Singing 101: Breathing!
Demystifying The Diaphragm + Tips for Better Breath Support
It seems to be THE central focus of so many of our conversations about singing, and yet I find that most people who come into my studio admit to being pretty damn perplexed, and completely mystified, as to what “breath support” really means, and how to do it properly. Isn’t it kind of hilariously ironic that the ONE piece of singing that should be the easiest, the ONE piece we’re already doing all the damn time, all day every day, is such a source of confusion? It’s talked about incessantly, and yet, most people seem completely in the dark about what breath support really means, what the role of the diaphragm is in singing (what the hell IS the diaphragm anyway?!), and how breathing can help or hinder our singing. So, let’s demystify all this breathing-and-diaphragm talk, mmkay?
I’m here to blow your mind, people. Pun intended. Okay, sorry. Let’s forget I did that.
Singing Breathing + The Diaphragm = Diaphragmatic Breathing
For a quick + dirty overview / in-depth breakdown of how the vocal mechanism works, please go here and read my post on How The Voice Works. At its essence, singing is the balance of our breath/airflow, to the muscle tension of our vocal cords pulling to different pitch openings.
Let’s start by talking about the Diaphragm. I’m sure you’ve heard all kinds of talk about “singing from the diaphragm” or “the belly,” or “breathing from the diaphragm” - you know it’s important, somehow, but you have no clue what it is or what it’s doing. The diaphragm is a large, dome-shaped muscle that sits at the base of the lungs, right beneath our sternums, and is the most efficient muscle aiding in the process of breathing. Note that I did not say that we breathe into our diaphragms (the air is, of course, going into our lungs, correct?). For singing, we want to use this muscle to help us, and so we position our breathing a bit lower than we might normally find ourselves breathing in everyday life. Do me a favor: go stand in front a mirror and take an inhale. Now take another and observe for me what moved when you inhaled. Did your chest and shoulders rise up as you inhaled? Did your belly go in, or go out? Take a few breaths and take note of this, because it’s really important. The proper way to breathe for singing, is that on our inhales, we want our bellies + ribs to inflate, keeping the chest and shoulders down. We then want our bellies to slowly come back in and up as we exhale our air. Say it with me now:
Inhale: Belly + ribs inflate
Exhale: Belly slowly comes back in + up OR (intermediate/advanced) stays inflated until the very end
A visual + physical exercise I sometimes give people to go through here is to place their hand on their bellies, right beneath the sternum (move that hand up, yep, a littttle higher than you probably placed it. It’s not the LOW belly, so much as the diaphragm, right beneath the sternum, that we want to feel). Inhale, thinking of the ribs expanding OUT to our sides (towards our elbows), and feeling the belly inflate out, so that our hand is being pushed away from us. The chest should be relaxed, and shoulders should be relaxed down your back. So where does the diaphragm come into play in all of this? Well, the diaphragm, sitting under our sternum, is actually dropping DOWN + flattening here as we inhale, which causes our ribs + belly to expand. Why is it flattening down? Why do we give a shit about this extra piece? Don’t we have enough to worry about with singing, without having to tweak our whole way of breathing?! The reason we care is because, with the diaphragm flattened down, the lungs are being allowed some extra room to hold some extra air “in the tank” whilst at the same time letting air out in a steady stream as we sing. Let me repeat that, because I think that is an important piece: the lungs are keeping some air in reserve at the bottom, AS they let out a steady stream of air on the exhale as we sing. We’re not just inhaling and exhaling all of our air out in one big breath all at once, right? We need this air to support us through our phrase as we sing - thus, thinking of our lungs similar to if we were pouring a nice beer into a glass (beer analogies work well for me, don’t know about you): we’re not just turning the bottle upside down and dumping it all out at once. We’re gradually - but steadily! - pouring the liquid out. Our lungs, in essence, are doing the same thing: gradually - but steadily! - letting our air out on a steady, free, active exhale. This support - from the “reserve” of air in the lungs supporting the air that’s leaving, to the diaphragm flattening to support the lungs doing this, is the essence of breath support.
