Breathing in singing is one of the most talked about issues for singers and their teachers. As we head for a big note or a tough section we’re always told to take a deeper breath and work harder. Unfortunately, so many people fail with their breath work before they even begin. Mainly because they don’t understand the mechanics of breathing for singing, or because they have been misled with old wives’ tales of when you need to hit a higher or harder note you need more air! The truth is the complete opposite, what you need is no more than the amount of air it takes you to speak. Take a deep breath in now – what’s the first thing you want to do with it? My bet is you want to let it go and take another breath. What you need to know is it’s not how much air you have but what you do with it.
Now the following post is written with an aim to guide my students and singers in their exploration of breathing technique, I always wish to make clear that any online article or video instructing vocal training will never give you the instruction you personally need, each singer is different, their genetics, accent, speaking habits and lifestyle play a great role in voice production and it’s because of this I always recommend studying (one to one and in person) with a vocal teacher who has the experience and knowledge in technique and vocal health to help you find your voice. There really is no replacement for a teacher who can see you face to face and who can tailor their lessons to your specific needs. You may not be aware, following general advice which may be untested – may only be detrimental to your voice and you may never unlock your true potential by reading online and watching videos alone. That being said – that’s not going to stop you from looking things like this up! So please read this carefully and if any questions, concerns or issues come up get in contact with me here.
Breathing in Singing.
So breathing is quite a serious issue for singers, if it’s not right we can limit our range, run out of breath before the end of a line, struggle with more complex passages and more seriously – we can damage our voice! Now as singers running out of breath during a phrase or singing with a breathy tone can be a real problem, losing breath usually causes us to tense, strain and push the voice whilst a breathy tone in itself can prevent the vocal folds from closing properly leaving them at risk of getting battered in the process!
So does this affect you? You may not realise that you have a breathy tone, you may have been told its just your natural voice – that may be true, but breath in the voice which you haven’t purposely put there is just a sign of an untrained and potentially unhealthy voice. If you can’t control your breath flow how can you ever be able to achieve everything you would like to in your voice? Remember we have the capability to change our voice to be whatever we want it to be with the right technique so ask yourself this – Do you want to limit yourself or become the singer you always wanted to be? If it’s the second – Then breath comes first!
How to Identify a breathy voice:
- (It’s an obvious one!) You sound breathy!
- You may lack volume, power or strength in tone
- You may run out of breath easily when you sing or feel breathless when you sing
- You may have a husky tone
- You may get a dry throat or mouth when you sing
- Your ribcage or belly may rush inwards suddenly when you sing
- Singing can be tiring and may sometimes cause sore throats
- You may feel like the voice “slips” or “catches” when you sing sometimes resulting in coughing.
- You may feel thirstier than normal when you sing.
- You may have a limited range or struggle with pitch out of your comfort zone
Now if you identify with any of the above I know you will definitely benefit from working on clearing up your vocal tone. So many vocal problems start with breath including much nastier problems such as vocal strain or nodules, and there are so many benefits to getting your breath under control, benefits such as:
- Increased volume
- It allows you to sing longer phrases
- Increases stamina
- Is safer on the voice
- Helps to reduce tension in the chest / shoulders / neck / face
- Helps to create a better tone
- Helps to increase range
- Allows for better control
So how do we get there? First we need to understand more about our body and the way it works, here comes the sciency bit:
The diaphragm is definitely a word that gets thrown about quite a lot! In fact, most people have heard the term diaphragm in relation to singing but many do not actually know what it is. The diaphragm is a concave muscle which extends across the bottom of the ribcage separating (amongst other things) the lungs and the heart, from stomach, liver and kidneys. When we inhale we usually feel the diaphragm contract and expand as it moves downward in the body. Breathe from the diaphragm and support are such confusing terms which don’t actually mean much, if you’re working with a teacher be careful when you hear people throwing these terms around, ask them exactly what they mean by support or breathing from the diaphragm. It’s important you understand what is needed from you.
I personally do recognise why there is so much focus on this muscle as it gives those starting out a more physical feedback that we are doing something technical and potentially helpful in singing – but it most certainly is not the be all and end all in voice production!
So how do we breathe?
