Vocal Technique for Singers: Breathing and Breath Control 101

By Emily Peasgood.

 

As I focus on selected vocal techniques during warm-up sessions with my gospel choir, en Choir, here are my top tips on breathing and breath control for singing:

 

Posture

The first step in developing vocal technique is to establish good posture for singing. Your body is your instrument and poor alignment or unnecessary tension can effect how well you sing. Good posture enables good breathing. Think of your body as the engine that drives your voice and your breath as the fuel that drives the engine.

Once we have established good posture we move to the second step in developing vocal technique: learning to breathe well during singing. Having control over your breathing will not only help to support your voice but will enable healthy singing to take place.

There are three key breathing skills singers need to learn:

  1. The ability to inhale large quantities of air
  2. The ability to snatch a good breath quickly
  3. The ability to control the escape of breath

 

Breathing well for singing

Most people find that when they breathe in their chest rises: this is after all what comes naturally. But through developing your posture, practising breathing exercises and singing regularly you will start to master deeper diaphragmatic breathing. Have you ever heard someone say: “sing from the diaphragm!” or “use your diaphragm”? Did you understand what they meant? 

Many singers haven’t a clue – I didn’t until my third year at music college – and this is why: we don’t actually sing with our diaphragm. It is a combination of abdominal muscles, intercostal muscles (the muscles connecting the ribs) and the diaphragm that constitute the breathing mechanism.

When we inhale, the diaphragm descends into the stomach area, pushing down and moving everything out of the way. The intercostal muscles of the rib cage expand sideways resulting in an expansion around the stomach, sides and back.

On exhalation our diaphragm relaxes upwards towards its original position as our lungs empty of air. This is where the abdominal muscles really kick in: they are responsible for the exhalation of breath. The diaphragm merely controls the speed we exhale our breath. 

To focus on the diaphragm as the sole mechanism for breathing is actually quite beneficial as it is intricately linked with the myriad of abdominal muscles that contribute to the task. The diaphragm is also one of the largest muscles in the human body and its rise and fall – an accordian-like inhalation and exhalation pattern – provides strong visual imagery for the singer.

Let’s now look at some exercises to develop each of these three key breathing skills.

Please note:  If at any point you feel light-headed take a break and come back later. These exercises need only be performed for a few minutes at a time.

  1. Start by performing these exercises lying down.
  2. As you find your feet, progress to sitting upright, or standing.
  3. For a challenge, perform these exercises whilst walking.

TIPS: When you inhale keep the upper body as relaxed as possible: there should be no lifting of the shoulders, clenching of the hands or jaw, or noisy gasping of breath.

Your sternum/breastbone should be strong and erect with no sagging and focus should be placed on drawing the breath low into the body. Your stomach must never be sucked in during singing! 

 

1. The ability to inhale large quantities of air

The ability to inhale large quantities of air allows long phrases to be sung in a controlled and relaxed manner. We tap into this ability by breathing deeply, allowing the lungs to fully inflate as the diaphragm lowers towards our stomach area.

 

2. The ability to snatch a good breath quickly

The ability to snatch a good breath quickly is effective when there is little time to breathe between quick sentences/phrases in a song.

 

3. The ability to control the escape of breath

The ability to control the escape of breath allows long phrases to be sung in a controlled and relaxed manner.

On exhalation the diaphragm moves back to its relaxed ‘home’ position underneath the lungs. As the diaphragm controls how quickly we exhale our breath, our goal is to learn how to slow this process down. If exhalation occurs too quickly it can create tension as we won’t have enough breath to make a solid and consistent sound. This is where many vocal technique problems occur and these problems are often referred to as lack of support.

Your stomach should remain in the full feeling position you experience immediately after breathing in. You should try to maintain this position for as long as possible when you are singing. Try to hold that feeling of fullness as your exhale – basically, make the diaphragm’s job of getting home as difficult as possible so its return is slow and controlled.

 

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Written and copyright © E Peasgood 2014.



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