“How to breathe when singing?”
“How do I improve my breathing?”
“Should I breathe through the nose or the mouth?”
My readers often ask me questions about breathing when singing. Sometimes, the questions are very basic and sometimes they are complicated.
And that is great!
I love all of them!
It reminds me of a friend of mine from University.
She was a very smart student but her hand was always up. She was always asking questions – in all our classes. For two years! Sometimes, I thought she was sleeping with her hand up.
Initially, I considered her constant questioning to be annoying because the presenters had to stop frequently to respond to her inquisitions.
Only later, I realized that she was doing a huge favour to the whole class because she was asking excellent questions that clarified many details. She often asked questions that I was only starting to form in my head.
And she was never afraid to ask the simplest questions that may have felt embarrassing but the answers often cleared up basic concepts.
Everyone got to love her because she dared to ask questions we would not ask ourselves.
When I was putting the following questions and answers together, I was thinking about my friend, Lisa.
This collection of questions is like having Lisa sitting beside you. I hope these questions and answers help clarify your understanding of the topic of breathing and singing.
Can I solve all my singing problems by improving my breathing?
Many singers and even many teachers believe that working solely on breathing technique will solve all singing problems.
However, this is not true. The words “solely” and “all” are too extreme.
Good breathing technique may help improve many singing skills but it is not the only remedy for all problems. A singer needs to develop other areas and skills, such as resonance, vocal cord closure, position of the larynx and many others.
Breathing is just one area to work on!
Having said that, improving breathing technique is a very important stepping stone because it affects many aspects of singing.
It is a foundational skill that you build upon as you move along.
It’s like building a house on a solid foundation that is strong and healthy. Work towards improving your breathing technique for singing and gain full control of your breath but also work on other skills.
What is the proper posture and breathing technique for singing?
This is a very broad question and I could write a book about it (I am actually toying with the idea). But I will try a brief answer here.
Good posture for singing represents body alignment that does not interfere with nature’s intent.
It means that the body is positioned in a way that makes the sound production as easy as possible.
Babies and little kids can use their breathing apparatus and vocal tract freely and easily. As we age, we may lose this skill and we need to make some adjustments.
Good posture also means a body without any tension.
When we talk about good posture or breath support, the end goal is not a rigid body or stiff muscles.
On the subject of breathing technique, the goal of a singer is to have good control over the airflow that goes through the vocal cords. This is not achieved at the laryngeal level (the level of your vocal cords) but it is achieved by coordinating the muscles of the whole “breathing system”.
When we breathe in, the diaphragm moves down, our ribs expand to the sides, our belly moves forward and even our lower back expands. The air enters the lungs.
The “trick” (by the way, there are no real “tricks”, just skills) is to keep the air inside the body for as long as it is needed for a sung phrase by maintaining the “inhalatory position”.
Good breath support allows a singer to release the air from the lungs slowly and thus control the air pressure under the vocal cords.
This is just a very brief summary of this topic. To find out more, please visit this resource page about breathing for singing where you can learn more details about how to breathe when singing.
How do I control my breath while singing?
This is an excellent question! (I sound like a good politician.)
Controlling breath for singing is a very important skill to learn. When you know how to control your breath properly, you can sing loud and soft, you can sing high and low, you can sing long phrases …
How to control breath? Is it easy?
Controlling breath for singing is not as easy as it may seem. It is a learned skill that requires time, knowledge (how to do it) and dedicated practice.
During inhalation, your ribcage expands out and sideways, your belly moves out. After you inhale, your body naturally wants to expel the air from the lungs.
Also, your ribcage and diaphragm want to go back to their “resting” position. Your chest wants to collapse, the sides of your ribcage want to move in, and the diaphragm wants to ascend.
A singer needs to resist this urge by gently engaging abdominal muscles.
A singer wants to keep the air in his lungs for as long as it is needed (without holding the breath at the level of vocal cords) and only slowly let it out.
This engagement does not mean that you push your abdomen in.
Just the opposite – it’s a gentle and steady release of the air through controlled muscle contraction while keeping the ribcage expanded longer.
Does that sound easy?
When you are learning how to control your breath, start by practicing one step at a time.
First, learn how to maintain good posture even before you start inhaling (chest is up and open).
