Gasping for air at the wrong time can totally ruin a song.
I’ve experienced this, and I’m sure you have as well.
But there’s hope:
Just like you can improve your high notes, and vocal range, you can easily manage your breathing, even through some of the toughest performances.
Today I pull the curtain on what the proper way to breathe for singers is, and I’ll also share 5 breathing exercises every singer should practice.
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How Proper Breathing Helps Your Singing
To get a better handle on just how important proper breathing is for your singing, it is perhaps important we take a moment to look at the mechanics of the human voice.
As singers, we are taught to breathe from the diaphragm.
But why is that?
The American Academy of Otolaryngology (Head and Neck Surgery) breaks the voice production system into three main parts:
- Your lungs, which are the power source
- Your voice box, being the vibrator
- Your throat, nose, mouth, and sinuses, which all make up the resonator
The article goes into greater detail on the functions of the above organs.
But you may look at that list and ask why the diaphragm isn’t there - as we are constantly taught to breathe from the diaphragm.
Well, before the lungs even kick in, the diaphragm is already at work. It is the pump that inflates and deflates the lungs to enable breathing as we know it.
When the diaphragm lowers, it expands the rib cage and draws in air through the mouth and nostrils to fill the full capacity of the lungs.
As it rises, it compresses the rib cage, and the lungs, creating an airstream through the trachea.
It is this airstream, or exhalation, that energizes your vocal folds to produce your voice.
To sing with speed and power, raise pitch, or negotiate tricky licks, the diaphragm has to draw in enough air and make use of the lungs’ full capacity, instead of just the upper lungs.
For deeper inhalation and greater voice support, 70 - 80 percent of your breathing must be from the diaphragm.
What's great is that deep breathing has other health benefits, such as decreasing the pressure on your chest muscles, which is important for a healthy heart.
Reasons For Dysfunctional Breathing
Most dysfunctional breathing including, over-breathing, shallow breathing, and holding your breath, are the consequence of failing to consciously monitor the way you breathe.
In most cases you will be using your shoulder, neck, and chest muscles to draw in air. However, this only fills the upper lungs and will not put enough power behind your voice.
But why does it seem easier to breathe the wrong way? What habits should you avoid to breathe the right way?
A Pain Science article lists several reasons why people don’t breathe from the diaphragm.
Some of the reasons are:
1. Smoking, which causes chronic bronchitis - the swelling of the bronchial tubes that cuts the amount of air pumped into and out of the lungs. Smoking also causes emphysema, a condition where the lungs lose their elasticity, making it almost impossible to breathe from the diaphragm.
2. Apparently you are born breathing the right way, with most dysfunctional breathing learned from observing the bad habits of older people,
3. Spending too much time in sitting positions, from which diaphragmatic breathing becomes uncomfortable. Over time, the body loses its natural inclination to breathe from the abdomen/diaphragm,
4. In some cases the diaphragm just loses its strength, most likely from a lack of use/exercise or illness.
To correct your breathing, you must recognize the central role the diaphragm plays in your breathing.
Knowing how this important body organ functions will help you control your breathing and, hence, your voice.
The Best Breathing Exercises For Comfortable Singing
Getting rid of bad breathing habits will take time and effort.
But, as a singer, your singing career may depend on your commitment to doing just that.
The way you breathe has a direct bearing on the quality of your voice, its pitch, volume, and tone.
Basically, when you breathe from your diaphragm, your abdomen expands outwards as you inhale, which is otherwise known as horizontal breathing and is the right way to breathe.
Vertical breathing is the reverse and is the wrong way to breathe, where your chest and shoulders rise upwards. This type of breathing is marked by short breaths, which rob your voice of the support it needs.
We have established already, most dysfunctional breathing is a result of bad habits that develop overtime. Invariably, these bad habits are difficult to kick.
Still, kicking these bad habits is just a start:
The real work is training your whole respiratory system to stop relying on the less effective neck, chest, and shoulder muscles for breathing and revert back to breathing from the diaphragm.
But how do you breathe from the diaphragm?
This is an important question to ask as you can’t directly control the diaphragm, which operates involuntarily.
What you can control is the actual breathing, which uses the diaphragm muscles to draw in air when we inhale and push it out when we exhale. You also can consciously control the other breath muscles around your diaphragm, like abdominal and intercostal muscles.
The exercises we will discuss will seem unnatural, but the longer you practice them, the better your breathing will become.
These exercises should help to:
1. Breathe deeply and utilize your lower lungs’ full capacity.
2. Inhale through the nose and exhale through the nose and mouth.
3. Keep your shoulders still and relaxed as you breathe in.
4. Reduce tension in your upper body. It is this tension that prevents you from producing good vocals.
Exercise 1: Releasing Tense Diaphragm Muscles
This is the biggest issue with breathing from the diaphragm. Because you have not been exercising your diaphragm by breathing from it, there is usually a lot of tension in the muscles around it.
This exercise is aimed at releasing that tension and exercising the diaphragm back into shape in a way that’s not too strenuous.
Get down onto your hands and knees so your abdomen will hang as opposed to sticking out from your body. The force of gravity will help you to inhale from your abdomen while keeping your shoulders level.
The extra strength needed to tense your abdominal muscles and pull your belly up as you exhale is also an effective way to exercise those underworked muscles.
Make note to inhale slower than you exhale as inhaling slowly makes it easier to engage your abdominal muscles and fill your lungs. Fuller lungs give you greater control over your voice.
Exercise 2: Hissing Sound For Optimal Breath Control
This exercise trains you to slow your breathing so you can painlessly lower your singing voice when a particular song passage calls for it.
You can practice this exercise from a sitting or standing position. But we will make things a bit more interesting and do this while lying on our backs.
This way you are always conscious of what you are doing and can keep your focus through the exercise. We also tend to breathe slowly when we are lying on our backs.
Lay on your back with your knees raised.
Now put your hands on your tummy and breathe in slowly from your nostrils and fill your lower lungs.
To exhale, grit your teeth and use your tongue to slowly release the trapped air. Think of a slow puncture. This should produce a constant ‘S’ or hissing sound.
To see if you are indeed breathing from the diaphragm, place a book on your abdomen and watch if it rises and drops as you inhale and exhale.
This exercise conditions your diaphragm and abdominal muscles to suppress the tension from fully inflated lungs and be able to manipulate your voice into holding a note for as long as you want to.
Take the exercise a step further and try to produce a high pitched hissing sound. You should feel your abdominal muscle tense up as you try to push more air through the small hole between your gritted teeth and contoured tongue.
Exercise 3: Bouncy Hissing Sounds For a More Flexible Diaphragm
As you probably know, breathing gets more difficult as you attempt the pacier parts of a song, or the more advanced techniques.
Mastering this exercise should help conquer your voice and allow you to sing the trickiest licks without too much strain.
Maintain the position from Exercise 2.
But instead of a constant low or high pitched hissing sound, force intermittent bumps in-between by clenching your throat muscles to block the airstream rushing up the trachea.
The bumps should quicken as you force more air out.
As you do that, your chest should start to feel heavy, the tension in your abdominal muscles increases, and your voice will begin to tire.
Combine this exercise with the first (starting with this third one) for even tighter breath control.
This is a great exercise for practicing those crescendos that tail off and seem to linger for ever. It trains your voice to easily alternate between low and high pitched sounds.
Your diaphragm and supporting muscles should get more flexible and stronger a lot quicker. It will feel a lot more natural to breathe diaphragmatically as you continue to practice this exercise.
Exercise 4: Practising Slow Breaths For Deeper Breaths
Reading through this article, you will have picked on my insistence on slow breaths.
This is because quick breaths only use chest muscles and tend to be shallow. They take a lot of effort, and they tire your voice, which is something you don’t need when singing.
Slow breaths are deeper and allow you to channel the right amount of air through your vocal folds to produce your desired sounds. And, because they engage the right muscles, slow breaths will feel more natural and less tiring as you practice them.
For this exercise:
Stand erect, with your legs slightly parted. But remember to stay as relaxed as you would like to be when singing.
First, close your right nostril with your right pointer finger and slowly inhale and exhale from the other, open nostril. Do this a few times and change to work the other nostril the same way.
We tend to engage our diaphragm when one of our nostrils is stuffed or blocked.
Another way to practice slow breaths is to press your lips together and try to breathe in and out using just your mouth. This is much the same way you would suck spaghetti or drink from a straw.
Try to inhale with force, so much that you will produce a hollowed, windy sound. But slow down to a low sound as you exhale.
This exercise requires the strength and flexibility that only the diaphragm and abdominal muscles can muster.
Exercise 5: Training Your Body For The Correct Singing Posture and Vocal Endurance
Lastly, an exercise that corrects your posture, suppresses your upper body muscles, and trains your voice for greater endurance while singing.
This exercise is physically demanding but is great training for your diaphragm and abdominal muscles.
Stand in the same upright position as in the previous exercise.
Spread both your arms out, into a T formation, keeping your body relaxed.
Take slow breaths while keeping your arms parallel to your shoulders.
Pace your breaths up and down and notice how it becomes harder to lift your chest and arms as you breathe.
Take the exercise a notch higher by lifting two items of similar weight - light chairs work fine - up to your shoulders from both hands. Keep your back straight and do the above exercise again.
Go slowly at first, and then alternate with quicker reps for as long as your body can hold out.
This exercise is physically demanding but it should tame the natural tendency to breathe with the neck, chest, and shoulder muscles a lot faster.
All the top singing courses have dedicated lessons to mastering your breathing.
Old Habits Die Hard - Refer Back to These Exercises Often for the Best Results
Like most bad habits, dysfunctional breathing will take effort and real commitment to get out of your system.
The great news for singers is it will improve your vocals significantly. They will feel effortless and sound richer.
Give it as little as 5 to 10 minutes every day before your vocal practice and you should feel better control over your voice when you sing.
Just remember to stay conscious of the way you breathe to avoid sliding back into old breathing habits.
With your breathing corrected, it should be a good time to turn your energies to mastering your vocals.
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