The respiration system works when the intercostal muscles contract, expanding the ribcage, the diaphragm contracts and moves downwards – the effort of this increases the volume in the chest and the changing pressure sucks air into the lungs. When we breath in, the pressure raises in the chest to the point where we feel the urge to exhale which triggers the intercostal muscles to relax allowing the ribcage to return to its resting position, the diaphragm relaxes and moves upwards forcing the air out of the lungs. The air then moves up through the wind pipe across the vocal folds, which when we speak creates a resistance, causing the vocal folds to vibrate which results in sound. The important thing to remember here is we are never actually breathing from the diaphragm, we cannot control the diaphragm directly rather the intercostal and abdominal muscles power this reaction. If you’d like a more visual description here’s a link to a YouTube video which may be of help!
The term “Diaphragmatic Breathing” to a lot of teachers who are working within modern scientifically researched methods is slowly becoming either obsolete or at least thought of as a misinformed term. What is becoming apparent is the focus is no longer on how much air we can fit into our lungs, rather the focus is on getting the air, tension and pressure as far away from the vocal folds as possible. What we really want to achieve is: When we inhale, the lungs fill naturally to a comfortable “neutral” position where we feel neither the urge to breath in or breath out. Remember if we breath in too deep we trigger the urge to release the air when we come to sing, and as soon as the air rushes away – that’s when we get the breathy tone!
Many leading teachers are now focusing on the importance of the valve of the lungs – the Larynx or more specifically the closing of the vocal folds. It has been proven that if the vocal folds are not making an effective closure then the air will leak through, creating a breathy tone and resulting in the feeling of running out of breath. For me in my private teaching – where at one time I would spend the first sessions with a student focusing on breathing exercises and diaphragmatic / belly breathing I now focus first on creating a good vocal fold / cord closure – where is the point in struggling to control the air flow by contracting and holding on to the abdominal muscles when a simple vocal exercise could more than half the effort levels of singing! It has been proven that if you can’t control the airflow where it escapes you will never hold onto adequate breath for singing.
If you are a breathy singer – chances are you’re either taking in too much breath, you’re contracting too much in the abdominal area which forces the air out or, more likely – you haven’t trained your voice to connect in the way it should. A clear tone is a strong tone – we know that in order to get more volume we need to get more contact in the vocal folds, any breath which gets in the way of the vocal folds touching will always result in a quieter tone.
So how do we fix it?
It sounds silly but sometimes by just being aware of being breathy some people are able to just tell themselves not to be breathy! I have a few students who I have mentioned their breath control to and without instruction of how to, they manage to stop the unnecessary air flow. But for those who need a step by step guide, this is how I work with students:
First make sure you are not taking too much air in – lay on your back with one hand on your chest and one hand on your belly, just below your belly button. Take a slow breath in, do you feel the air travel to your chest? your belly? or both? If it’s both then you are most certainly taking on too much air. If it’s to your chest, then you need to try and refocus the breath to the lower part of your abdomen – relax breath in and out a few times to reset your natural breathing. This time take a slow breath through your nose, without actively forcing your body to hold still, try to encourage the breath lower and resist the urge to let your shoulders and chest raise. If you’re still struggling, you can try by getting onto your hands and knees allowing your belly to relax and fall forward, try focusing the breath lower again. It will take a little practice but in time by relaxing your abdominal wall with each breath you will notice your belly moving in and out.
The thing to remember is that you’re never actually breathing into your diaphragm or into your belly, it is just the reaction of focusing the breath lower that the abdominal wall releases, the diaphragm contracts and the action moves everything down and out!
It’s important to spend some time focusing the breath lower into the body, to stop the chest from rising too high and adding to and avoidable tension and constriction in the neck. It’s usually at this point as singers we are left with this task but told no more on what to do with the breath now it’s here! It’s the next steps that actually matter! You aim now is to maintain the right pressure and not allow your breath to escape!
First place your hand onto your abdomen below the belly button. Take a low comfortable breath allowing the belly to move forward naturally. Now on a comfortable mid ranged note sing “Ah” does the belly rush in? Does it stay in place? Is there a breathy tone?
If your belly rushes inwards and your voice is breathy then that shows us we are either driving the air by compressing the muscles in the abdomen or our ‘valve’ the vocal folds aren’t closing the way, we would want them to.
Remember with singing it’s all about visualisation, let’s try something. Take another low abdominal breath, and sing on “ah” again. This time focus on not letting the air rush away so suddenly, can we control the air flow? It is something we really need to practice and maintain.
