Singing Lesson: How to Breathe and Inhale
All of us each and every day perform a truly amazing physical function. A function that if not performed correctly every single moment of every single day would certainly result in the end of our very lives. This function is…breathing, and even though breathing is so very important, we rarely give it a moment’s thought.
Interestingly, breathing has been at the forefront of many self-help systems all throughout history. The study of yoga and tai chi for instance have their foundations in breathing. As do the physical arts such as ballet and figure skating. The very word “chi” found in the martial art system of tai chi literally means air. The “dantien” or “store house of chi” as this art calls it is the exact area of the lower abdomen where well-trained singers generate their vocal strength. Tai chi attributes the idea of energy; blood flow and breath control within an overall concept known as chi. This in fact is the foundational principle on which any Tai Chi master will use in explaining their explosive physical powers. For example; try throwing out a punch while taking in a breath. You will notice a lack of strength, just because of the manner in which you breathed. This would be considered a lack of chi, both in the breath as well as the punch itself.
I myself have studied Chinese kung fu (wing Chun and tai Chi) for many years now and I have been continually amazed at the conceptual similarities between signing and kung fu. Singing is a type of kung fu. After all, the name itself simply means “acquired learning” and this learning found its beginnings through a careful study of nature. Some of the best diaphragmatic breathers for instance are children. In fact children breathe as perfectly as they ever will between the ages of birth to around six or seven years old. This is the very reason young boys and girls have such incredibly powerful voices. Think about how loud children can be at the playground or at a Chucky Cheese birthday party!
Its funny when we think that a baby born not even 5 minutes ago can have such a deafeningly strong voice and yet… they are obviously not trained singers and are themselves very weak physically. Yet they do it. And they do it because it is natural for them to do it. That is, of course, until they are fully comfortable with walking and then slowly slouch their posture. With every year that goes by unchecked, the perfect breathing that was once so natural and effective becomes unnatural and ineffective.
So what does nature tell us about breathing and application to singing? That a controlled voice starts with a controlled breath. This is why any relatively good voice instructor will begin the first day of training with an explanation of inhaling often called “diaphragmatic breathing”. Almost anyone who has prior voice training is taught this one important technical sounding word and the teacher feels like they earned their payment for that day by saying it. Unfortunately, very few voice instructors actually keep up with the student on a weekly basis to ensure that the student developed this technique as a habit, but this is exactly what is required…developing it as a habit.
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This breathing technique must actually become a part of our lives, and I often remind my students that in voice training, there will be several lifestyle changes that must take place. There are some that are blatantly obvious. I cannot smoke for instance. It is an absolute detriment to the voice so I have no choice but to never partake in this unhealthy habit. It cannot be a part of my “lifestyle”. For singers this list is somewhat lengthy and on the surface may actually sound silly to the outside, non-singing world. I personally have to make sure I go to bed at a decent time the night before an important show. It would be a detriment for me to be sluggish on stage. It would be heard in my voice and apparent in my overall performance as well. To save my voice from any fatigue I will also try my best to speak less that day than I normally would. Whispering is not any help because the friction of the loose airflow dries out and weakens the vocal folds. Instead, I have to use more body language than actual speech. Nods and thumbs up come in handy during these times. It is again a lifestyle change I had to adopt.
Any memory of the legendary singer Lucianno Pavarotti is often remembered with this operatic giant in his black expensive tuxedo and a brilliant white scarf around his neck. The scarf always was there to protect his timeless voice from the elements. Some may see this as “over the top”, but the concept is the same. He chose to change his life to embrace what he felt was a noble habit.
The point being made here is obvious: A controlled voice starts with a controlled breath. I must develop it as a habit to the point where even when I am nervous in front of an audience or the recording microphone at the studio requires a decision to change this part of my life. It must become part of my lifestyle. Also, there are more important factors that could and should motivate us to take on this challenge. Namely, that breathing is essential for life. This is why there are art forms such as yoga and tai chi that are very “breath conscience”. The fact of the matter is if we practice correct “diaphragmatic abdominal breathing” it is not just for singing, it is to better our lives. It will better me in most sports. It will better me in the way that I speak. I will have more overall energy to perform tasks throughout the day. But again, it absolutely requires a lifestyle change in order to develop it as a subconscious habit.
