The Secrets of Singing: Breathing

The Secrets of Breathing
by Janak Ramachandran

Nothing occurs in singing without breathing.  And yet, breathing is often underdeveloped among those cultivating a singing voice.  Many students of singing tend to see breathing development as a tiresome and superfluous activity (“I already know how to breathe—I want to learn how to sing (better)!”).  But, far from being an exercise in redundancy, I consider breathing so critical to singing that, if I only had five or ten minutes to warm up before a gig, I would spend the entire time on breathing exercises (and checking and setting up the postural feeling in my body—click here for my Secrets of Posture).

The way we breathe as singers is the single most important skill to develop as a singer.  If you want to be and stay in tune, the muscle memory you develop around the breathing is the mechanical basis of doing so.  If you want to improve your tone, the way you control airflow is the key to achieving that goal.  If you want to sing for hours in any style without hurting your voice, how you breathe will determine your success.

Of course, singing through exercises and songs always includes efforts around breathing and so, all of singing is an exercise in breathing.  But it can be particularly helpful to isolate the way we coordinate breathing without vocalizing.  Ultimately, our primary goal is to make the way we breathe in singing such a second nature part of ourselves that we always use “the singing breath” throughout every day of our lives.  Not only will this goal lead to greater ease and freedom in the singing voice (resulting in maximized tone, accurate pitch, and singing longevity), it can and will dramatically improve your general feelings of health and well-being (a bonus ancillary benefit that can literally allow you to feel more energized and ‘alive’ in all aspects of your daily life).

So what type of breathing do I mean?  Well, the basis of the singing breath is the aerobic breath.  The breath your body naturally engages if you go running down the street after someone or something (for a period of time) is the same breath that we want to use in singing.  But it is being used for a very different activity than running or any other aerobic exercise so there are some key distinctions to keep in mind.  As you try the following breathing ideas, inhale through the nose, mouth, or both and exhale with a loose open jaw through the mouth.  (In singing, we can generally inhale comfortably through the nose if given enough time between phrases though, as restrictions are placed on the amount of time available to breathe, we will need to rely on the mouth more and more.)

The First Secret:  Don’t Fill Up
The first fundamental secret of breathing is that we never want to fill to the very “brim” when we inhale.  This guideline stems from the fact that, from a posture perspective, we want to cultivate a ‘disconnect’ between the work of our core muscles (e.g. abdomen around to the lower back) in controlling breath and airflow and the relaxation of our upper body (chest, shoulders, neck, and head).  There is a little bit of extra air that can be inhaled that is not critical to singing but does sacrifice looseness and relaxation in the upper body.  When we breathe, we want to breathe in such a way that the belly distends without perturbing the chest and the shoulders.  Try taking a few deep breaths in front of a mirror so that you can monitor breathing deep without movement in the shoulders or a feeling of tension rising into the chest.

The Second Secret:  Engage Your Horseshoe
When the belly distends, the diaphragm muscle has been engaged.  The job of the diaphragm muscle is to push the organs down and out of the way such that the lungs have more room to fill up with air; so we literally want to feel the belly ‘push out’.  The second key secret of breathing is that, not only do we want the belly to distend, but we want to feel the ring of muscle that extends around to the sides of our waist (the intercostals) and to our lower back (a ‘horseshoe’ of muscle, if you will) engage and expand.  Most importantly, we want to feel these muscles, in conjunction with our thigh and butt muscles, remain expanded and engaged as we control airflow during singing.  Normally, as the lungs expand and contract (in the course of regular breathing), this ring of muscle expands and contracts.  But, when singing, we want the ring of muscle to stay in an expanded state while the lungs are contracting through the exhalation of air.

To feel what I mean by this statement, try a breathing exercise where, after taking a “singing breath”, the exhalation is released slowly over a period of ten seconds.  As the air is exhaled, keep the ‘horseshoe’ of muscle on your side and around your lower back pushing outward.  Toward the end of the exhalation, you may feel yourself also ‘bearing down’ in an effort to keep the air flowing in a relatively constant way.

