaged on inhalation, the diaphragm will not be able to descend as low. If this happens, you won’t get as big a breath. Thus the importance of having your abdominals at rest during inhalation.
EXHALE (breathing out):
- The diaphragm ascends, involuntarily (you have no control).
- The internal intercostal muscles (look the same as pic above, but are on the inside of rib cage) pull the ribs down and decrease the size of the chest cavity.
There you have it. That is the cycle of breathing. As a singer you want to manage how quickly the air leaves your lungs so you are able to do some of the techniques I mentioned above. There are 3 ways of managing the release of air.
- Engage the external intercostal muscles to keep the ribs from collapsing.
- Engage the abdominal muscles to slow the ascent of the diaphragm (since you can’t control it directly).
- Manage the release of the breath at the vocal cords.
These are the three must-haves for managing your air as a singer. If only it were that simple, right? Ideally, all three should be engaged at the same time. Learning how to engage these muscles effectively, in a balanced way is the key to success. And of course, every singer is different. Singers are at varying levels, have certain awareness of these muscles and are in varying degrees of shape to use these muscles. We will take that all into consideration over the next month or so as we dive into some of the exercises and tools to help you manage your breath.
Before I go….
There is a common phrase I need to address. The phrase is: “Sing from your diaphragm”. Perhaps you have heard it before. Well, I cannot leave you without addressing this statement. The diaphragm is definitely crucial to the breathing cycle, but the statement “sing from your diaphragm is not helpful. Why? Please let me explain.
- First, you can’t touch your diaphragm. Go ahead, try it right now. Try to touch your diaphragm. Good luck! It’s tucked up underneath our ribs so far that it’s not something we can put our hand on without being in a reclined position,very relaxed and even then, it’s a challenge. (Trust me, I had mine massaged once and it was very uncomfortable!) While it’s not the end-all, the lack of hands-on decreases our awareness of the muscle.
- Second, when the diaphragm contracts, you can’t feel it move. You can feel your ribs move and your abs and belly, but you cannot physically feel your diaphragm move. Without this sensation, it’s difficult to know what or how to engage it when posed with the direction to “sing from your diaphragm”. At best, it’s confusing. At worst, it creates tension in the throat.
- Thirdly, and most importantly, the diaphragm is involuntary (you have no control) on exhalation–which is when you are actually singing–on the exhale. So the phrase ‘sing from your diaphragm’ is IMPOSSIBLE. You cannot control the diaphragm on exhale, therefore you cannot sing from it.
Thank you for letting me add that final note. It’s such an important concept for teachers of singing to understand. More importantly, I want to help you find ways to manage your breath or your singers breath that are clear and true and will bring about effective, long-lasting results.
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