Changes in lifestyles often prove to be the hardest to accomplish when its something we do without thinking. This is why I stress these points so much and with such conviction. If we want to be our absolute best at signing, if we want to sing effortlessly and be able to sing song after song, show after show without becoming fatigued, than we must master correct breathing. And again, the other equally important motivating fact is that we need to breath correctly anyway in order to enhance our lives.
What is “Diaphragmatic” Breathing? Lets begin with an explanation of what the diaphragm does and how it affects singing.
Look at the illustration of the medical syringe. I picked this rather morbid analogy because it is something we are all too familiar with. This device is also very similar to other simple “pump and draw” machines such as bicycle pumps. This device has only a few simple parts consisting of: 1) A Body, 2) Plunger, and 3) And… a rubber diaphragm.
You probably can imagine that if you placed your finger over the opening end of the syringe and pulled back on the plunger that you would feel suction on your fingertip. The explanation for this is that the rubber diaphragm is sealed air tight against the inner wall of the syringe. When you pull back with the plunger it causes a vacuum (or negative pressure) inside the body (or tube) of the syringe. Air from the outside world wants to fill in the vacuum and so it tries to rush into the opening at the front end of the syringe, drawing your skin in with it. This is how it draws blood from your body. It is a simple process that involves a lot of physics.
Most of us have experimented with this effect when we sat down to eat at a restaurant. While waiting patiently for our food we grab the a straw and quickly jab it into the ice filled glass of water. After skillfully placing our thumb over top of the plastic tube we lift it slowly out of the water and to our expected amazement… the water stays inside the straw! The water inside the straw is acting like a diaphragm. After the water settles and finds its own level it will then completely seal the inside body of the straw. Because the water has weight, its gravity will cause it to drop down. This then will cause a vacuum inside the tube because my thumb is not letting the air enter through the top. Because nature abhors a vacuum, the outside air pressure tries to push its way into the straw, which in turn traps the water. This is what stops the water from falling out and all over the table. The outside air is pushing against the water inside the straw and trapping it there. As soon as you let go, the vacuum no longer exists and the water then drains out.
So, why I am I spending so much time talking about physics and giving examples of vacuums? Because this is exactly how our lung system works as well!
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How Our Diaphragm Works and Why It Matters
The human diaphragm is a large sheet of muscle, which looks oddly similar to a large salad bowl that is turned upside down. It completely covers the lower diameter of the rib cage. And just to note, the rib cage itself is air tight due to a thin lining on the inside called “pleura”. When we take in a breath for singing, the diaphragm drops downward which causes a vacuum inside the ribcage. Because nature abhors a vacuum the air rushes into the nose or mouth and in turn fills the lungs.
Almost anyone who has ever had a voice lesson before more than likely will tell of how their voice teacher had them lie with there back on the floor during their first lesson. And I would bet that if you asked any number of them why their teacher had them lay down on their back on some gross floor that you knew a million students have trampled across over the years, most would not have a clue. Those who do try to give an explanation almost always give an obvious yet simplistic answer. They say “it’s to help with my breathing”. Of course, ultimately this commonly used tool can help us on our way towards developing correct breathing habits. But the answer still remains…why? What is the teacher trying to teach the student? Well let’s start to answer this question by having you yourself perform this seemingly foolish exercise.
I would like you to take a minute to lie down on your back on a hard floor (no beds or couches please.) Once you are in this position, just relax. Clear your mind of any concerns that you may be having today and just lay there with your hands folded across your abdomen and the top of your hands just below your belly button. Breath comfortably and close your eyes for a moment. Now, what do you feel your stomach doing? Hopefully with each breath you feel the abdomen rising up when you inhale and drop when you exhale. This is a diaphragmatic breath. This is what it feels like and it is how you breathe every time you sleep. But the question still remains…why? Why do we all breathe correctly when we are lying on the floor? Most people answer the question like this: “I breathed correctly because I was relaxed.” Some people say its gravity. Some say it is because the weight of the belly is in a different position. All of these are reasonable, but unfortunately, incorrect. If you answered because my back was flat then you are 100% correct. If my back is flat on the floor then I am in “perfect posture” and correct posture invites correct breathing.
It is often said that breathing is the foundation of singing and I myself teach this important truth. But, I must go one step further and add that good posture is the foundation of good breathing.
