How to Breathe for Singing

Breathing correctly is one of the elements involved in good vocal production, but it is by no means the only important function.  I am always astounded when singers come to me from other teachers who have them do nothing but breathing exercises for weeks (or sometimes months).  These singers often become very good breathers but have not improved their singing at all!

I usually discuss breathing and support as one element in the mechanics of singing, but move quickly on to the training of the vocal cords with sound.  Surprisingly little air pressure is required to produce tone efficiently, so those singers who tend to push and muscle need to take a more relaxed approach.  I have found however that there are some singers who are not connected to their body at all, who are very passive in their approach to singing and therefore have a very weak and airy vocal production.  While this is largely due to the inability to adduct the vocal cords, good balance in the singing mechanism is improved by helping these singers energize and connect to their bodies.  It’s always a question of “just enough but not too much” when it comes to issues of breath and support, and any sense of tension or pushing the breath should be avoided.

To breathe correctly for singing, the singer should be able to expand the rib cage using the inter-costal muscles, while also allowing the abdomen expand in a relaxed way.  This opening of the space in the trunk of the body will allow the air to go into the bottom of the lungs. Of course you should never see movement of the chest or shoulders as this would indicate a shallow and probably tense breath.  The expansion should be all around the trunk of the body, including the back ribs.

One way to feel the correct expansion is to put your arms around a large inflated beach ball. You could also do this by simply putting your arms around an imaginary beach ball or tree.  Inhale easily but deeply through both mouth and nose and you should feel the tummy expanding out against the ball, while the lower and back ribs also expand outwardly. That is the intake portion of the breath.

Now the next question is how to sing on the exhaled breath with some degree of bodily engagement or support- to energize without creating tension. Support is created by an easy resistance of the lower body during exhalation.  The trick to this is maintaining a feeling of relaxation and ease.  If you overdo this, you will create too much sub-glottal air pressure.  The key, as in all things, is balance.  My motto is “just enough, but not too much”.  If your throat feels tense, or if you feel tension anywhere, you are not doing this correctly.  The feeling should be one of being energized, but not tense.

To experience an easy feeling of energizing in the body, inhale as indicated above and then hiss out for a count of 8, feeling a SLIGHT resistance of your body against your real or imaginary beach ball: SSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS. Notice I did not say “push against the ball”.  That would create too much sub-glottal breath pressure.  Maintain the outward expansion of the ribcage as you hiss.  During the final phase the abdomen will naturally come up and in as the air is expelled.

I have found that some singers (young breathy girls for example) need to be encouraged to sing with more energy in the body (ie- “support”), while some other types such as body builders create too much resistance in the muscles of the lower body as a result of their strength training, and they need to relax and learn to sing without engagement of the muscles.  It all depends on the singer’s history and training- where they are coming from.  There is no such thing as “one size fits all” when it comes to singing in general, and specifically the concepts such as support and breathing.

Sometimes students do need to isolate breathing, though I don’t believe in doing this for too long, as it is the balance of the breath and the vocal cord function that is really the issue.  However, if the student needs help finding the low, diaphragmatic breath, there is a three-step process that is effective is in helping them experience the low breath.

  1. I have them inhale through a very small, rounded mouth as if they are breathing through a very small straw held between the lips, which are almost closed as if around a very tiny straw.  This encourages lower body expansion. The same result can be obtained by closing the lips and breathing only through the nose as if sniffing a delightful smell.
  2. Placing the hands around the lower ribcage with the thumbs in back helps to monitor the ribcage expansion.  Do this in front of a mirror.
  3. Lying on the floor with one hand or a light book on the abdominal area will increase awareness of a relaxed lower body expansion.

Practice the three steps separately, to get the feeling of expanding all around the trunk of the body- the 360 degree breath.  Then incorporate all of them together.  Stay relaxed with it rather than forceful.

Next is the question of whether to breathe through the mouth or through the nose while singing songs.   During vocal exercises and songs, the breath should be taken through slightly parted lips as if you are sipping the air and it is cooling the back of the relaxed throat.  Some of the air will also be inhaled through the nose.  It should be very relaxed, and silent.  Noise is an indication of resistance and tension. Attempting to breathe only through the nose during song performance results in noise and is impractical, so a combination of relaxed nose and mouth intake is preferred.

Breathing is just one of the elements of good vocal production.  Spending too much time on breathing alone is counter-productive; good breathing must be balanced by good vocal cord adduction to create efficient sound.

I wish you all the best as you reach for your dreams!  Tricia Grey, MM


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