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Vocal Coaches' Corner - Breathing for Singing 101

  • Updated Feb 01, 2002
Vocal Coaches' Corner - Breathing for Singing 101
By Roger Beale, courtesy of {{Christian Musician}} Magazine

The more singers I work with, the more I realize that very few singers, professionals included, understand the basic physiological functioning of the human breathing apparatus. I challenge you to ask any singer, whether amateur, professional, or even a collegiate voice major, to explain how the body functions while breathing and the answer will be so confusing that it will take your own breath away. Most singers actually know very little about breathing for singing. Let's briefly examine the mechanism and its function, dispel some myths, and arrive at a practical knowledge of breathing for singing that can benefit you and your vocal performance.

Breathing is natural. It starts at birth and needs no conscious control, because it is automatic and spontaneous. Your breathing rate is regulated by the need for oxygen, dictated by the body's level of exertion. A normal rate is 12-16 times per minute and during sleep the rate is even less.

When considering breathing for singing, two processes should be analyzed: inhalation and exhalation. The inhalation process is air entering the body and exhalation is air leaving the body. Stay with me now, I'll keep this simple.

Inhalation is the term used to describe air entering the body through the nose or mouth, into the throat, windpipe and then into the lungs. This process is initiated by the diaphragm (a dome shaped muscle which divides the upper torso from the lower torso). When the muscle contracts, the diaphragm moves downward. This movement creates a vacuum that pulls air from the outside of the body down into the lungs. The diaphragm is the primary muscle for bringing air into the lungs. I have heard some well known voice teachers miss the point when they say things like: breathe through your navel, stick your belly out, feel your back expand, push out on your belt, or breathe with your backside. That last statement caused me to take pause. The singer's one thought about breathing in is to get the diaphragm to move downward, all the way down. It's a simple process. Open your mouth, think breathe, the diaphragm moves down, and air enters the lungs. Very simple. That's inhalation in a nutshell. Please don't complicate it.

Getting air out of the body is called exhalation. Most singers spend so much time worrying about getting air into the body, that they completely ignore the exhalation process. Consider this: air coming out of the body causes the vocal cord movement, which leads to a phonated sound.

What causes the air to move upward, out of the lungs, then out of the body? Ladies and gentlemen, it is not the diaphragm. The diaphragm is only a muscle of inhalation. During exhalation it relaxes and just goes along for the ride. What muscle causes the air to move out of the body? The abdominal muscles and intercostal muscles (between the ribs) contract and do the work. These are your blower muscles. To exhale, just blow. It's that simple.

Another term singers use that they don't understand and can't explain is breath support. This term is probably the most misunderstood and misused of all when attempting to describe singing technique and concepts. As I challenged you before, find a singer and innocently ask them to explain breath support. Watch their eyes fall to the tops of their shoes as they panic and mentally search for an answer.

What is breath support? Let me give you two definitions, one lengthy and the second brief:

1. Breath support is a relationship involving the breathing in and the breathing out muscles, which then supplies breath pressure to the vocal folds for the purpose of sustaining any pitch the singer desires. Whew! I'm tired just writing that.

2. Breath support is being full of air! Now wasn't that easier to deal with than definition number one. Sure it was, and you can easily apply it to your singing skills. If you take a nice deep breath you can feel this sensation. Your body is full of air and ready to sing. Just remember to be full of it when you start to sing. Keep it simple!

I have intentionally kept this discussion of breathing very simple so as not to cause confusion. If a singer attempts to complicate this process and applies too much conscious control to his breathing, tension will be the result and the singer's vocal sound will be repulsive. He won't look too good, either.

Please keep breath support, inhalation, and exhalation in mind, but don't overdo it. Air in and air out equals vocal sound. I hope these simple guidelines are a help to you and an aide to better vocal production. Keep in mind that good breathing results in good singing! Go ye therefore and sing well.

Vocal Health Tip:

After a concert, a singer needs a cool down period. You might consider spending five minutes alone and not talking. If you can't do that, try drinking some cold water. It will help reduce any swelling and will soothe your tired vocal muscles. I got this tip from a voice doctor and my students tell me that it really works. Try it, you may benefit from this tip also.