Next we can focus on the “valve” as said before the vocal folds are incredibly important in maintaining air flow. We want to try and perfect a good cord closure (when the folds/cords close well and no air escapes) first we can start with gentle glottal stops try by saying ‘uh oh’ you should feel the sensation where your folds connect. Give it reasonable effort, we want to create a good sound but we don’t want to force it. Other methods which are helpful in creating a good glottal sound are usually what I call “aggravated vowels” where you say ‘ii’ or ‘ee’ or ‘uh’ with an annoyed or mildly angry or aggravated tone, (think of how you may hear someone telling their dog off ‘uh uh uh’) the effort is on getting the folds to touch well and it creates a clearer and crisper sound. (If you’re having any difficulty making a clearer sound or are confused by the instructions above get in contact and I will try my best to help!)
The important thing to remember is that with a better cord closure there will be a higher resistance to the breath flow – which will result in a higher breath pressure (or subglottic pressure) it is here that we need to make sure that we are giving the body enough energy to control the building pressure underneath the vocal cords. If we allow the pressure to build to a point we can no longer withstand it – the air will burst through the folds, resulting in a breathy tone and sometimes can catch in the throat and be quite unpleasant and in some cases dangerous.
Some ways in which to control this pressure are to first make sure you are not driving or squeezing from the belly or allowing the belly to rush in as we sing. If we need more help in supporting the breath flow we can activate certain muscles to help us maintain the breath flow, try pushing down into your feet (if standing) or into your chair (if sitting) it should only need slight changes in effort. If that’s not enough or you are working on more powerful notes you may need to anchor – which is where you activate muscle groups to control the intercostal muscles and prevent the lungs from allowing the air to flow. The aim is to prevent the abdominal muscles pulling up and inwards forcing away the air. One teacher once told me to imagine I had oranges under my arms and to squeeze them inwards to my ribs. The resulting feeling is of the muscles around the back of the ribcage contracting, this effort helps to keep the ribcage expanded and diaphragm in place, you should then maintain the effort until you have finished singing that particular word or phrase. The idea is to activate these muscles when a bit more “support” is needed. (Again this is a very brief description of a very intricate technique – I always advise working with a trained teacher who understands the correct methods of anchoring safely) Remember our aim is to create a controlled airflow not restricting or stopping the breath.
One thing to bear in mind is if we anchor too much we stand the chance of making things worse! So think of your support system like you would when using the break in a car, we don’t suddenly put the foot down on the break if we just want to slow down a little – the support must be adequate to the singing. Remember forcing the air will only end in pressured tones lacking quality resonance which can be damaging. This is where a bit of patience and practice really help!
So here are some key points to remember:
- Focus on a lower abdominal breath to reduce tension in chest cavity and entire vocal mechanism.
- Create and maintain a good vocal fold/cord closure.
- Maintain a steady breath flow.
- Support and anchor the breath/voice when necessary – make sure your effort is adequate for the singing.
- Be careful of the Subglottic pressure building, any sudden changes in pressure or effort can cause the air to rush through the folds blowing them apart.
- Whatever effort it takes to get you to a note is the effort needed to keep you there, don’t let your support drop until you have finished your line!
I think every teacher I have worked with has had their own method of how to breathe and support the voice – you need to bear in mind that what works for one may not work for others, and so many teachers develop their own method. But one thing that is for sure, incorrect breath work is one of the main culprits for so many singing problems and unfortunately the worst of all- vocal damage.
You need to remember we need to work with the body’s natural function – we don’t want to stop the airflow unnecessarily it’s not about holding the breath, but maintaining a steady flow. The thing to remember is when training in any new technique the body may at first see this as unnatural – it is important to realise the difference between unnatural and painful, if something just feels a bit weird sometimes it just takes a bit of time to get used to it. But if you are feeling adverse effects then something definitely isn’t right.
This is just the beginning, the primary basics of breathing in singing, there is so much more to explore, different anchoring techniques different breathing methods for different styles and vocal qualities, but for more in depth knowledge this is where you need to find yourself someone trained and who has the knowledge of training these specific techniques and the understanding of vocal health and the consequences of bad breath management. If your local to the Portsmouth / Havant / Waterlooville area and would like further training in this area contact me through Facebook or my online contact form.