You are a smart singer and you know that breathing efficiently when singing is an essential skill for powerful and easy singing.
“Breathe from the diaphragm” or “use your breath support” are common pieces of advice that you have heard before.
Everyone talks about proper breathing techniques for singing.
But how do you know if you are doing it correctly?
How to breathe properly when singing?
How can you tell if your breathing skills are not holding you back from singing with ease?
In this article, I am going to show you how to assess your breathing and singing, how to listen to your voice for clues and how to observe your body to discover signs of good breathing technique for singing.
Knowing if you breathe correctly when singing is like playing doctor.
Let’s play doctor.
Do you remember when you played doctor as a kid?
I loved that game. I asked my favourite teddy bear to open his mouth and I listened to his heart with a toy stethoscope. After this thorough examination, I prescribed pills and wrapped his leg into a “healing blankie”.
When treating patients, real doctors use a complex process to figure out the causes of diseases and treatment methods. If we strip the process of its complexity, we are left with two major stages:
- Assessment stage, and
- Treatment stage.
I am not a doctor and I don’t pretend to be one.
I am a speech and language pathologist but I use similar processes in my every day job to treat speech, voice and language disorders.
In the Assessment Stage, I ask questions and listen, run tests and observe my client.
The goal of this stage is to learn about functions and structures of the vocal mechanism.
In the Treatment Stage, I offer solutions to improve the functions.
In this article, I want to show you how to use your listening and observational skills to detect signs of good and not so good breathing techniques for singing.
By the end of this article, you will have a better idea if you are breathing correctly for singing or not and you will be able to set singing/breathing goals that will be tailored to your needs (instead of having no goals or blindly following general vocal or breathing exercises).
It would be foolish to think that I can cover all of the assessment areas so let us focus on just a few skills that may have the biggest impact on your breathing and singing.
This is not an exhaustive list by any means.
Note: This article is not intended for singers with vocal pathology. If you are worried about your voice or experiencing voice problems, please seek the help of a specialist.
This is just one example of many emails I receive from aspiring singers.
They are asking me to “diagnose” their singing and give them advice.
I would love to help every singer who contacts me with this request but it is just impossible as the process is time-consuming.
So instead, I am going to show you how to do it yourself.
This article will help you better understand your vocal instrument.
In a sense, you will learn to be your own “voice detective”.
Do you know this proverb?
“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”
I want to teach you how to fish so that you are not hungry tomorrow.
By knowing your instrument more intimately, you become less dependent on others and your vocal practices will be efficient and effective.
All in all, you experience faster progress and growth in your singing.
What Do You Need?
Only a few things.
Most likely you already own everything you need.
- Camera (your smart phone camera is just perfect). If you really don’t have access to a camera, use a full-length mirror. It is not ideal but it will do.
- Pen and paper. Or even better – singing journal. (Did you know that using a singing journal improves motivation and progress?)
- And of course, your instrument (yourself). Bring an open-minded and non-judgmental version of yourself (but let’s talk about that later).
Breathing Techniques for Singing: 5 Steps
Step 1: Recording.
Record yourself singing.
It is sooo much easier to assess a recording than to observe and listen while singing.
Your mind can focus on a limited number of things, therefore you would probably miss a lot of information if not working with a recording.
You can watch a recording as many times as you need.
Also, your voice sounds different to you and to people around you.
An unaltered voice recording is probably closer to what your voice really sounds.
Often, your perception is skewed by emotions, preconceptions and past experiences.
Therefore, it is recommended to have a third person, like a vocal teacher or coach, from time to time to get a more objective view. For now, we’ll do without that third person.
But it means that you have to stay objective and non-judgmental.
How to record your singing/breathing?
Do not overthink this.
Just use your smart phone or a simple camera you have at home and shoot a video of yourself singing or breathing.
A few things to consider when recording a video:
- Do not shoot a “selfie” video. Use a tripod and if you don’t have one, put the phone or camera on a stable surface and prop it up.
- Shoot a video of your whole body. If you don’t have enough space to get your whole body into the frame, shoot from hips up so that you can see your torso and your head.
- Wear clothing that will show the movements in your torso, head and neck. If you wear a scarf, you will not get important information about your neck. If you wear lose clothing, you may miss the movement of your chest and abdomen. Tight, preferably not black, clothes are best. (Black clothes hide details.)
- Record several videos, each video from a different angle: from the front, side and even back. You want to have a 360 view!
Step 2: Observing and listening
Watching yourself on a video and listening to your own voice recording may feel uncomfortable at first if you have not done it before.
It requires some getting used to.
If you don’t like listening to yourself, don’t worry.
No-one really likes it (reportedly, even some famous actors don’t watch their own movies).
But get over it!
Some things to consider when watching and listening to your singing videos:
- Use checklists (see below) to stay focused.
