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:
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.
- Stand with your feet hip width apart. Your weight should be evenly distributed. A good exercise is to transfer your weight from right to left foot, forward and backwards and round in a circle and to then move to a centered place. Your knees should be relaxed and your arms should rest by your side. Be wary of your chin and neck: singers often raise their chin in the belief that they are helping the sound come out when really, this places unnecessary strain and tension on the voice.
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:
- The ability to inhale large quantities of air
- The ability to snatch a good breath quickly
- 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.
- Start by performing these exercises lying down.
- As you find your feet, progress to sitting upright, or standing.
- 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.
- Lie on the floor or on your bed. Breathe in and out through the mouth and focus on how your body feels. Are you breathing deeply?
- Inhale through the mouth or nose for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 8 seconds, exhale in a slow and controlled manner, hold your exhaled breath for 8 seconds. Please note, when you ‘hold’ your breath there should be no tension – the throat should be relaxed as though in a surprised position. It is difficult to avoid panicking when ‘holding’ the breath but liberating if you can master the art of neither breathing or out, and doing so without tension.
- Experiment and make up some of your own breathing exercises which develop this ability.
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.
- Practice panting – as you do so you will feel your stomach move out and in again at high speeds – this is because your diaphragm is moving up and down and pushing your stomach contents aside in the process. See if you can do this silently. Focus on the exhalation and see how easily air pulls back in the lungs: you will be surprised at how much air you can take in by simply relaxing and not trying to breathe in. The lungs are a vacuum and are never empty of air.
- Practice gasping in shock – this opens the throat and allows large quantities of air to enter the lungs at high speed. Now practice doing this silently.
- Think of your lungs as filling up in quarters. On the count of 1 breathe in 1/4 full, on the count of two breathe in 1/2 full, on the count of three breathe in 3/4 full and on the count of four breath in the final quarter. Repeat as you exhale, again in four stages.
- Sing:1, 121, 12321, 1234321, 123454321, 12345654321, 1234567654321, 123456787654321 and silently snatch a breath at each comma.
- Experiment and make up some of your own snatch breath exercises.
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.
- Light a candle and hold it in front of your face. Take a deep breath into your lower stomach. As you exhale blow gently on the flame so it flickers but is not blown out. Keep your stomach in the full-feeling position throughout. Continue until your breath has fully escaped and try to stay relaxed throughout.
- Breathe in and exhale very slowly to a ‘hiss’. The hiss should be relaxed, consistent and you can make this into a game where you time your exhalation.
- Breathe in and exhale on an ‘ah’ sound. Time yourself and see how long you can exhale for. If you would like an additional challenge increase your loudness as your sing, whilst trying to maintain the feeling of fullness in your stomach area. Trying reversing the loudness: start loud and finish quiet.
- Experiment and make up some of your own breath control exercises.
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Written and copyright © E Peasgood 2014.