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Breathing for Singing: 3 Reasons Why You’re Doing It Wrong

It’s your first lesson. You’re all geared up to sing – your mind is already unpicking melodies and charting out the toughest sections. And suddenly your teacher says: “We’re going to start by looking at breathing.”

What? Why? Why focus on something which appears to have absolutely nothing to do with how I sing?

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1. The Rib Expansion

Let’s break the in-breath down. What did you learn in school? Most likely, that as you breathe in the ribs expand and lift, stretching the intercostal muscles and raising the shoulders. This high rib expansion allows the top of the lungs to fill with air and your body to filter out oxygen for the production of glucose.

So, take this breath. Raise the shoulders. Flare and expand the ribs. It feels quite good – the back gets a nice stretch and you feel like you’ve taken a full breath.

But now try and sing with this breath. Feel how tense it is – feel how tight the voice is around the larynx and collar bone area. Feel how instead of a smooth exhale of voice, you feel as though the voice is just releasing uncontrollably. You might even feel like you need to breathe out at the end of your phrases to release the tension.

The stuff you learned in school is all wrong. Rib movement on the in-breath sets off a chain reaction of tension which is catastrophic for the singing voice. The upper ribs pull on the clavicle, which then pulls muscles connected to the larynx. The larynx, in order not to get dragged down, activates muscles connected to the tongue and jaw to stabilise itself. Suddenly – boom. Everything is tense before you’ve even started.

So – during the in-breath you’ve got to relax the shoulders and keep the ribs still in order to keep the clavicle untensed.

2. The Diaphragm Drop

But there’s a problem here. In keeping the ribs and shoulders still, where are we going to put this air? It’s got to go somewhere.

Enter the diaphragm. The diaphragm is a dome-shaped muscle that forms the floor of your lungs, attaching on to all corners of the lower ribs and spine. It cuts across the middle of your body, separating your lungs and heart from the intestines, liver, and stomach etc.

Again, you may have heard about it back in school – that it has to drop down to create a partial vacuum which pulls the air in. But it turns out that the diaphragm can drop far further than we give it credit for. It just needs the rest of the stuff to get out of the way.

So, in order to clear out enough abdominal space for the diaphragm to drop properly, we deliberately push out the belly out on the breath in. This moves the organs and internal tissue out of the way so that we can pull a much larger breath into the lower areas of our lungs.

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3. Relax In, Effort Out

Return to your normal way of breathing for a moment. Allow the shoulders to rise up, allow the ribcage to flare on the breath in. You should feel that the in-breath requires some effort, and for the out-breath you relax, and the breath comes out.

For singing, you go the other way round. Expel the air with physical force on the breath out, pulling your belly in. Make sure you get all of the air out. Then, on the breath in, relax the belly. You should feel it naturally springs outwards as you fill your lungs, dropping the diaphragm down.

This is the most important concept for good breathing in singing. If you feel like you’re struggling, it’s often better to keep a focus on the effort of the out-breath, and keep the belly relaxed on the in-breath.

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In summary:

1. Put one hand on the belly and one hand on the chest.

2. Breathe out all the air in your lungs with a lot of effort, pulling the belly in.

3. Relax the belly and let the air come gently in. Notice the belly expansion without seeking to affect it or emphasise it.

4. Keep the rhythm of the effort/air out/belly in, relax/air in/belly out.

Extension activities:

1. Make sure your shoulders and ribs aren’t moving up on the in-breath.

2. If you’re experiencing shuddering of the belly or airflow on the inhale or exhale, this may mean that you have tension in your abdomen coming from somewhere else. Adjust your posture so that your spine is still and straight on both breaths, and unlock your knees to make sure your legs aren’t locking.

3. If your breaths are particularly noisy, this means that certain parts of the vocal tract (such as the tongue/velum, false and true vocal folds) might be catching the air, causing what some teachers call ‘turbulence’. It might lead to tension, and will certainly slow the breath down. Try adding the feeling of a yawn into the mouth shape of your in-breath, and try breathing completely silently.

4. Try to speed up your breathing without making the breaths louder or making the belly motion less smooth. Singing requires quick, full, smooth breaths – the slow stuff won’t cut it.

5. Take your thumb and put it in the muscle beside the spine, wrap the rest of your hand around your waist. Take two fingers of the other hand and press them into the fleshy bit just below where your ribs meet. See if you can get all of these three areas – the spine, the waist, the area below the ribs – moving outwards on the in-breath. This is a great exercise for increasing your capacity, but beware not to over-breathe into the chest when doing this exercise.

5 Responses so far.

  1. […] on the breath in puts a catastrophic amount of pressure on the larynx, as you’ll know from my previous post on breathing, which comes highly […]

  2. Paul Coutts says:

    HI Matt
    Enjoyed your description of the mechanics of the singers breath. I’m a barbershop singer for some 30 yrs, and now a chorus director for a small chorus, I’ve been aware of the mechanics of the singers breath and am always reminding my chorus of the technique as it is the foundation for better supported singing. Your lesson has given me new material to use to keep my reminders fresh and different. My chorus members are mostly of retirement age or close to it and have been singing incorrectly most of their lives and so are struggling with a lot of muscle memory. Flexibility is also a factor as well and I’ve suggested rather than lying on the floor to experience proper breath technique, that leaning your back against a wall can give them the same sensation of quiet shoulders and lower abdominal expansion.
    Thanks for the help. Keep up the good work.

    • mpocock says:

      Hi Paul,

      Thanks for the great feedback and I’m so glad that what I wrote was useful to you ๐Ÿ™‚ I definitely know what it’s like working with retired folks who have difficulty getting things into their body – but it sounds like you’re fighting the good fight. Another great exercise to try with them is to get them to lean over 45 degrees with two hands on the back of a chair – this stills the shoulders. Then they can take one hand off the chair and feel what’s going on with their bellies. You can prompt them to feel that the more they relax their legs and abdomen, the lower their belly will drop on the breath in – then get them to stand up and repeat the sensation of dropping their belly with gravity.

      Good luck! If you’re looking for more tips you can join up on the mailing list to the right of this page ๐Ÿ™‚

      And keep in touch! My personal email is mpocock@me.com – would love to hear how your guys get on, Paul ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. Patricia Jenkins says:

    Very interesting. Also very good fir general fitness. I am 67 and have severe arthritis in every joint of the spine and hip and a partially collapsed lung. I have enjoyed both choral and solo singing for many years

  4. It’s amazing that you would need to write such a post, but time and time again, experienced singers whom I take on, don’t seem to understand the actually very simple mechanics of singing breathing, which you describe clearly here. Get this wrong and kiss goodbye to vocal freedom and longevity. Always useful to have a alternate explanation….well done, will repost!

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