As a singer, I hear plenty of discussions about breathing technique, and quite often these can be confusing. There are so many things to think about. It can sometimes feel like there is never enough time execute all the technical procedures you are meant to. However, if you strip away the extraneous details, singing comes down to only a few really important techniques. The single most important of these is breathing technique. Not just ‘breathing’, but trained and efficiently controlled inhalation and exhalation of air for supported singing. Without attention to breathing technique, you won’t be able to reach the full potential of your singing voice. Taking a closer look at the breathing apparatus and proper breathing technique will help you more than you think!
Engaging the Right Muscles
It is difficult to fully define which muscles do and don’t help in breathing technique. I would argue that it actively engages various parts of your entire body! Breathing in air should engage the ‘lower’ torso area, mainly the diaphragm. It can also be used as a tool to ‘release’ the jaw and neck. These are two places where singers commonly hold unnecessary tension, which causes negative impacts to the smooth tone that we strive for. The relaxing of the diaphragm can be used as a memory trigger for these other areas to simply ‘reset’ into a relaxed position.
The In Breath
Obviously as you are singing, the intake of air happens very quickly. It’s important to remember that despite how desperate you might be for air, each inhalation should be approached with care. Being underprepared can destroy a phrase and prohibit you from singing with openness and clarity. Some important factors to remember about the in breath are that it should feel ‘deep’ rather than ‘high’.
Are your shoulders moving when you breathe in? Try to minimise this by feeling like your upper chest/sternum is kept in an open but relaxed position. Doing a few shoulder rolls can relax these muscles. Is your inhalation loud? This usually means you aren’t engaging with your diaphragm and your soft palate isn’t raised to create tall vowel shapes. There are a few ways to get around this problem! Make sure you have a sip of water and ensure your throat is clean! Then, try yawning a few times. That initial intake of air – where the soft palate is fully raised and the larynx is settled low – is the optimum place where singers should aim to inhale each time. Applying these feelings to breathing in on a prepared vowel shape (the first vowel of the next phrase) will help you find any quick intakes of air you need.
The Out Breath
Now that you have successfully taken in air, the next step is using it up. Whilst singing, exhaling is just as controlled as inhaling, and learning the right ways to manipulate your air flow has a range of benefits! By taking in a ‘deep’ breath, you have a much greater degree of control over your air expulsion rather than taking a ‘high’ breath. The flow of air right from the start of the phrase, no matter whether you are singing loudly or softly, should be consistent and energised. Energised breathing technique is important as it produces resonance and tight intonation by not letting phrases taper at the end. Furthermore, mentally picturing physical energy in your diaphragmatic area can lead to less tension in those places where we don’t want tightness (the back of the neck, jaw).
How do you get a consistent flow of air? Make sure the air doesn’t stop. Your air is the powerhouse from which most of what you do vocally stems from, so keeping air constant through your vowels and consonants will allow your support to have full effect. Keeping your breath energised? Physically, the feeling that your belly button is steadily moving right back towards your spine is a great way to envision your breath mechanism. Also try spinning both your left hand and right hand pointer fingers around each other in small circles, holding them close to your diaphragm. This is a good reminder for you when you are nearing the end of your breath capacity to keep feeling that consistent support flowing and energised.
What If I Run out of Air?
On that same topic, what happens if you’ve got another five words or notes to sing but you’ve used up all your air already? Don’t fret, there are options for you to keep going! You can simply stop somewhere in the music and lyrics that makes sense for a slight pause (for example, not in the middle of a word) and take a ‘surprise’ breath. These are short intakes of air which are similar to the inhale that happens when you are shocked or scared. The ‘gasp’ feeling sometimes occurs naturally with a dropped larynx and raised soft palate, but if not there are ways to practise this. Set up the correct breathing space, then stick out your tongue, and pant like a dog. Yep, you read that correctly! When done right, this hurried, faster form of breathing helps teach the diaphragm what short bursts of air feel like, and can expand your breath capacity over time.
Alternatively, if you really need to, just take a breath!! No-one’s going to punish you for it, and it’s definitely not going to trigger the end of the world. So if you honestly feel like you need to replenish your support, go for it. Furthermore, we don’t want to sacrifice the tone and shape of a song by squeezing out every last dreg of air.
How Much Air
But how much air should you take in? Depending on the type of phrase that you have to sing, the air you intake will vary slightly. Filling up to your full capacity of air is always a good idea, and you may surprise yourself with how far you can sing without having to gasp for air where you normally would. A low, open breath that prepares you will basically always take you as far as you need to go. Sometimes, if you’re desperate for air, try squeezing your glutes together to give yourself a tiny burst of energy. This is a last resort however (you should’ve taken a breath before it gets to this point!). Also creating a mental image of your legs being hollow and acting as a storage space for air can help your ‘tank’ feel full and centered.
So what if you’re new to singing technique, and your coach keeps going on and on about breathing technique: “You have to breathe properly!” How can you learn this new style of unfamiliar breathing? There are plenty of ways that can help increase your intercostal muscles and diaphragm, and the best part is the majority of them are super fun! We’ve learnt about some methods above, but here are some more!
- Take a deep breath in and the exhale for 8 beats on either ‘sssssss’, ‘ssshhhhh’, ‘ffffffffff’, ‘tthhhhhhh’ (as in the word ‘teeth’ or ‘thimble’), ‘vvvvvvvvv’, ‘zzzzzzzzzzz’ or ‘tttttthhhhhhh’ (as in the word ‘then’). Be careful to keep these sounds really consistent and supported right to the end of the 8 beats!
- Find a clock, take a nice low breath, and then slowly cycle through the alphabet, changing when the second hand ticks.
- Breathe in while raising your arms above your head, feeling the expansion low, and across your sternum. Then slowly exhale while lowering your arms, feeling your muscles relax.
- Hold up three fingers, and pretend to blow them out individually, like candles on a birthday cake. Really feel that air pressure activate in a low position. On the last finger, let all the breath release out, and then gradually add more fingers.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but these are my favourite ones to use! Try them, and see how your breath capacity can expand! Being really attentive to your air can have massive benefits to your voice!