How do you breathe for singing? This is a great question! Almost all of the students I have taught have had some misconceptions about breathing, mainly from a lack of former teachers addressing it and a lack of anatomical knowledge. For the vast majority of singers, good breathing is crucial to good singing, so it is extremely important to understand the parts and their functionality. Here I will explain some of the important basics.
First, breathing is a reflex of the body and a very strong one. You don’t have to think to breathe – it happens for you. That’s because it is so critical to life. There are a number of variations of breathing that can take place without interfering with the intake of oxygen, so it is easy to develop and maintain bad habits without realizing it.
Secondly, because it is a reflex, less is more. The best way to learn how to breathe is to understand how the reflex works and then learn exactly how to get out of the way and let it happen on its own. This approach allows for the best, most relaxed breathing, which then allows for the best, most open and relaxed singing.
Singers always hear about the diaphragm during voice lessons. Teachers feel comfortable and confident talking about it. Focusing on it helps singers breathe low instead of high. But the diaphragm is only one part of the breathing mechanism and is certainly not the most important one. The most important part is the rib cage.
The rib cage is designed to protect the delicate lungs from damage, but the word “cage” is a misnomer. It is by no means fixed, but instead designed to move. The 12 pairs of ribs are all connected in the back to the spine. However, in the front, 7 pairs are connected via cartilage to the sternum or breast bone, 3 pairs are connect via cartilage to the pairs above and the bottom two pairs are not connected in the front at all, garnering them the name of “floating ribs”. These cartilage connections offer the flexibility needed for the ribs to expand up and out for inhalation and then to return back down and in upon exhalation. While there is some minimal expansion in the upper ribs, there is more possibility for movement in the lower ribs and even more for the floating ribs. The ideal breathing for singing opens the rib cage for inhalation, particularly expanding the lower back. That expansion helps free the whole rib cage and allow it to open. With a free rib cage and an expanding lower back, the breath drops lower in the lungs and a freer, more grounded sound results.
As the rib cage is expanding up and out for inhalation, the sternum area should remain quiet and as uninvolved as possible. There will be a slight movement in the upper torso, but not much. Too much movement indicates that the emergency breathing muscles are working to pull air into the lungs without fully utilizing the innate flexibility of the rib cage. This creates far too much tension in the neck and upper torso, detrimentally affecting the quality of the singing tone, so it is to be avoided. If that is happening to you, new, better breathing habits need to be learned and practiced.
The abdominal wall is also involved in breathing. As the lungs expand downward, the diaphragm tenses and flattens out from its previously domed position. As it flattens, it pushes down on the internal organs and the abdominal wall needs to release and move outward to create a space for the organs to move into. Without this expansion, the diaphragm does not have the room to flatten and there is less space for the lungs to expand down. However, the diaphragm is completely below our conscious control and we have no sensation of it in the least. The only way it can be controlled is through the rest of the breathing mechanism.
For inhalation for singing, the coordination of the rib cage, lower back and abdominal wall is what is desired.
The best way to breath for singing is to allow the natural breathing reflex to do the breathing for you! Using the coordination discussed in Part I of the rib cage, lower back and abdominal wall, the keys are (1) not to over breathe and (2) to expel enough air to trigger the reflex for the rib cage to open.
Singers tend to think they need a lot of air to sing. In actuality, they don’t need a huge volume of air, but they need air taken low into the lungs with a free body, so they can control the airstream as it goes out. With breath resistance, the body manages the exhalation, providing a smaller, faster airstream that is ideal for singing. Too much air is actually very difficult for the body to manage. It ends up creating too much subglottal breath pressure, either blowing out the vocal cords with breath and creating a breathy sound or causing the vocal cords and the surrounding muscles to tense while trying to hold back the breath, resulting in various manifestations of a tight, held quality of sound. A moderate, free breath is ideal and with breath resistance is, interestingly enough, usually enough for all but the longest of phrases. When learning a piece of music, the singer should also learn what phrases require less and more breath than normal, so that gets routined into the piece along with the technical approach.
There are two principals at work in triggering the breathing reflex for a relaxed breath. Breathing is a complex process, but can be summed up in this way – when lungs sense we are low on oxygen, the rib cage is “programmed” to open spontaneously and allow room for the lungs to expand for new air. This is not a function we need to control consciously, but simply happens on its own as part of our innate design. The other principal is that when we expel air from the lungs, there is less pressure (in the barometric sense) inside the lungs than there is outside in the air/atmosphere. Therefore, if we just open the respiratory tract, air will automatically come into the lungs without our needing to pull it in. When we get out of the way of the rib cage, allow the lower back to open slightly and release the abdominal wall, we can have the sensation of the breath “dropping” low in the body. When the breath is low, it is much easier to control the exhalation and have the most beautiful, healthy sound.
However, this automatic opening reflex of the rib cage does not get triggered if there is too much “old” air in the lungs. Old air is carbon dioxide our bodies want to get rid of that has been exchanged for the oxygen our bodies need. If the rib cage does not release completely down and in on exhalation, expelling excess air, the inhalation reflex is not triggered and we have to pull air in. For one song, this is not a terrible thing, but for an entire concert, recital or opera, pulling in air becomes exhausting. Obviously, it is much better all around to take advantage of this reflex and have the freest, easiest breaths possible.
Below are several exercises to help you learn to trigger this crucial reflex. If you have any respiratory issues, please check with your health care professional before attempting. As always, if anything feels uncomfortable, stop right away.
– Take a few minutes to notice your own breathing for singing. Are you taking in a lot of breath?
– Pick one phrase to sing. Take your normal breath and sing it. Then take one-third less breath and sing it. Did you notice a difference? If the second breath felt better, try taking half of the amount of your original breath and singing the same phrase. What do you notice?
– Using less air only works in combination with breath resistance. When trying the exercise above, gradually expand the lower back muscles when singing and bring in the abdominal wall in a controlled manner. Or use your normal breath support. Many people actually need less support/resistance with a smaller inhalation, because they have less breath to hold back during the exhalation.
Rib Cage Reflex
– Put your hands on your sides at your lower rib cage. Take a relaxed breath as low as you can, then exhale quickly while following your rib cage with your hands. Keep exhaling and gently push in on your rib cage. Also, allow the lower part of your rib cage attached to the spine to release downward. Repeat this until you feel a bigger expansion and contraction of your ribs when breathing.
– Do the above exercise, but continue to exhale, even when you feel that you don’t have any air left in your lungs. Once all of the air is finally gone, just keep your torso relaxed and wait. Either when the air is expelled or during the pause in breathing, your reflex will kick in and your rib cage will expand suddenly.
– Do the exercise directly above and add the coordination of the lower back expanding slightly and the abdominal wall relaxing exactly at the moment the rib cage reflex kicks in and the rib cage opens. With practice, this coordination will give you the ideal breathing for singing with as little work possible, leaving you free and open to produce beautiful tone.
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