Then, practice inhalation so that you can allow your diaphragm to descend and your ribcage to expand in all directions. You will need to relax your abdominal muscles somewhat for this to happen.
Finally, practice exhalation with good breath control. Don’t allow your chest to collapse too quickly, engage the abdominal muscles and release the air slowly.
Here is a good exercise to practice breath support:
hold the S or F sounds for as long as you can. Start with 10 seconds; then prolong the sound for 15, 20, 30 … seconds.
Incorporate these breathing exercises into your daily routine.
How to breathe when singing?
Some types of breathing are more desirable for singing than others.
The type of breathing that is not optimal for singing is shallow breathing, in which the diaphragm does not descend low enough.
Also, with this type of breathing tension can develop in the neck, chest and shoulder areas.
This type of breathing can be very laborious and may not provide sufficient air.
An optimal type of breathing for singing is one, in which the diaphragm descends low without creating any tension in the body.
The diaphragm descends and the ribcage expands in all directions. The abdominal muscles are relaxed during inhalation but are then engaged during exhalation.
To read more about types of breathing (and to see an infographic on this topic), please visit this blog post (and scroll to the bottom of the post).
When breathing during singing, does the stomach move forward?
Let me describe what is going on in your “stomach” when singing.
The stomach section between the bottom edge of the breastbone and the belly button moves forward when you inhale.
This forward movement is not a result of an effortful push of the abdominal muscles.
Just the opposite!
This movement is caused by the downward movement of the diaphragm, which pushes the inner organs in your abdomen out. This is possible only if your abdominal wall is relaxed.
During exhalation, the diaphragm returns to its relaxed position (moves upward), which causes the inner organs to return to their initial position. As a result, your stomach moves slightly inward as you exhale.
But I would not focus too much on this part of your body when you are breathing for singing.
Shift your focus more to the sides of your ribcage and your back. This is where you see sideway expansion as you inhale.
During exhalation, try to keep the ribcage expanded longer. This is achieved by “support” from the low abdominal muscles.
This is where singers should focus more of their attention.
Is it normal to feel dizzy when practicing breathing in singing? Or maybe it’s a headache?
Yes, it is absolutely normal to feel dizzy.
When you are starting to learn about breathing and breath support for singing, you breathe differently than at rest.
The breaths are deeper than you are used to and you fill up your lungs with more air.
This causes so called hyperventilation, a temporary condition, with symptoms such as dizziness, weakness or even a slight headache.
So initially, when you practice your breathing exercises, do only a few repetitions at a time to prevent hyperventilation.
When you notice weakness or dizziness, stop for a few minutes, sit down or have a drink of water to avoid falling.
No worries, the dizziness will diminish over time as your body gets used to this “new type” of breathing.
Does good breathing improve your sound or just help you avoid running out of breath?
There are a number of advantages to good breathing technique.
Not running out of breath and better sound quality are just a couple of them.
Here are some other advantages of developing good breath management:
- Volume control – producing both loud and soft sounds is easier with good breath support
- Sound quality – breath support may help you avoid airy or strained voice quality
- Healthy voice production – breathing technique allows you to avoid straining your vocal cords
- Fast inhalation – good breathing technique lets you take in quick and inaudible breaths
- Vibrato – proper breathing technique creates conditions for healthy vibrato
- Richness of voice – good breathing technique can help make your voice rich in overtones
- Use of various styles – if you know how to breathe properly, you can make use of various singing styles
- Range and transition between registers – breath support is vital for increasing your range and moving between registers
- Other – proper breathing also helps with vocal onsets, diction, phrasing, stamina.
Did I forget something?
Well, check out my blog post about the benefits of breathing technique for singing.
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!
What’s the best method for singing with your diaphragm?
Let me start with a statement: “We don’t sing with the diaphragm!”
Yes, we breathe with the diaphragm but we do not use it for singing. I am not crazy, keep reading and you will understand!
The diaphragm is a major muscle of inhalation but it is passive during exhalation.
And singing happens during exhalation.
So you cannot sing with your diaphragm because your diaphragm is relaxed during this phase!
It is not possible to control a muscle that is relaxed.
In my opinion, there is too much emphasis given to the diaphragm.