- Observe or listen for one or two items on your checklist. Your mind can focus only on a few details at one time.
- Watch the video several times. Every time, you will notice something else.
- Watch the video on mute. Look for visual indicators only. You would be surprised how much more detail you will notice on mute.
- Then, listen to the video without looking. By eliminating the visual distraction, you will tune into your voice more. Listen for clues in your voice. This may be more difficult to do but with practice, you will get better at it.
How to listen to your own singing video?
Stop judging and start listening.
Listen functionally not aesthetically.
Do not look for “good” or “bad” signs.
Don’t even try to figure out why you sound the way you sound.
And you may be surprised what you learn about yourself.
What does it mean to listen functionally?
Open your mind to any possible sound.
Listen to the voice attributes.
For example, listen if you hear breathiness or strain in the tone.
Listen if you hear the air entering your lungs.
Listen if your vowels and consonants sound clear.
Listen to learn more about your voice.
Do not listen to criticize.
The goal of functional listening and observing is to become aware of every movement in your body when singing or breathing.
Once you discover inefficient habits preventing you from singing with ease, you can start building new habits that will make your singing more efficient.
Step 3: Checklists
Many professionals, including doctors and speech-language pathologists, use checklists.
Checklists keep us focused and remind us what we want to observe and listen for.
Checklists helps us be objective and non-judgmental.
For the purpose of this article, I chose 7 items that are relatively easy to spot.
At the same time, these signs and symptoms can give us important clues about breathing while singing:
Let’s talk about each item in more detail.
1. Silent inhalation.
Silent and audible inhalations are easily observable.
Audible inhalations are so widespread nowadays that many aspiring singers are not even aware that audible inhalations are a sign of constriction and unhealthy singing technique.
Many famous singers use audible inhalations as an effect (as a choice) but there is plenty of famous singers who are not even aware of their faulty technique.
These singers may end up with vocal injuries.
When we inhale for singing, the intake of breath needs to be silent.
Silence indicates that your vocal instrument is open and free of any obstacles.
If you hear the air entering your instrument, it means that an obstruction, constriction or narrowing is causing air turbulence (audible inhalation).
Inefficient inhalation is most likely followed by inefficient exhalation and singing.
Watch and listen to the recording and answer the following questions:
- Is the breath audible or silent during inhalation?
- In which parts of the song is the breath audible and in which parts is the breath silent?
2. Sufficient Air Supply.
Sufficient air supply is achieved when a singer:
- inhales an appropriate amount of air, and
- manages the air efficiently (see Breath Support below for more details).
A singer needs to “take in” as much air as needed for a given task.
A singer needs little air for a short phrase and more air for a longer phrase.
Also, high notes will require less air than low notes. Loud singing will use more air than quiet singing.
“You need to have enough breath to make the vibration. And here’s the tricky part: you can also have too much breath. The goal is to have the right amount of breath fort the task, and more is definitely not always better.”
Kate DeVore and Starr Cookman: The Voice Book
Avoid “tanking up” (inhaling too much air) as it causes tension and it is difficult to control huge amounts of breath when singing.
Actually, huge amounts of air create tension.
Just try it!
Inhale as much air as you can, pause and take in even more air.
How does it feel?
I bet it is not comfortable at all.
Singer’s job is to find the right balance and inhale just the right amount of air.
Optimal amounts of air enable you to create optimal pressure under the vocal cords (so called subglottal air pressure) causing vocal cords to vibrate optimally.
High or insufficient subglottal pressures make your voice sound strained, pressed, breathy or under-energized.
The quality of your voice will suffer due to inappropriate levels of air supply.
So watch your video and answer the following questions:
- Can you hear gasping?
- Are you running out of breath at the end of phrases?
- Does your voice sound pressed or strained?
- Is your singing under-energized?
3. Chest Position and Movements.
You probably know that good singing and good posture are closely intertwined.
The chest position is one of the body parts that play a central role in good breathing technique for singing.
The singer’s body functions best when certain conditions exist in the body.
When the body is well-aligned, a singer can move air with flexibility and use the right amount of air needed for the task.
On the other hand, a collapsed chest will limit flexibility of movement and the amount of air you inhale.
Before you inhale or start singing, your chest needs to establish a medium-high alignment.
This position should be maintained throughout singing and breathing.
Here are some good adjectives that describe optimal chest posture: flexible, free-to-move, poised, balanced or happy.
If you feel any rigidity, tension or limitations in your alignment, your voice will be affected too.
Observe your chest when breathing or singing and answer the following questions:
- Is your chest open and flexible before you sing?
- Do you open your chest before inhalation or during inhalation?
- Is your chest moving up and down with every inhale and exhale?
- Is your chest collapsing with every sung phrase?
- Do you keep your chest open and expanded during singing?
Here is a YouTube video, in which I am talking more about this topic:
4. Shoulder Movements.
Another revealing visual indicator of breathing technique for singing is the shoulder movement.
In some inexperienced singers, shoulders assist with the intake of breath.
If the shoulders move up with every inhale, the singer is working harder than necessary.
Upward shoulder movement indicates inefficient inhalation, usually a very shallow type of breathing that doesn’t supply sufficient amounts of air.
When the shoulders move up, small breathing and postural muscles, which are normally not used for singing, are working.
This creates tension that is transferred to the voice box and it negatively affects the sound production.
Just try it!
Lift your shoulders up towards your ears and try to sing a phrase from your favourite song.
I bet the sound you produce is tensed and singing feels like a hard work.
Here are some questions to answer as you observe your upper torso when singing or breathing:
- Are your shoulders down and wide?
- Are your shoulders rising with every breath?
- Are your shoulders curled forward resulting in closed chest?
5. Torso Movements.
Jessica Wolf, the Alexander technique master teacher, said: “Breathing is a three-dimensional shape change.”
When we breathe or sing, observable torso movements happen in all directions:
- the abdomen moves in and out,
- the sides of the body expand sideways and
- even the back expands slightly.
The diaphragm moves up and down too but we cannot directly feel or control the movement of the diaphragm.
Therefore, let’s focus our attention to more observable signs: sides of your body, your abdomen and back.
When movements in all directions are present (a three dimensional shape change), the diaphragm has ideal conditions and can function optimally.
Under these conditions, a deep and low breath is achieved that provides sufficient air supply.
I call this coordinated action the 360 Ring of Breath (and you can read more about it here).
Some singers and vocal teachers call this type of breathing “diaphragmatic”.
I don’t think that this name gives an accurate picture of what is really happening in the body when we breathe efficiently.
Abdominal type of breathing as well as chest type of breathing are less efficient and not recommended for singing because one body part (either abdomen or chest) is more predominant than other body parts.
If a singer’s body works as a whole, the most efficient type of breathing is achieved.
So here are some questions to guide you in your observations:
- Is your abdomen moving in and out when breathing or singing?
- Are the sides of your body moving sideways when breathing or singing?
- Do you observe slight movement in your back?
- Is your torso expanding in all directions when inhaling for singing?
6. Breath support.
Breath support is a widely used term and it means many things to many people.
Even professionals cannot agree on one definition.
Here is a definition that I like:
“Breath support is a dynamic relationship between the breathing-in muscles and the breathing-out muscles, the purpose of which is to supply adequate breath pressure to the vocal cords for the sustaining of any desired pitch or dynamic level.”
(James C. McKinney from The Diagnosis and Correction of Vocal Faults)
Difficulties with breath support arise when there is too little or too much “support”, as well as when singers have incorrect ideas about what breath support really means.
Too little breath support results in insufficient air pressure, which may be observed as pitch difficulties, running out of breath prematurely or under-energized singing.
Too much breath support results in high air pressure under the vocal cords, which may again affect pitch accuracy, strained vocal quality or inability to sing softly.
A common problem of many singers is “singing from the neck up” (especially in upper registers of their voice), in which no breath support is utilized.
The singer may be able to establish good posture, inhale efficiently but then is unable to use the air that was drawn into the body.
This type of singing sounds flat without overtones, richness and depth in voice.
“Singing from the throat” creates unhealthy tension in the voice box and can lead to damages if used as a long-term method.
Other common problem among singers is an incorrect idea of what constitutes breath support.
For example, in an effort to control breath, inexperienced singers push their bellies in.
However, this approach creates tension and high subglottal air pressures under the vocal cords.
Here are some questions to answer while watching your singing video:
- Does your torso stay expanded during singing?
- Is your abdomen moving in quickly when singing or breathing out?
- Do you push your abdomen in order to control breath?
- Do you have connection to the entire instrument or are you singing from the neck up?
7. Overall feel.
Last but not least, assess “the big picture”.
The best singers make singing look easy.
Just watch videos of Frank Sinatra, Lady Gaga or Celine Dion.
They use their energy for communicating their emotions, not for mechanics of breathing and singing.
As a contrast, I encourage you to watch a video of a beginner singer who can make singing feel laborious.
Watching him will make you feel uncomfortable and you may find yourself tensing up in an effort to help him finish his song.
To assess this item, answer one question:
- Does singing look and feel easy?
Step 4: Goal Setting
The hardest part of this process is over and now it’s time to look at the results of our observations.
Now, that you have collected some important data about your instrument, let’s find what you are good at and what needs some work.
First, summarize what went well and what you liked about your breathing/singing.
This may be a challenge for some singers whose self-criticism is live and kicking.
Simply answer this question:
What did you like about your singing/breathing?
Name at least three things/aspects that you felt good about.
You do not need to use a checklist for this part, just go with your first instinct.
I encourage you to develop this habit of “complimenting yourself” after every practice or exercise you do.
It feels good and it builds confidence.
Let’s move on to the second question:
What do you want to work on?
Use your checklist to find one or two areas that need some work?
Don’t try to fix everything at once.
For example, did you notice that you inhaled audibly in some parts of the song, or that you did not expand your torso sideways when breathing in?
Once you recognize an area or a skill that you want to improve, set some SMART goals.
I usually set 3 goals (but I may not work on all of them at the same time).
SMART is an acronym for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Timely:
Be as detailed in outlining your goal as possible, for example saying “I will improve my breathing” is not specific enough.
However, setting a goal of “I will inhale silently before short vocal arpeggios” is more specific.
Add a number to your goal so that you can measure your progress.
For example, you can add 5 times, for a minute, or in 10 long phrases.
Then, our goal may sound: “I will inhale silently before 10 short vocal arpeggios.”
Then, you will know if you were able to inhale silently 10 times, 8 times or 3 times. As you keep track of the number, you can also see the progress.
Make sure that the skill you are working on is in your current capacity.
If you choose a goal that is outside of your reach right now, you may get easily frustrated.
If you shoot too high, you will get nowhere.
If you shoot too low, you will get nowhere.
Choose a goal that is just a little bit challenging but not completely unrealistic.
For example, you may not be able to inhale silently every time throughout a whole song (yet), but you may be well ready to practice silent inhalations when practicing scales and arpeggios.
Similarly to achievable, set a realistic goal that is not beyond your given circumstances.
Knowing your body, your instrument will help you recognize what you can aim for.
Maybe, this attribute does not apply as much to breathing as other vocal exercises but here is an obvious example for singing: if you are bass, don’t aim for a tenor range. Work with what you have.
Or work on a song that reflects your singing experience.
When you are new to singing, don’t chose difficult songs with large ranges.
Put a time-frame into your goal.
Add words and phrases like in a week, by the end of this month, before my audition, in January.
The time-limit will keep you focused.
And write your goals down!
Here are some examples of SMART goals that can inspire you to come up with your own:
- I will practice silent inhalations in a simple vocal exercise (10 short arpeggios) for a week.
- I will become aware of gasping when singing my song and will identify places in the song where I gasp by the end of this week.
- I will improve my chest posture in simple breathing exercises (breathing in and out) 5 times a day for two weeks.
- I will improve my shoulder position during vocal warm-up exercises (5 minutes at the beginning of every practice) using a mirror for a months.
- I will expand my back slightly when inhaling during a simple breathing exercises 5 times a week.
- I will keep my torso expanded to practice proper breath support when singing the first 2 phrases of my song by the end of this week.
- I will learn about the function of the diaphragm when singing by the end of this week.
Step 5: Practice With Purpose
Now, that you have identified some areas for development and wrote down three goals, it’s time to practice.
Having a very specific idea what to focus on during vocal practice will give you clarity and purpose.
(To read more about proper breathing while singing, including breathing exercises for singing, see my free resource guide here.)
Here are three key ingredients to building a new habit:
1. Develop Self-Awareness.
Improving self-awareness is a continuous process taking place during every vocal practice.
Using a full-length mirror helps to become more and more aware of how your body “behaves” and moves when singing.
So practice breathing and singing in front of a mirror.
Pay attention to how breathing and singing feels to you.
2. Learn About Your Design.
This is a part of practice that gets often overlooked.
In my opinion, this is the easiest part of the whole practice (practice can have many different faces, and it includes “learning” about your instrument).
How can you use an instrument if you don’t know what it really looks like and how it functions?
Building a new habit on unclear ideas or myths about breathing and singing is a waste of time.
Did you know that we move the way we believe we are designed?
That means that our mind can override our natural structure and use it in an unnatural way.
This is a very important fact that underlines the need for learning more about our body’s structure and function.
Only with proper knowledge of our bodies, we will be able to use them in a healthy and natural way – the way that the nature intended for us to use.
If you learn about the design of your instrument, you will not be asking questions such as “How to strengthen diaphragm for singing?” or “How to sing from your stomach?” Instead, you will be asking “How to coordinate breathing?” and “How to allow my diaphragm to descend fully?”
3. Cooperate With Your Design.
Once you know what your body looks like and how it functions, breathe and sing away!
You set some goals and you have a plan.
Now, nothing stands between you and your goals.
Happy breathing and singing!
And don’t forget to join our “breathing group” on Facebook. This is a community of singers from all over the world who talk all things singing, including breathing. Click here to request access to this group. And don’t forget to share this post about breathing techniques for singing with your friends! Thank you.
That’s all for now.