Breathing exercises are some of the most important things you can do to improve your voice. The great thing is that you can do them even if your voice is tired because they require little to no singing whatsoever! Most of the day, we unconsciously breathe from the space around our clavicles, upper chest and shoulders. When you breathe like this, your chest and shoulders rise and your abdomen tends to suck up and inward. Try taking a few high breaths in this manner. In general, you want to avoid breathing like this when you sing.
On the other hand, a deep, full singing breath involves lower abdominal, back, and belly breathing. In this type of breathing we imagine we are filling up with air all the way down to the bottom of our pelvic floor, out in every direction horizontally, and then eventually up into the ribcage and chest. We also want to keep the 6-pack area soft and relaxed. Try taking a few lower and deeper breaths and imagine you are filling up like a giant car tire. We do this type of breath for a couple of important reasons. Firstly, we don’t want our shoulders and chest lifting too much, because these muscles can push up into our throat, causing unnecessary tension and lift around the vocal folds. Secondly, a breath like this sets you up for better control and support during exhalation, which is necessary for strong and even singing.
How to Inhale
It’s important to understand that breath enters the body passively. Inhalation is not like swallowing food, in which your muscles actively push food down your throat. The proper way to inhale is by opening up space in your torso and chest cavity, allowing the air to rush in on its own. Try the following exercise to get a feel for this kind of inhalation. Start by pushing out all of the air from your lungs. Do this by pushing your navel inwards and up as you forcibly exhale until your lungs feel completely empty. Then just let go. Disengage all the muscles of your chest and abdomen all at once, and notice how air rushes into your lungs, without your having to force it in. Try this again, but this time, use the imagery of the lower abdomen filling up like a car tire. As singers, we don’t always have a lot of time to take a breath, so the goal in this exercise is learn to fill up as quickly as possible, while at the same time feeling as if you are simply releasing and dropping your belly.
All about the diaphragm
Do you know where your diaphragm is positioned in your torso? Place your hand at the level where you think your diaphragm is. Most people will place their hand somewhere around their bellybutton, which is much lower than the actual position of the diaphragm. In fact, the diaphragm in its resting position traces the same arch-like shape of the bottom of the ribcage. When we want to take in a breath, the diaphragm flattens out, pushing our organs downward. This action allows the lungs to fill up with more air. So when you imagine that you are filling up with air all the way down to your pelvic floor, your air is not actually filling up all that space; instead, you are simply using a helpful visualization to encourage your diaphragm downward.
Try the following exercise. Take in a deep breath and release the air with a slow hiss on the sound tss. As you release air, keep the ribcage expanded. This ribcage expansion helps keep the diaphragm flat for as long as possible. To assist in ribcage expansion, hold your arms out in front of you as if you are holding a beach ball that is slowly expanding. Let your arms spread down and outward in front of you. When you are doing this right you will sound like a punctured tire, slowly losing air. This exercise helps maintain an even, controlled flow of air. Make sure not to collapse your chest and maintain a good overall posture when performing this exercise. At the very end of your exhale, it is okay to allow your chest to deflate slightly. However, if you let your chest cave in too early, then the diaphragm immediately moves back up to its curved position, pushing all the air out very quickly and unevenly – not helpful for singing!
As you practice breathing, it’s important to make sure your whole body stays light and free. After all, breathing should ultimately look and feel natural. If you catch your body tensing up, try casually walking around the room and swinging your arms to let go of any gathered tension. If you notice your jaw and facial muscles getting tight or tired, try puffing out your cheeks with air a few times. Then proceed to move that air around the inside of your face and throat. Another good exercise to help release facial tension are lip trills (also known as the “motorboat”). When you do these really try to feel your entire face and throat vibrate.
Ultimately, you don’t need to have a huge ribcage to be a successful singer. You also don’t need to tank up with the maximum amount of air on every breath when you sing. Over-breathing actually makes it harder to control your air. Really, it’s all about using what you’ve got. Singers who sing very long phrases with a single breath don’t have lungs twice as big as everyone else’s; instead, these singers have learned to use their air efficiently. If your breath is your fuel, be more like a hybrid car, not a gas-guzzler. Learning to breathe well takes some concentration, some effort, and a little bit of practice every day. The payoff is more free, more powerful, and more controlled singing!
If you want to learn more, check out the article on support as it relates well to this topic! Cheers!