Yes, it is the biggest breathing muscle but it is only active during inhalation.
Singers have to pay more attention to other muscle groups, such as abdominal muscles, which are important during exhalation – that is during singing.
But here is what you should know about the diaphragm during singing:
A singer wants his body to allow the diaphragm to descend fully when breathing in.
This is achieved with good posture and relaxed abdominal muscles during inhalation.
Focus more on the expansion of the ribcage in all directions during this phase.
You cannot directly feel your diaphragm anyway!
How long does it take to learn breathing technique for singing?
In my opinion, learning how to breathe properly for singing is a never-ending process.
I am sorry to dissapoint you!
First, get some knowledge about breathing techniques for singing.
Several blog posts on this website are a good starting point but there are many other websites that cover this topic.
However, make sure that the information makes sense to you because not everything you read on the internet is true. (And I challenge you to do the same when you read my articles.)
Then, apply the knowledge to your own body. Discover the sensations when breathing during singing.
Observe, feel, and listen.
What does it look like?
How does it feel?
Take baby steps – there are a lot of body parts involved in breathing.
And of course, practice is important and it takes time to achieve smooth and automatic movements.
It’s like learning a dance routine – first, you memorize the steps and individual movements; then you learn to execute each movement, which may require many adjustments and fine tuning; and finally, you need to practice the movements together as a routine over and over again to become a smooth dancer.
What are some good breathing exercises for singing?
My two favourite breathing exercises to improve singing are the “hissing exercise” and “lip rolls”.
Take a breath and say “SSSS” or “FFFF” for as long as you can.
You probably start somewhere around 10 to 15 seconds. Great!
Try to prolong this sound to 20, 25, 30 … seconds.
Make sure that the sound you are making is steady (if you hear “pulses”, your airstream is uneven and you are releasing little bursts of air instead of a steady airstream). This exercise teaches you to engage your “support muscles” to prolong the breath.
Lip rolls (lip trills, lip buzz) are also an excellent exercise to work on vocal skills, including breath management.
Lip rolls help you produce a sound with adequate air pressure under your vocal cords.
Sounds like lip rolls are so called “semi-occlusive sounds” that balance the air pressures above and below the vocal cords.
Simply put, you need to send just the right amount of air through the vocal cords and lips to make a lip roll.
If there is not enough air or there is too much air – no lip roll!
I wrote a whole article about the advantages of lip rolls that you can access right here.
How do I improve my breathing when singing?
There are a few things you can do to improve your breathing technique when singing.
First, make sure that you have a good understanding of what is going on in your body when you are singing.
Make sure to understand how the breathing mechanism works, what muscles you need to relax or engage to provide good support for the sound.
Knowledge is not everything.
Singers have to go through a process of self-exploration and discovery.
Take time to explore the sensations while breathing for singing.
Once you are familiar with “what it feels like”, include some simple breathing exercises to your warm-up and practice routines.
Practice breathing technique on simple scales and arpeggios (an arpeggio is a group of notes which are played one after the other, either going up or going down).
During these exercises, shift your focus to one or a few body parts: your shoulders, chest, belly, back, pelvic floor etc.
Automatization (a process of making something automatic) comes with repetition and repetition takes time.
Lastly, include breathing exercises into your song practice.
Figure out the demands for a particular song:
- where you need to inhale,
- how long the phrases are,
- how much air you use for each phrase (this will depend on style, volume, melody etc.).
Practice small sections of a song while paying attention to breath control. Once you are happy with how you control the air, you can start the automatization process.
It takes time and effort to improve your breathing for singing but it is definitely worth it.
Singing then feels effortless and smooth!
How much air should I take in when I sing, and how do I know if it’s enough?
You need to take in as much air as it is required for a given sung phrase.
You need more air for long phrases and less air for short phrases.
And you may be surprised to know that it’s less than you think.
Beginners tend to take huge breaths. The problem with a big breath is that it creates tension in your vocal mechanism.
Just try it – take a big breath. Do you feel like you want to burst? Do you feel the tension as you are trying to contain or control this huge amount of air?
Start with small breaths.
If you are unable to sing the whole phrase on one breath, you have two choices.
You can either take another breath somewhere in the middle (if that makes sense) or you can improve your breath management. And you should probably try both alternatives.
