I often receive questions about breathing and singing from my readers.
The questions vary from relatively simple questions, like “Does the diaphragm move up or down when I exhale?” to more complex questions, like “If I breathe with my diaphragm, will it improve my tone?”
Many of these questions show that singers are often in the dark on the topic of breathing and singing.
When someone asks these types of questions, I know that they do not have a clear picture of what breathing looks and feels like during singing.
I also know that they have built their knowledge about breathing and singing on misconceptions and myths (for example “if I breathe with my diaphragm?” – there is no “if”, you always breathe with your diaphragm).
Anyway, to help you navigate the web of myths (often found on the “web”), I am busting 13 myths about breathing and singing in this blog post.
I hope it will clear some confusion and give you a foundation in order to further develop strong breath support for your voice.
Bonus: Get a free checklist to find out if you breathe efficiently for singing and start improving your voice right away. Click here to get it now!
Are you ready?
You don’t need to learn about breathing for singing, breathing will come naturally.
This myth is probably one of the greatest obstacles in learning how to sing well. With improved breathing technique for singing, you can dramatically improve tone quality (and more).
I like to think that breathing is the engine or fuel for singing.
Some people even say that developing good breath support is the most important part of vocal technique.
The truth is that there would be no sound production without breathing.
Yes, we breathe 24 hours without paying any attention to it. We breathe when we talk, walk, eat or sleep without realizing how we breathe.
So why do you need to learn about breathing for singing?
Simple answer: breathing for singing is different from breathing at rest or for speech.
Singing requires more efficient and deeper breathing than breathing for speech or during relaxation.
During relaxation, the diaphragm only moves about 1 – 2 cm (less than 1 inch). In singing, the change is more like 7 to 8 cm (or 3 inches).
Breathing during speech and relaxation requires very little control and muscle activity. On the other hand, breathing during singing involves much more conscious control.
The goal of the singer is to create a 360 degree breath during inhalation – I like to call it the 360 Ring of Breath.
There are differences in the exhalation phase too.
For example, in singing the exhalation phase is much longer. This is achieved by controlling the muscles of exhalation.
The goal is to send the right amount of air through the vocal cords to achieve steady and supported sound instead of letting the air escape all at once.
Correct and coordinated breathing makes singing healthy and efficient. One of the most important benefits of proper breathing techniques for singing is the prevention of vocal strain and tension in the neck area.
Therefore, skipping lessons on breathing for singing is not a good move.
To read more about the benefits of proper breathing technique for singing, click here.
Myth # 2
Only opera singers use the diaphragm for singing.
You may not be aware of this but you use your diaphragm all day long, whether you talk, sing or just breathe.
The diaphragm is the major muscle of inhalation.
The diaphragm contracts, moves down and flattens during inhalation. As a result, air is drawn into the lungs because air pressure inside the lungs is now lower than the air pressure outside.
During exhalation, the diaphragm returns to its relaxed position and the air is expelled from the lungs.
Singers of all music genres use the diaphragm when singing.
But not every singer may be aware of the breathing mechanism and its function during singing.
Opera singers are specially trained to “use their diaphragms” to produce sound.
Efficient breathing is a part of good vocal technique. Every singer should learn how to coordinate the actions of the many muscles involved in breathing when singing. So you should also learn how to breathe with your diaphragm (I do not like this phrase but that’s how many singers call good breathing technique).
But there is more to it than just using you diaphragms!
Myth # 3
The diaphragm inhales and exhales.
The diaphragm is active only when inhaling.
It contracts and moves down on inhale.
When we exhale, the diaphragm is not active – it relaxes and returns to its relaxed position.
Therefore, we need to engage other breathing muscles, such as abdominal (belly) muscles and intercostal muscles (muscles between the ribs), to extend the exhalation phase for singing.
This misconception has much to do with the next myth.
Myth # 4
The diaphragm ‘supports’ the sound.
As I said previously, the diaphragm is the major muscle of inhalation (not exhalation).