The Third Secret:  The Reserve Tank of Air
The muscle action of ‘bearing down’ is the third secret of breathing.  To identify what I mean by ‘bearing down’, it is important to note that the regular act of breathing, even if breathing in a deeper “singing breath”, does not generally include the muscle action of ‘bearing down’.  Normally, when we release a breath, our body (in particular, our brain) encourages us to breathe in again at an ‘equilibrium point’, as it were, before all of the air in our lungs has been exhaled from the body.  We rarely wait for the body to use all of its breath except in occasional instances such as talking excitedly and incessantly until we literally run out of air and gasp in air before perhaps repeating the process of talking excitedly and incessantly over and over, hopefully avoiding the possibility of passing out. It is the act of ‘bearing down’ that allows us to keep talking past that point of equilibrium.  More critically for singing, the existence of this ‘reserve tank of air’ is invaluable for singers as we hold notes a little bit longer or sing into the ends of long phrases with strong tone and good support.

To get ourselves in touch with the act of ‘bearing down’, try breathing outward as if you are blowing out candles on a birthday cake.  As you progress further and further into the exhalation, you will feel the muscles in the lower part of your waist push down and out with greater and greater intensity.  This increasing intensity of muscle action is exactly what we want to feel the further we sing into a phrase with the ‘fuel’ of a single breath.  The only distinction from the ‘birthday candles’ exercise is that the process of bearing down while singing is a much more gradual process.  In singing, we don’t release air in one big ‘whoosh’ (like when blowing out birthday candles) but rather in a slow and ideally even flow.

The Fourth Secret:  The Singer’s Sigh
The desire to control this even flow of air leads us to the fourth secret of singing, the ‘slow sigh’.  Normally, when we breathe, a group of muscles in our core relaxes as we exhale.  In order to hold our breath (prevent exhalation), we must maintain the diaphragm and other muscles in a state of contraction.  If we hold our breath and then quickly release, we can experience the phenomenon of sighing, a cathartic ‘whooshing’ release of air.  When singing, we very much want to retain this feeling of sighing while controlling a slow relaxation of the diaphragm and other attendant muscles, thereby releasing air at a slow, even pace.  As an exercise to get in touch with this feeling, make an initial, ‘whooshing’ sigh followed by a slowing down of the exhalation that lasts five seconds the first time, then ten seconds, and then fifteen seconds.  Each time, practice retaining the mechanical feeling of sighing at the slower and slower paces.

The Fifth Secret:  Darth Vader is Probably a Great Singer
You are now ready for ‘Darth Vader’ breathing.  Yes, Darth Vader is the fifth secret to your singing breath (or rather, the way he breathed is the secret).  In the Star Wars trilogies, Darth Vader breathed in a very memorable and particularly audible way.  To create this effect, a portion of the breath is consciously channeled into the nasal passages so that a significant part of the air is released through the nose as well as the mouth.  The Darth Vader breath has an ominous quality that is created through a lifting of the soft palate (the back of the roof of the mouth that naturally lifts when we yawn).  Our breathing need not have this affected style as we channel air into the nasal passages (a more nasal version could be likened to the ‘refreshed’ audible sigh we might affect to signify satisfaction after gulping a favorite drink).  Exhaling in this way with neither a nasal nor a yawning affect (though these techniques have a key place in The Secrets of Style) is what is classically often referred to as breathing (or singing) ‘into the mask’.  The idea is to feel as though the breathing (and later the singing) is being pinned against the back of the face, a mechanism that allows for better tone and projection.

As part of a breathing exercise, try creating this effect while slowing down the exhalations above and while gradually bearing down into the end of the exhalation, eventually slowing down until you are still executing the mechanical quality of the exhalation without being able to hear it audibly any longer.  The breath will exhale so slowly that the only way to measure it will be to feel warmth on the palm of your hand (as if you are very slowly fogging a window).

This most closely approximates what we want singing to feel like around the mechanics of breathing.  If you hold a note long and steady and place your palm in front of your mouth, what you should feel is a gentle warming of the palm of your hand.  Remember that breathing is half the game in singing.  While knowing and singing the lyrics can draw our focus, how we breathe is the fundamental secret to singing those lyrics putting our best voice forward

For individual coaching on the techniques in this article and the development of your singing voice, contact Janak for voice lessons.

Copyright © 2011 Janak Ramachandran. All Rights Reserved

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