So, to recap: inhale, diaphragm drops, belly + ribs inflate. Exhale, steadily + freely, and the belly slowly comes back in + up, returning the diaphragm gradually back to its start position.
Now, one more thing to note: eventually, the long-term goal is to strengthen the diaphragm enough that it can stay flattened + down AS you sing, and being enough in control of your diaphragm to be able to do this, so that it doesn’t pop-up automatically when you’re doing something difficult vocally. For starters, I’d say to be aware of this idea, but not necessarily worried about it too much at first. Initially, it’s just important for you to start to practice breathing in this deeper way, and being really honest with yourself about whether you are actually using your diaphragm to breathe properly for singing (i.e. belly is inflating on the inhale, versus going in, and into the chest). You may need to practice this in a mirror so you can really see what is going on as you’re breathing. I will cover the more advanced breathing (keeping the diaphragm flattened/belly inflated AS you exhale/sing) in a later post - for now, it’s just important to get this breathing, and coordination of the breath, dialed-in so it’s more second-nature. The ironic thing about this way of breathing is that it is how we breathe naturally when we are in an ultimate relaxed state - when we are sleeping.
So, the moral of the story when it comes to breathing: let it be free, let it help you, and (even though we’ve just done A LOT of talking about it), don’t overthink it or make it more difficult than it needs to be. As with most things with singing, try to let it be a little more, and you’ll be surprised at how much less you actually need to work to achieve a better sound.
Tips for Better Breathing + Breath Support
Towards that end, I have a few tips + tricks that might help you with simplifying the whole breathing portion of singing. These are some “best practices” I like to tell all of my students to help them relax around breathing a little more, and find a more intuitive, easy way of using the breath to help their voices.
1. Don’t take a HUGE inhale to sing.
This is the first thing I say to people that blows their minds. Let’s start with feeling something, again, shall we? Take in a BIG inhale - as much air as you can possibly take in. Then, maybe even gulp in a little more. What does it feel like as soon as you’ve taken as much air in as you can? You probably REALLY need to exhale now, right? Did you let it all out, finally, in one giant gasp, hoping to find some relief? This is exactly the opposite of what we want to do when we are singing. The truth is, conventional wisdom is once again the source of a singing fallacy that we all seem to get into our heads + bodies. It seems as if, if we are trying to support our voices, and have enough air to get through a phrase, that we’d need to take in as much as air as we possibly can, to carry us through the phrase. However, the reality of what happens in our bodies is, again, the opposite of what we want when we sing. When we take in as much air as our bodies and lungs can hold, it places an inordinate amount of air pressure underneath our vocal cords. Remember the piece where I said singing is about a balance between our breath/airflow + our vocal cords? Well, our vocal cords are pretttttty small. They do a lot of heavy lifting (god, they are SUCH champs!) - but they are small. They are about the size of a dime in women, a nickel for men. So. Putting SO much air pressure underneath them, in an unnatural way like this (who takes in a HUGE inhale to speak? Probably none of you, ever. And if you are - maybe check in with this in your speaking voice, too), will cause you to need to relieve this pressure in one of two ways: either by squeezing/holding the air back = holding the breath, or else will cause us to push/force the air out = overblowing the breath. Neither falls under the umbrella of a relaxed, steady stream of airflow, now does it?
Moral of the story: stop taking in air as if you’re about to swim the length of an Olympic-sized swimming pool on a single breath. You don’t do it to speak; don’t do it when you sing.
A normal, conversational breath (maybe a teeny bit bigger if you know you have a long phrase) should be more than sufficient to get you through a singing phrase.
