In this blog post, I am returning to basics – breathing techniques for singing: how to develop controlled breath support.
There is so much written about breathing techniques for singing because everyone knows how important breathing is for singing.
Everyone knows it but only a few devote their time to building controlled breath support.
Every singer should spend time mastering this fundamental skill – breathing for singing.
What about you?
How much time have you spent on developing good breath support when singing?
Do you take your breath for granted?
Do you know how to “breathe” so that your singing is free and efficient?
Here is some information to guide you on your journey to better breathing technique for singing.
First Things First – Healthy Body and Lungs
Generally, it is easier to develop optimal breathing technique for singing in a body that is strong and healthy.
It does not mean that you need to spend hours strengthening your muscles in a gym to achieve controlled breathing.
(However, it may be necessary for people who have lost their normal muscle tone due to an illness, surgery or lack of movement.)
I love Pilates – it’s good not only for strengthening the core muscles but also for developing a strong body overall.
Cardiovascular types of exercises will also help to keep your body and lungs healthy.
It goes without saying that avoiding bad habits such as smoking also maintains your lungs healthy.
But don’t be fooled!
Strong body does not warranty coordinated breath support but it’s a good starting point.
Good Posture for Singing
In order to achieve optimal breathing mechanics for singing, we need to start with optimal posture for singing (read more about good posture for singing in this blog post called How to Sing Well: Singing Posture).
Maintaining correct posture when singing may be a problem for many people who have poor posture in general due to a sedentary life style:
- slouched back,
- collapsed chest,
- shoulders and head leaning forward, and
- weak core muscles.
I know because I am guilty of the “modern life-style posture” too.
Every day, I have to remind myself to fight back – whether I sit, stand or walk.
Here is a video, in which I demonstrate a simple breathing exercise for singers to help you develop strength to keep your chest open and flexible during singing. Link to the video: https://youtu.be/T3We8dpBAkA
Here is another “trick” to find your optimal posture for singing:
Put both arms behind your back and position both hands on top of each other with palms facing away from the body.
This straightens your back, opens up the chest, and moves the shoulders back. Then, align your head and pelvis with the rest of the body so neither of them stick out.
Some singers use the “puppet on a string” imagery: they pretend that they are a puppet on a string attached to the top of their head, which pulls the body upward gently.
This may help relax the shoulders and lengthen the neck and spine.
However, sometimes this visual cue causes over-extention and rigidity of the neck.
The Hands-Up Technique
Another way to find a good posture is to stretch your arms over your head and then bring them slowly down while keeping your chest open.
I like to call this little trick “The Hands-Up Technique”.
Note: When I hear the words “hands up”, a song with the same name pops into my head. Maybe you recall the song from the 80’s sung by a duo called Ottawan. Maybe you’ve never heard the name Ottawan but the song itself is quite known (especially if you’ve experienced the disco era). It’s a catchy tune and I found a YouTube video (see below).
The goal of the Hands-Up Technique is to keep your chest raised and open (your sternum, which is the flat bone in the middle of the chest, is raised up and forward).
The tricky part is to maintain this posture during singing without creating any tension in your body.
It helps to keep thinking “hands up” during singing to maintain the position. Or observe your body position (chest) in the mirror.
If this is difficult to do at first, take one step at a time.
Sustain the posture for 1 minute. Once you can do that, increase it to 3 or 5 minutes, etc.
Eventually, a good posture will become a habit.
What does correct breathing for singing looks and feels like?
Let’s talk about inhalation or breathing in.
I believe that it’s important to have some knowledge about breathing and singing.
Take some time learning what inhalation looks and feels like when singing.
Inhalation for singing is faster (and often deeper) than inhalation at rest.
Inhalation should feel effortless: there is no need to push or suck air inside your body.
Simply learn to open your body and the air will be drawn into your lungs naturally.
There are several body parts that need to open for the air to come in:
- the back,
- sides of the body,
- abdomen (belly), and
- lower ribs.
This motion is fluid and fairly quick.
Of course, when you are learning to move these body parts, take your time and focus on one body part at a time.
When all of these body parts are moving, a sort of a “ring” is created around your body.
Therefore, I like to call this The 360 Ring of Breath.
Let’s examine the inhalation phase in detail: breathe in, then observe and feel your body.
- What body parts are moving?
- What direction are they moving?
- Do you feel any tension?
During breathing for singing, your back expands slightly (this is often a forgotten body part in voice training exercises).
Place your hands on the mid-section of your back.
Inhale and feel how your hands move away from each other.
Or imagine you have a tight shirt that you want to rip on your back but without moving your shoulders or chest.