During exhalation (when singing happens), the diaphragm is not active – it relaxes and moves upwards to its relaxed position. Therefore, the diaphragm cannot really support the sound.
We have very little control over a muscle that is in the relaxation phase.
The “support” comes from the whole body (including other muscle groups such as abdominal and intercostal muscles) that slows down the relaxation of the diaphragm.
If we did not use the abdominal and intercostal muscles, the diaphragm would move up very quickly and expel the air fast. Such short breaths would not be sufficient for singing.
As singers, we have to learn how to breathe while singing – we want to slow down the exhalation and produce a steady airstream.
Myth # 5
When you sing from the diaphragm, your vocal cords do not vibrate.
The vocal cords vibrate any time we produce so called “voiced sounds” regardless of the type of breathing we use at that moment.
Vocal cord vibration occurs when the vocal cords come together in the midline and air is directed through the vocal cords.
Vocal cords vibrate whether we use diaphragmatic breathing, clavicular or abdominal breathing.
Vocal cords do not vibrate when we whisper or when we produce voiceless sounds, such as s, f, or k.
A singer’s goal is to make the vocal cords vibrate at different pitches with full vocal cord closure (that is most of the time – sometimes we produce more airy sounds for stylistic purposes).
Coordinated breathing helps to create this closure by providing sufficient and steady airflow through the vocal cords.
Myth # 6
The diaphragm is not under voluntary control.
The truth is that the diaphragm CAN be under voluntary control.
The diaphragm is a so called skeletal muscle. It gets impulses from the brain.
Most of the time, when we breathe, the diaphragm gets impulses from our “lower” brain and it works on an involuntary level. This happens all day long, every day, when we are not aware of breathing.
However, when we are trying to control the breathing cycle, for example when we pretend to pant or when we want to stop or slow down our breathing, the diaphragm gets impulses from the “higher” brain centres and therefore is under voluntary control.
However, it is not that easy.
The breathing mechanism is a complex system and isolating just one muscle action is almost impossible (although, I have read a scientific article describing one unique individual who could do just that).
So, when we are consciously changing the breathing cycle (for example the depth and rate of breathing), we are not just sending impulses to the diaphragm but we are controlling the whole system (other skeletal muscles involved in breathing).
Myth # 7
Breathing from the diaphragm means to inhale more air.
What does it really mean to “breathe from the diaphragm”?
The name is not doing any justice to what is really going on in our bodies when we say “breathe from the diaphragm”.
The diaphragm moves any time we breathe. The vertical movement is smaller during rest than during singing (see myth #1).
But engaging the diaphragm in controlled breathing does not always mean that we breathe in more air. For example, correct breathing for singing short phrases does not require more air.
In fact, breathing in too much air incorrectly causes tension and inefficient breath support.
During inhalation, the diaphragm moves down and flattens and other muscle groups are coordinated with the diaphragm’s descend. This allows the breath to be low (not necessarily bigger) and free of tension.
The exhalation is a passive phase, during which the diaphragm returns to its resting position.
The goal of a singer is to control this exhalation phase again by engaging other muscle groups, such as intercostal muscles and abdominal muscles, so that exhalation is prolonged, steady and controlled.
Do you want to know more about the meaning behind the phrase “breathe from your diaphragm?” Click this link to read more about it.
Myth # 8
Singing from the diaphragm means to push more air out.
Controlled breathing for singing does not involve pushing or any strenuous or forceful action.
If we consciously push air out, we lose air and have less control over the exhalation and sound production.
Also, we need to release just the right amount of air required for a given sound, not more nor less.
Singing from the diaphragm means deep breathing because we enable the diaphragm to descend lower than in other types of breathing. But it does not mean that we exhale more air or somehow push it out.
Myth # 9
Singing from the diaphragm means to sing louder.
Singing at different levels of volume (that is singing loud and soft and everything in between) requires different levels of air pressure under the vocal cords.
How do we create air pressure under the vocal cords?
By sending just the right amount of air at the right time through the vocal cords. And this skill comes with practice.
Controlled breathing during singing does not necessarily produce only loud sounds.