When we flatten our backs out there is a very helpful side effect that happens to our chest. It raises, or in other words, opens up. I would like you to walk over to the mirror and slouch as bad as possible. Take a deep breath and try to see if the breath has become more difficult to perform. Please try to look at your chest as you inhale and notice as well the deep yearning to raise the chest now more than before. As you can tell, when we slouch, our chest is actually caved inward. And because of this caving in of the chest, our lungs have no room to fill with oxygen. So what we then want to do at that point is raise the chest in order to give the lungs more room to fill. Unfortunately, when we lift the chest “as” we inhale it tightens the neck! This is without a doubt the last area of our body that we want to tense up. Our vocal chords are a pair of muscles that are housed inside the neck. Whenever we flex muscles the surrounding muscles tend to tighten as well. To prove this, try a little experiment. It is quite simple yet can be surprisingly difficult. Make a fist with your strongest hand and grip as tight as you can, but… don’t allow yourself to tighten any of the surrounding muscles, such as your forearm, biceps or shoulder muscles.
Although you may be able to achieve this simple task, you will notice that it takes considerable concentration. As you can see, if we tighten a muscle group the surrounding muscles want to tighten as well.
Remember, the vocal chords are housed inside the larynx, which is found in the neck. If you tighten your neck the vocal chords tighten and cause us to have bad tone, an increase in cracking, an inability to sing higher notes and most importantly, possible damage to the vocal chords themselves. All of this can occur without even singing a note. You can imagine that singing will only make the flexing worse especially when the notes are high and sustained, and it is those notes that we will take the deepest breath as well. As you can see, it is a vicious circle. So, the last thing we would ever want to do is lift our chest as we inhale. It needs to be lifted before we inhale. This will give our lungs room to fill and will keep the neck from flexing because it was in place before we breathed, not during.
Almost everyone inhales incorrectly to some degree, except of course those who have studied voice under a good instructor or have studied other breath conscience arts such as yoga ballet or tai chi.
An interesting fact to consider here is that if you lift your chest and shoulders as you inhale you are not taking a deep breath at all. It feels like a deep breath because you are doing a lot of physical work. But in actuality, it is roughly half of what we can inspire when we do it correctly.
I remember when I had to go to the hospital one year for a severe case of the flu. I remembered laying on the gurney and really struggling to breath because my lungs were filling with fluid. So I was taking very labored breaths and lifting my chest up and down fighting for each mouthful of air. Suddenly, a doctor that I have never met before walks up and says, “ Hey …why don’t you stop breathing so shallow?” So hear am I, the one person in that entire hospital who understood correct breathing and has taught it to hundreds of people, including doctors, getting told to stop breathing “shallow”. If I had the strength I think I would have rolled that bed on wheels right over his feet. However, that phrase really did stick in my mind since that day. Even though I have heard that term used many times before by health care professionals the actual idea of the term struck me as being the perfect description of chest breathing. It is in fact “shallow breathing”.
Now not only is chest breathing shallow it is also not a fast breath. When we are singing and performing we absolutely will need to take lightning fast breaths from time to time. This is more obvious to rock singers or those who may sing dance music but really any style of singing at any time may require a deep fast breath. Unfortunately, the faster we inhale by lifting the chest, the tighter the neck becomes and because of overall constriction and inefficient use of the diaphragm itself, we actually inhale less. The saddest pat of all is that we simply cannot inhale as quickly with constriction as we can without. How can we take a fast breath when we are choking ourselves?
As I just mentioned, the diaphragm is not being used efficiently. We are not allowing it to drop, which again, draws the air into the lungs. Our minds are not even on the concept of dropping at all. We are thinking of lifting. If we want to lift the chest as we inhale and this unfortunately has the exact opposite effect of how the diaphragm works most effectively.
So, here are just three very important reasons for adopting the lifestyle habit that we call diaphragmatic breathing.
1) If we inhale in our chest we will automatically tighten our neck and ultimately the vocal chords as well.
2) We cannot inhale as quickly.
3) We cannot inhale as much.
Flash Fix for Effective Breathing
Now we as singers obviously need to look at this in a more simplistic way, a way in which we can actually forget about while performing on stage. I mean, after all, none of us will be thinking about negative pressure and its application to a drinking straw while belting out a high note in our favorite song. So, here are some flash fixes to help ensure proper breathing:
1) Point the back of the head up at all times stretching to the sky.
2) Allow the stomach to drop downwards as we inhale.
3) Always inhale through the mouth.