Let It Flow- A Primer on Breathing

In the world of singing, there remains to this day much confusion on the topic of breathing. There is disagreement among teachers and directors as to the most efficient way to control it. The diaphragm is given much more credit than it properly deserves. Too many singers learn to push as much air as possible to achieve a powerful sound needed for their demanding music. I have had a number of students tell me that their previous teachers would spend half of their lesson time on breathing exercises alone, with no great improvement to their technique as a result. Due to the great misinformation that singers have to contend with, I will finally address the issue of breathing in this article.

First, let’s get clarity on what really happens when we breath. Once the brain registers that we need air, it sends the signal to the diaphragm to get things started. This dome-shaped muscle is thin and separates the chest (thorax) from the abdominal cavity. It descends upon inhalation and creates a vacuum, causing the lungs to fill up with air. The vocal folds open, allowing the air to pass through trachea into the lungs. Sitting beneath the diaphragm is the viscera, or organs housed in the abdomen- stomach, liver, intestines, etc. In order for this principal muscle of inhalation to fully contract, these organs must move out of the way. The result is the protruding or moving out of the lower belly. The lungs now can get the appropriate amount of air needed as the rib cage expands around them. This is INHALATION, pure and simple. Remember this is where the diaphragm holds court and performs actively.

Upon EXHALATION, the diaphragm abdicates its power. It does not rule this part of the process. Yes, folks, I must turn your world upside-down now. THE DIAPHRAGM IS PASSIVE DURING EXHALATION!!! *brings out smelling salts* This muscle has been esteemed higher than is warranted for far too long. The muscles that are actively at work to get air out of the body are the abdominals and intercostals, which are between and around the ribs. As the lower abs begin to contract inward and upward, the viscera also moves in the same direction. The organs press up against the diaphragm which allows air to be expelled from the lungs. The intercostals are contracting at the same time and also work to smoothly move the air upward through the trachea and towards the vocal folds. The true support muscles are the ABDOMINALS AND INTERCOSTALS!

An important concept that is largely overlooked or forgotten is that the vocal folds serve as the valve that actually gauges how much air can escape the body. No matter how well a person can inhale and use the proper support muscles, if the coordination of the folds is not well-developed, she still may not sing with great power or ease. There must be a balance between proper air flow/support and vocal cord closure for healthy, efficient singing. 

In my teaching studio, I don’t spend a great deal of time on breathing exercises. This is because most students don’t have big problems with their breathing. Most of the time, their issues have to do with lack of coordination in the muscles of the larynx. If that’s the case, why spend time on breathing when it’s not the primary issue? Too many vocal instructors and choral directors attempt to fix every vocal problem with breathing because they don’t know what else to do!! Oops, did I just go there? Anyhoo…. I will have students do a couple of breathing exercises to just to gain an awareness of what the body is doing. I will only use them repeatedly if a student has some very ineffective habits that need serious reprogramming.

Here are some useful exercises to build awareness of the breath function and which can be used to build more efficiency in your breathing:

1) The clutch- Place one open hand over the lower abdomen and the other hand in a closed fist pressed into your solar plexus. As you repeat each consonant 3 or 4 times, you will feel the lower belly gently press in while the solar plexus or upper belly gently firms outward. Don’t press it out, just allow it to do what comes naturally. You should use ‘t’, ‘p’, ‘k’, ‘s’, and ‘sh’. This exercise comes from noted nonclassical vocal pedagogue Lisa Popeil.

2) The ‘surprise’ breath- A gasp of surprise quickly brings a fair amount of air into the lungs. What we will do away with is the noise that comes with it. Place an open hand on the lower abdomen. Exhale fully. When you are completely out of air, open the mouth and gasp with surprise but do so without an audible vocal noise. The belly pops out effortlessly. Be sure not to lift the shoulders in the process because that can actually inhibit the expansion of the ribs. This exercise may also be performed with the hands wrapped around the rib cage.

3) The ‘angle’ breath- Sit in a chair with your torso at a 45 degree angle and your arms resting on your thighs. Exhale fully. Breath in through your nose for a slow count of 4 or 5 beats, then exhale through the nose for the same count. You can feel a deep expansion of your rib cage all around the body and especially in the back. It very difficult to raise the shoulders in this position so I use this one often for students who habitually breath very high and shallow.

4) The classic ‘slow leak’- With hands either around the ribs or on the lower belly, exhale completely and feel the inward contraction of the lower abdominals. Once you have completely exhaled, gently sip in new air as the belly releases and slowly moves inward. The ribs will also slowly contract inward, though that should be as slow as possible. Inhale for 4 or 5 beats and exhale for 8 to 10 counts.

Though your actual performance posture may not always be ideal depending on your chosen genre’s stylistic demands, it is important in the training process. A comfortably high chest and relaxed shoulders will allow your breath to flow more efficiently and comfortably. That needs to be the case whether standing or sitting.

I hope this piece gives you greater insight into what all the fuss is about concerning breathing for singers and speakers and that you will find the balance needed between how you breath and how you phonate.

Now, go make some noise!!!!!!!!!!

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