It is actually much harder to sing softly than to sing loudly with full support.
But when produced correctly, the sound is steady, controlled and full even though it’s soft! Isn’t that amazing?
Loud sounds and belting also require good breath control.
In other words, “singing from the diaphragm” means using the diaphragm more efficiently.
Myth # 10
You need to strengthen your diaphragm to sing.
Your diaphragm is strong enough for breathing, speaking and singing.
It is a big muscle, which works 24/7, every day of your life since birth. This muscle does not need to be strengthened.
How would you strengthen your diaphragm anyway?
However, what you need to learn as a singer is to coordinate the action of the diaphragm with the rest of your vocal instrument – your body, including other muscles of breathing, such as postural muscles and vocal muscles.
Learning how and when to engage the diaphragm together with other muscles leads to controlled breathing for singing.
Myth # 11
You need to work hard to get the air in.
For new singers, learning to breathe efficiently may seem like hard work. However, if inhalation requires too much effort, something is not right.
Efficient inhalation does not require any effort!
At the beginning, it may be challenging to coordinate all of the parts involved in efficient breathing and therefore it may feel like hard work.
I recommend taking one step at a time and giving it enough time to become automatic. Do some exploration of breathing or breathing exercises for a few minutes at the beginning of each lesson. Yes, first, you will need to focus on many different parts of your body to achieve a coordinated breath.
It takes time but eventually all the movements become automatic and efficient. At the end, breathing for singing will feel fluid and relaxed – no hard work involved.
Recently, I saw a video of a young man who tried to convince singers that controlled breathing for singing is a myth. His reason was that when he is “trying to breathe the correct way”, he gets rigid and tense and he is not able to sing at all. Well, then there is something wrong with the way he is “trying to breathe”.
Myth # 12
You need to push your belly in on exhalation to provide breath support.
First of all, any kind of pushing in your body implies tension and force, which is not desirable during singing.
Your belly moves in and out while breathing but it is not the active action of the abdominal muscles that moves the abdominal wall.
Just observe your belly when you are relaxed – you are not pushing your belly in or out. The movement is the result of the natural process of breathing.
The movement of the diaphragm up and down has a direct effect on the inner organs in your abdomen. When we breathe in, the organs are pushed down and therefore the abdominal wall moves forward or out. The belly actually has to be relaxed during inhalation to allow for the movement.
During exhalation, this is when singing happens, the diaphragm moves up and the organs in the abdomen move back to their normal position.
When we forcefully push the abdominal wall inward during exhalation, the air rushes out from the lungs. This is counterproductive because during singing, we are trying to slow down the airflow going through the vocal cords. This in fact causes loss of control over sound production.
What a signer is trying to do is to engage the abdominal muscles so that the exhalation is prolonged and controlled.
Let’s look at one more myth:
Myth # 13
You need to fill up your lungs to the maximum for long phrases.
Anticipation of long phrases usually causes a big inhalation in untrained singers. However, over-filling your lungs to their maximum capacity causes unwanted tension.
Just try it – if you take in a big breath, it feels almost like you want to burst because it is difficult to contain this huge amount of air in the lungs.
Singing long phrases requires controlled exhalation that does not waste air.
This means that we are able to expel the right amount of steady air through vocal cords for as long as we need to. This is not achieved by big inhalation but rather by controlled exhalation.
And finally, here is an infographic to summarize ten of these myths.
Embed this singing infographic on your website:
<a title="Breathing and Singing: 13 Myths about Breathing Busted" href="http://tips.how2improvesinging.com/breathing-and-singing-13-myths/" target="_blank"><img src="http://tips.how2improvesinging.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/10-myths-about-breathing-and-singing.jpg" alt="" border="0" /></a>
Bonus: Get a free checklist to find out if you breathe efficiently for singing and start improving your voice right away. Click here to get it now!
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My goal for you is to get a better understanding of what is going on in your body during singing so that you can build your singing skills with proper technique.
And that is all for today – 13 very common misconceptions about breathing and singing.