Next, watch your abdomen – belly: it moves out (focus on the upper abdomen from the lower edge of the sternum to the navel).
Do not push your belly out forcefully.
Rather let the abdominal muscles (abs) relax.
This is very important as exerting any effort to move belly out will create tension.
To explore relaxation of the belly, get on all four and inhale in this position – you should feel your belly drop down with gravity.
Note: Your belly moves out because the diaphragm descends on inhalation and pushes inner organs into your abdominal cavity. This displaces the wall of your belly in an outward motion.
Now, let’s turn our attention to the lower ribs and sides of your body.
Note: Humans have 12 pairs of ribs. The first seven ribs are attached to the sternum (as I said before, sternum is the flat bone in the middle of your chest). The next three ribs are attached to the rib number seven on the front side of the rib cage. That leaves the last two ribs floating – they are attached only at one end to the spine and the other end is free.
The lower ribs and the sides of your body (of your lower torso) move sideways on inhalation.
To explore this movement, put your hands on your lower ribs (above your waist) and inhale. You should feel your hands move sideways and the body becomes wider.
If you don’t feel this, imagine sending air into your hands placed on the lower ribs.
In summary, become aware of the upper body movement on inhalation.
Use your hands or a mirror to explore the sensation while breathing in:
- feel how your back, belly, rib cage and sides expand out and sideways.
Inhalation should feel relaxed and be quiet.
Any force used to fill the lungs will create tension either in your abdomen, chest or shoulders.
All movements during inhalation have to be performed while keeping a good posture for singing (as I described previously).
Practice inhalation for a few days to automatize the movements.
Feel your body open as the air is drawn into your lungs effortlessly. This motion is fluid.
Once you are aware of the body movement on inhalation, you are ready to breathe out.
Exhalation is the process of expelling air from the lungs (breathing out).
We sing on exhalation.
The exhalation phase during singing is much longer than at rest.
Once you are aware of your body position and changes during inhalation, start working on developing breath support for singing.
This requires a gradual approach starting with:
- creating awareness of effective body posture and movements during exhalation,
- then developing breath support for short sustained sounds and phrases,
- and finally developing breath support for long sustained sounds and long phrases (as well as endurance for gradually longer singing practices with fewer breaks).
My recommendation is to practice breathing exercises together with other vocal techniques as soon as possible (as soon as you become aware of the required movements in your body during inhalation and exhalation).
You can use a simple “ah” as you exhale to understand the coordination between your breath and voice.
Imagine placing the sound on the air flow coming from your lungs.
First, develop awareness of what is going on during exhalation:
Your posture is the same as during inhalation – the back is well-aligned with its natural curvature, the shoulders are wide, the chest is open, the head and hips are aligned with the rest of the body.
Allow the diaphragm to rise slowly.
Use your whole body, including your chest and abdominal muscles to slow down the exhalation.
Your abdomen will eventually move inward but try to prevent it from moving in quickly.
The movement of the diaphragm is passive in this phase.
Your chest is open and keeps this position throughout exhalation for as long as possible.
At the end of the breath cycle, the lower ribs and abdomen return to their resting position.
The key attributes for exhalation are: slow and steady.
This may require some training (see exercises in Breathing Exercises for Singers).
Suspending the Breath
“Suspending the breath” is a common phrase used in singing.
It refers to one of the more advanced breathing techniques for singing.
During a breathing cycle at rest, you breathe in and right after inhalation your body wants to breathe out to get to the resting position.
To suspend the breath means that you don’t allow exhalation to happen right away.
Instead you “suspend” it but you do not hold your breath.
You neither inhale nor exhale; you just postpone the beginning of exhalation.
Your body is suspended in motion.
There is no tension anywhere in the body.
This may be a difficult concept to grasp and will require practice.
The goal of suspending the breath is to understand how the body wants to return to the resting position and how to resist this feeling when singing.
Here is a video called “How to Sing from Diaphragm – Breathing for Singing”, in which I explain what “singing from diaphragm” really means and what it is not. I also bust some common myths about breathing and singing.
The phrase does not really represent the reality of what is happening in our body when we sing.
Watch the video to find out why the question “how to breathe with your diaphragm” does not make sense.
BONUS: Do You Breathe Correctly for Singing? Download a FREE Breathing Checklist. Discover Your Strengths and Areas for Development. Transform Your Breathing and Sing With Ease and Confidence. Click Here to Download It NOW!
This concludes the first part of “Breathing Techniques For Singing”.
Continue reading the second part called “Breathing Exercises for Singers”, in which I share my favourite breathing and vocal exercises for breath support.
To read more about breathing for singing, go to my other blog posts: