Proper breathing is essential to being a good singer. Here's a basic guide to help demystify singing breathing for new students of voice.
“Sing from your diaphragm. Sing from your diaphragm!” Have you ever heard this before?
Ugh! What does that even mean? It seems to be a common direction
when people talk about proper singing technique (although the person
who used to tell me this is a horrible singer).
I have had three voice teachers over my time of study (all with
legitimate music degrees in vocal performance), and not a single one of
them talked about the diaphragm. That doesn’t mean there isn’t
physiological merit in mentioning the diaphragm, it’s just hard for a
new singer to visualize and work on.
Yes, it is true that breathing is a fundamental element of singing
well. When you’re singing, there are a lot of things going on mentally
and physically, and that distracts from what you really need to be
doing: breathing naturally.
Here are a few tips I’ve learned along the way that can help you get
started on proper singing breathing (without all the useless and
confusing physiology that seems to get thrown around):
Lie on your back (couch, floor, bed) and just relax and breathe.
Just like when you’re sleeping, your chest and your abdomen are going
to expand and contract (filling the lungs with air, and then pushing
out). This is what natural breathing feels like, and it’s the very
sensation you should be going for when you sing.
Keep your shoulders down. A very bad habit that
many new singers get into is lifting the shoulders to breathe. You
don’t do this when you naturally breathe or talk, so why would you do
it when you’re singing? You don’t have to be all stiff and wooden (you
may be sitting with a guitar, at a piano, on a stool at a coffee shop),
you just want to be aware if you’re struggling to get air in. Lifting
your shoulders to breathe is a good sign that your putting too much
effort into it.
Think “out” not “up”. Very related to the shoulder
awareness, think about your chest and your abdomen moving out (like a
balloon or an accordion) both on the front and the back side. You want
to get as much air on the inhale as possible, but it shouldn’t be a
“gasp”. There is a little movement going up and down, but if you
visualize “out” instead of “up”, you’re going to get better expansion,
and full set of air from your lungs.
Control Your Exhale. Getting the air in your lungs
is only the first part. Controlling how the air goes out, is the tricky
part. This is where singing does take a detour from natural breathing.
How well you control your exhale will have a lot of influence on your
vocal power, how long you can hold the note, and even how in tune you
are. One technique that always helped me get this is taking a natural
but full inhale (don’t lift your shoulders) and exhaling with “tsss”
sound (a “sss” sound through the teeth). It’s kind of like a hissing
snake but not with the mouth open. Hold out the sound for as long as
you can. Over time you’ll notice that you can hold this out longer.
Relax. You need your breathing to be relaxed and
fluid. Good singing is actually more about releasing and relaxing than
it is about tensing and pushing. Aerobic exercise will help you here,
as well as stress relief (massage, aromatherapy, meditation, etc). If
you’re all stiff and tense, you’re going to have more of a struggle
trying to improve.
These are the techniques that helped me crack the mystery that is
singing breathing. The vast majority of voice teachers and learning
methods will provide specific exercises that focus on developing
breath. Eventually it will come naturally, so the best advice I can
give is don’t try to force anything.
Bret Piontek is an author and owner of
"MusicTyro.com", an online community of music learners and creators.
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