My thoughts...Wisdom from over the years

Breathing Essentials PART 1

Posted in: Blog, tip of the week ♦ Monday, November 5th, 2012, 1:55 pm ♦ No Comments on Breathing Essentials PART 1


This is the first part of a two part series on the essentials of proper breathing and breath control.

Understanding and utilizing proper breath support can make a huge difference in your ability to sing- in many ways.  With the proper breath support you can sing the phrases you want to without having to take breaths in inappropriate places.  You can also learn to achieve a better tone and volume control. Proper breath support also gives you more control over various aspects of your singing including vibrato. Most importantly, proper breath control can help keep the rest of your vocal mechanism safe from unnecessary stress and strain as you utilize the correct musculature system for singing.

One important muscle to understand during the breathing process is the diaphragm. The diaphragm moves down allowing the lungs to fill, and expand, with air. The diaphragm is the muscle of the hour when it comes to inhalation! This is a relatively simple process, but many of us have it backward in our mind. From the time we were young, we would suck air in and at the same time ‘suck in’ our stomach muscles. This has inadvertently given many of us the idea that as we fill with air—we suck in! We should rather think of a balloon filling with air. As it fills, it expands and this is true also for the lungs.

As the lungs fill with air and expand, so does the rib cage.  A secondary effect of the filling of the lungs is the expansion of the abdominal region. Many make the mistake though of thinking that the abdominal muscles are the muscles for inhalation. It’s better to think of them as simply ‘responding’ to the breathing process. The diaphragm is the muscle that does the work. You can not move the diaphragm down and fill the lungs with air by moving the abdominal muscles; however, you do move the abdominal muscles by moving the diaphragm! Thus the command I’ve heard some voice teachers use to “fill the stomach with air” is really rather erroneous.

From the moment of your first breath your diaphragm and other muscles involved in breathing have been doing a great job all on their own. At this juncture however, what we’re going to attempt to do is manually begin to override the process so to speak, so that we can learn to work with it better.  When it’s time to exhale, the diaphragm becomes essential flaccid as the stomach muscles take over the process of exhalation. These muscles help the lungs to force the air out by pushing the diaphragm upward. Therefore during exhalation, the flow of air is controlled in large part by various stomach muscles.

So how do we gain better control of this and get the results that we want?  With practice we can begin to realize how these muscles work together and take over.  It’s essential to star with good posture.  Start by standing in front of a mirror. Most vocal exercises can be better accomplished while checking oneself in front of a mirror. Place your feet slightly apart, directly under each hip.  Reach your arms well over your head. Really stretch upward, the kind of stretch that would ‘untuck’ your shirt!  As you do this you’ll be placing your ribcage in the proper position; up and off the diaphragm. This will allow your diaphragm to move more freely.  Now bring your arms down to your sides keeping your ribcage high but relaxing your shoulders.

Next position your hands, on either side just above your waist, on your ribcage.  Keep your thumbs toward your back. Inhale deeply and watch your hands expand with your ribcage.  Try this several times until you are confident that you are completely relaxed and yet you are able to feel your ribcage expand and contract as your lungs fill with air.  This expansion can be felt all the way around to your back. Try to really focus on feeling the ribs expand and the lungs fill as opposed to your stomach area. Although the stomach area does expand somewhat, don’t make that the focus. Feel where the air is actually going—into your lungs.

Now find the bottom of the front of your rib cage with your fingers.  Placing the right hand fingers under your right ribcage and your left hand fingers under your left ribcage; follow your ribcage to the center where it meets.  Now move your fingers off your ribcage and onto the soft fleshy part of your belly right underneath where the ribcage meets. Take a deep breath and gently cough. You should be able to feel a ‘kick’ from your diaphragm as you do. Try this several times (using a silent cough so as not to stress your vocal cords).

Now just for contrast. I want you to try this same exercise after you’ve ‘relaxed’ your posture. Allow your shoulders to sink and your rib cage as well. Try the same process of taking a breath and gently coughing while you feel for your diaphragm to ‘kick’ out the air.  I want you to notice how much less powerful the kick is! Proper posture is so important for proper breath control!

If you need any help to further identify your breathing process, try this: lie down on your back and place a book on the area just below where the ribs meet in the center. Relax and try to breathe normally. You should see the book rise and fall with each breath. The movement from the diaphragm and surrounding abdominal muscles is making this happen.  As you are lying there relaxing and just watching yourself breathe, after you feel confident of your body’s natural rhythm, try to begin to control the process by willfully controlling the muscles that were just moving without your voluntary help. Do what you can to make the book move in the same manner only faster or slower and hopefully this will help you get in touch with those muscles.

The better and more adept you become at controlling your diaphragm, the better you will be able to control your breath. What you ultimately want is to be able to control the amount and the force with which your breath comes into and leaves your body during singing.  In addition it’s important to note that your body was designed such that you would breathe air in primarily through your nostrils. When the air is taken in through the nostrils it is cleaned, warmed and moistened. All of these things help your body to function better. So whenever you possibly can, remember to breathe in through your nose.

More next time!


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