2. No holding breath BEFORE you start singing.
This one, dear singers, is probably the NUMBER ONE most pesky breathing habit I think I see in people. It drives people crazy because they a) never realize it’s even a thing to be aware of and b) when they are made aware of it, it seems like the natural thing to do, to “prepare” to sing: take in a HUGE inhale, and then HOLD IT. That’s right, y’all: #1 + #2 loooove to work together to impede our singing! The reason we don’t want to hold before we start to exhale/sing, is the same reason as above: it just places too much air pressure beneath our sweet little vocal cords. I liken this habit to running and building up momentum and then stopping short right before jumping over a body of water you’re trying to get across. It makes zero sense to halt all the momentum you just gained and then make the job even harder for yourself! So, what do we want to instead? What we want to do instead is take a (normal) inhale, and then simply start singing right at the tail-end of the inhaled breath. It’s a very free, circular sort of motion, the exhale simply a continuation of the inhale. Sometimes I tell people to think “air in, sound out” all as one seamless motion, to get them to break this habit. Or another visual is the idea of the surf coming in + out on the shore of a beach - the water flows in, and immediately flows back out, without break or stopping. Pick either one to visualize in your mind and see if it helps you relax a little into a more natural rhythm.
A special note for Breathy Singers: the “holding” right before coming in to sing (particularly in Head Voice) is a common culprit in causing our overly-breathy tone. When I am working with someone on strengthening a breathy tone I usually start right here, with checking out that moment between the end of the inhale and when someone starts to sing. If you hold your breath, even for a split second, it is too long. I can’t stress it enough: you want to inhale and then come RIGHT IN, at the very top of your inhaled breath, and not a moment later. Again, when we hold, we build up air pressure under the cords, which can cause them to open up too much to allow the air out that’s built up unnaturally underneath them. Our vocal cords being too far apart = breathy tone. If the cords aren’t vibrating against one another (where they want to be), and are too far apart, we hear more breath coming through than tone. So if you’re looking to strengthen a breathy tone (particularly in Head Voice!), check out this piece - it might be the small tweak you need to overcome that breathy tone, simply by coming into your first note a split second sooner than you think you “should.”
3. No Holding Air / No Overblowing Air.
This one seems obvious, though I still find so many singers are either holding their air as they sing to “conserve” + “get through” the phrase they are singing, or else they are overblowing their air by pushing it out in a misguided attempt to “support” with their breath. Again, neither of these falls under the umbrella of relaxed, supportive, + natural. Remember! The breath is here to help, not hinder. We don’t need to make this any more complicated than it is. The airflow should simply be a stready stream of air exhaling freely. Nothing more, nothing less.
You might be asking yourself, “Well, how MUCH air should I be sending out? Who’s going to measure that out if not for me, lady?!” To that, I have some good news! Your trusty vocal cords are in charge of measuring out exactly how much air they need. So, you can take that off of your plate! As long as you are taking proper inhales + breathing out freely, the vocal cords will do the rest. It really isn’t for you to “monitor” beyond the pieces we outlined above. Glory hallelujah.
So there you have it, my darlings. Ultimately, I’m of the belief that Breathing should be the easiest part of singing: after all, you’re already doing it(!), all the time. The reason vocalists and vocal teachers obsess over our (and your) breathing is because we’re actually trying to help you return it to a more relaxed, natural state. If you feel like your breathing in everyday life and/or as it relates to your speech isn’t the healthiest (i.e. you notice you tend to hold your breath or overblow it when speaking, for example), then this is a great time to start practicing these better breathing practices, as you’re going through your day and talking to people. The great part about this is that it’s a win-win: you’re practicing your breathing and building better habits while you’re going about the things you already do every day. Add in some dedicated time to sit down in front of a mirror and really focus on this breathing, and you’ll be well on your way to healthier breathing that is actually supporting your voice, which is what it’s there to do anyway. Breathing practice + mindfulness is also a classic relaxation/grounding/centering + meditation practice, that aids in relaxation and lower stress in all areas of our lives.
At the end of the day, singing is (or should be!) natural and free. Never lose sight, when you get confused and overwhelmed and frustrated with your voice, of taking a deep breath and going back to the basics. Remember that at the root of vocal “rules” and “tips” is really just an urging to return to a free, natural, and relaxed state. Err on the side of that, and you’ll be in a good place.