Breathing 101- Breathing for Singing Made Simple and Practical
Easily one of the most misunderstood concepts in vocal technique is the topic of breathing or breath support. In this article I will be giving some simple explanations with some practical things you can do to improve your breath efficiency for singing. When talking about breathing there are of course two parts to a breath. The inhalation and exhalation. The quality of both are crucial for free, easy singing and vocal longevity. You have been breathing all your life so you don't really need to learn how to breathe but you likely can improve the efficiency of it.
Inhalation: During inhalation the diaphragm muscle activates (located just below the heart) which causes it to descend lower into the body causing the abdominal wall and ribs (The diaphragm is actually connected to the ribs) to expand. The descension causes a vacuum that fills the air with lungs. Exhalation: The diaphragm relaxes moving its way back upwards towards its resting position while the ribs and abdominal wall move back inwards. Essentially the body goes from an expanded state to a collapsed state.
For singing we need to maximise the efficiency of both of these processes to create a small compressed stream of breath!
Inhalation for Singing "Quality over quantity!" First assuming you have a good posture (click here for my article about singing posture)
The inhale for singing should be relaxed and low in the body. Ideally you should feel the abdominal wall slightly release while the lower back rib cage expands. This lower back expansion will allow the diaphragm to lower enough to give you great control over the breath stream going out. Here is a quick exercise to feel this: 1. Put your lips in a position as if you have a drinking straw in them 2. Give yourself a hug keeping the shoulders relaxed 3. Slowly inhale through the straw lips focusing on feeling the abdominal wall slightly release while the lower back gently expands 4. Either relax and release the air or move on to the exhalation exercises below The goal is to eventually be able to achieve this with the straw lips or hug position. Using both of those are great tools for practice though. Exhalation for singing (Breath Support) Unlike normal breathing patterns in singing the exhale needs to be somewhat delayed in order to provide just the right amount of breath energy or compression for the voice. So after you get your inhale if you simply relax the body and try to sing you will likely notice a breathy or even pushed quality in your voice as the voice struggles to deal with an imbalanced supply of breath. Equally so if you try and force the body to stay open (holding the feeling of the inhale in a forced way) you will over compress the breath and potentially trigger other issues with the voice. The key is in finding balance between releasing breath and holding breath back! Neither done to an extreme will give you a healthy technique. Be sure to focus more on quality of inhale than quantity, A smaller but more efficient inhale will actually be better for the majority of singing tasks Here are a few exercises to help you find balance in breath use
Exercise 1: Hissing 1. First find the balanced inhale as described in the previous section 2. Now do a moderately strong hisss (as in a held ssssssss as in you are stuck on the s consonant on a word) You will likely feel your abdominals and back muscles slightly engaging. These are actually working to both release the breath and hold the breath back which results in a compressed breath stream. 3. While hissing allow the body to be in movement but very slowly. Especially the ribs. They should never be locked open as this will never produce great long term vocal health! 4. You can also vary the exercise with short and long hisses. ss ss ss ss ssssssssssss. You can also hiss and then singing a line of a song maintaining the same lower body energetic feeling. Exercise 2: Laugh Reflex
You can hear an audio example of this exercise here 1. Find the balanced inhale as above 2. Speak or sing a few HA HA HA HA's exactly as you would if you were laughing. You will likely feel the abdominal,back and even intercostal (rib muscles) gently engaging in a pulsing like manner to create tone through breath energy. 3. Use the HA HA in a scale or simple do a few HA HA HAAAAAAAA and then take that held feeling into a line of a song! 4. Remember nothing in the body should be forced open or overly tight. The key with great breath support is balance! Neither tight nor completely released! The closer you can be to the laugh reflex the better it will be!
If you work slowly on feeling the low relaxed inhale with back expansion followed by the flexible body engagement for support then you will be well on your way to developing excellent breath use/support for your singing!