Instead of asking how much air should I take in, ask yourself: How can I use my breath more efficiently?
Is there a difference between breathing and breath support? Are they the same?
No, breathing and breath support are different.
Very simply put – we all breathe, whether we sleep, talk or sing. This is called breathing.
There are different breathing patterns:
Some people are shallow breathers and use mostly their upper chest or their shoulders to breathe.
Some people use mostly their abdomens to breathe.
Some people rely primarily on expanding their chests to get the air in and out.
Most people use a combination of breathing patterns.
Some of these patterns are not desirable for singing, however others are recommended.
Breath support for singers (or breath management) is a technique that singers strive to develop.
We do not use breath support when we breathe at rest or even when we talk.
However, we want to use breath support for singing.
Good breath support allows a singer to control the airstream going through the vocal cords. This is a skill that takes time to develop.
Why do I always run out of breath when I sing?
There may be a few reasons why a singer runs out of breath.
The first thing that comes to my mind is that you are not using good breath support (breath management).
This means that you are letting the air out of your lungs and through the vocal cords too fast.
Maybe, you are not engaging the abdominal muscles during exhalation, which slows down the return of the diaphragm back up to its resting position (and “by engaging” I don’t mean forcefully pushing the abdominal muscles inward).
Other reason for loosing air may be an inadequate vocal cord closure (so called cord compression).
When your vocal cords do not close tightly during sound production, there is a gap between them and air may leak through this space.
This causes your voice to be breathy.
Breathy voice quality uses more air than clear and “connected” voice.
It is o.k. to use breathy voice as a stylistic tool but be aware that you need better breath support to execute it well.
Other factors affecting the amount of air used during singing is volume (singing louder requires more air) or mouth position (mouthy sounds can lead to air loss).
When do I breathe-in during a song? I often run out of breath or breathe at awkward points in the song.
When you are learning a new song, take time to mark places (in your sheet music) where you think you may need to breathe.
Sing the song a few times and adjust the markings.
It makes sense to breathe in when there is a rest in the music, at the end of a sentence or a phrase, or at the end of a thought.
After you sing the song a few times, it may make more sense to breathe in other places.
Sometimes, there are markings in the sheet music that instruct you to take a breath (see example below).
A breath mark looks like a little comma placed above the staff.
The more you practice breathing, the better you get at estimating when to breathe in.
And don’t forget that singing is not a running competition.
So initially, you can take more breaths in and as you get better at breath management, you will learn to sing longer phrases, which will require fewer breaths.
Should I breathe through the nose or the mouth?
This is a question that divides people’s opinions into three distinct groups.
One group will tell you to breathe through the nose, the other group will tell you to breathe through the mouth, and the third group will tell you to breathe through both mouth and nose.
My answer: “It depends.”
First of all, we are all different and what works for one person may not work for someone else.
So I am not going to impose my way on someone else.
Second, the end result is more important than how you get there.
The end result is an inaudible, quick but sufficient inhalation.
If you can achieve this by breathing in through the nose, mouth or both, go for it.
Here is my video, in which I answer this question:
But take these considerations into account:
Breathing in through the nose can be noisy and slow.
Breathe in through your nose if you have enough time in the song.
Breathing through your nose may be beneficial for beginners who are developing their breath management skills because it may prevent them from inhaling too much air (which may cause tension in the body).
However, breathing through the nose can pose more resistance in the nasal passages and therefore be audible.
On the other hand, breathing through the mouth can have a drying effect, so if you are using this type of breathing, keep the water bottle handy.
However, breathing in through the mouth allows you to take quick and quiet breaths.
(At rest nose-breathing is preferred because air passing through the nose warms up and becomes moist. This prevents a dry mouth and throat.)
Finally, breathing through the nose and mouth simultaneously allows a singer to achieve quick, sufficient and quiet breaths without the drying effect.
However, this type of breathing requires the most coordination and may be challenging for beginners.
So try all these methods and decide for yourself.
Don’t forget that in this case it’s not the “how” but the outcome that counts.
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!
Did I cover all your questions? If you have more questions, please let me know.
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I hope I answered your questions how to breathe when singing to your satisfaction – now, it’s time to sing!