How many times have you been told to sing from your diaphragm?
Probably at least once.
If not, I am sure you have heard this expression before.
But do you know what it really means?
Are you wondering how to sing from your stomach when your vocal cords are in your throat?
Well, in this article, I am going to explain just that! So keep reading.
In the singing world (if such a thing exists), many confusing phrases are being tossed around and many new singers just can’t understand what they mean.
The phrase “singing from diaphragm” does not really represent the reality of what is happening in our body during singing.
So let’s dissect this phrase and see what it really means.
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What Is a Diaphragm?
First of all, what is a diaphragm?
It is a large breathing muscle that separates the abdominal (belly) and chest cavities.
It is a dome shaped muscle that lies at the bottom of our ribcage. The lungs sit on top of the diaphragm as seen in this picture.
The diaphragm moves down during inhalation. This is the active phase when the muscle contracts.
The shape of the diaphragm changes: it flattens.
This downward movement causes two things to happen (among others).
The downward movement of the diaphragm pushes on the inner organs of your abdomen. As a result your abdominal wall moves out.
Contrary to the common believe, it is not the diaphragm that moves your belly out. It is the displacement of the inner abdominal organs (like your gut).
It is easy to feel this outward abdominal movement:
Lie down on the floor or in your bed and breathe normally.
Do not try to push anything out or in. Just relax.
Put one hand on your belly button and feel how your hand moves up (when lying).
This is your diaphragm hard at work.
The second thing that happens is the movement of the air into the lungs.
The downward movement of the diaphragm pulls on the lungs and the lungs enlarge. This causes the air pressure inside the lungs to decrease compared to the air pressure outside of the body (Boyle’s law).
Don’t worry, we can skip the physics lesson.
What this means for singers is simple: air is “sucked” into the expanded lungs.
Let’s move on to exhalation or breathing out.
The diaphragm moves up when we exhale. This is the phase when singing happens. The diaphragm relaxes and moves up into its relaxed position (dome-shaped position).
And this is where many singers get confused.
The diaphragm does not work during exhalation (during sound production); therefore, we cannot really control it!
The abdominal wall returns to its “normal” position during exhalation (it moves in).
Air is expelled from the lungs because the lungs decrease in size.
And if you let it, the air will leave the lungs very fast!
During singing, we want to slow down the exhalation phase and control the amount of air going through the vocal cords.
Therefore, we use other muscles (not the diaphragm) to keep the lungs expanded and to prevent them from expelling the air quickly. The muscles providing support for the sound are abdominal muscles and intercostal muscles.
By engaging these muscles during exhalation, we are able to control the amount of airflow going through the vocal folds, thus producing stable voice of good quality.
This is a learned skill and it takes time to learn.
To be honest, we never stop learning this skill. Coordinating muscle action with sound production is not an easy task. So don’t get discouraged if you don’t get it right away.
How to Sing from Your Diaphragm?
So how can you “sing from diaphragm” when the diaphragm is doing nothing during singing?
The phrase “singing from diaphragm” is misleading. It suggests that we have full control over the diaphragm during singing.
By now, you know that you cannot really “sing” from your diaphragm because the diaphragm is not active when you sing.
When someone tells you to “sing from your diaphragm”, what they may really be saying is:
“Don’t squeeze the muscles in your throat when you sing.”
It is very common for new singers to use inappropriate muscles for singing, namely the muscles that surround the larynx (voicebox). Sounds produced by squeezing the laryngeal muscles are strained and this kind of sound production can lead to vocal damage.
The goal of a singer is to keep the laryngeal area (the voice box and the muscles around it) open and free.
Therefore, “singing from diaphragm” can mean: stop gripping the sound and relax your throat.
“Don’t lift your shoulders.”
Some new singers tend to lift their shoulders when inhaling for singing. This is so called clavicular breathing. It is shallow breathing and not sufficient to produce good quality sounds for singing.
(You use clavicular breathing for example when you are trying to catch a breath after a run. Notice, how your whole chest, together with your shoulders, move up and down. Therefore, sometimes runners rest their arms on their hips after a run to stabilize their tired muscles.)
During clavicular breathing, we engage smaller muscles of inhalation that displace the ribcage.
And this is the opposite of what we are trying to achieve during singing: keeping the ribcage open and stable.
Therefore, “singing from diaphragm” may suggest: stop lifting your shoulders with every inhale and stop collapsing your chest with every exhale.
“Don’t force the sound out. Just let it happen.”
Diaphragmatic breathing is present any time we breathe – when we talk, sing or just relax. It is not a special type of breathing created just for singing.
We even use our diaphragm when we use incorrect vocal technique! The diaphragm is always working wheather you are aware of it or not.
There is no need to learn “how to breathe with your diaphragm”. You are breathing with your diaphragm!
Diaphragmatic breathing is the way our bodies were intended to breathe.
This is quite obvious when we observe a baby breathing or when we breathe during sleep or relaxation. Diaphragmatic breathing is efficient and well-coordinated.
Sometimes when we try to control our breath during singing we interfere with nature. We try to push our belly in or out to help the air come out and this is completely unnecessary.
Therefore “singing from diaphragm” may also mean: stop pushing your belly out when inhaling and stop forcing the belly in when exhaling. Let the breath do the work!
There may be many more “hiden” messages behind “singing from diaphragm”, such as:
“Take a lower breath.”
“Relax your belly.”
“Take control of your breath.”
“Open up your instrument.”
Which one is it?
Well, talk to your teacher and ask him or her: “What do you mean? What do you want me to do?”
Here is a video called “How to Sing from Your Diaphragm – 8 Common Myths about Breathing Busted”, in which I name and clarify very common misconceptions about diaphragmatic breathing. The video explains what “singing from diaphragm” really means and what it is not. I hope you enjoy it.
(This presentation contains images that were used under a Creative Commons License. Click here to see the full list of images and attributions: https://app.contentsamurai.com/cc/9795)
How to Sing from Your Diaphragm: Exercise
To answer your question “how to sing from your diaphragm”, here is one exercise to start discovering “diaphragmatic breathing” for singing at home:
Stand in front of a mirror to observe your body posture and movement during this breathing exercise.
Lift your arms up. Your chest will lift and open up.
I call this “The Hands-Up Technique”.
Notice the position of your chest. Now slowly return your arms into a relaxed position beside your body but keep the chest high and open.
Take a breath in (not too deep) and observe your body. Your chest should stay open and shoulders should not rise.
Your lower ribcage will expand to the sides. You will also feel some movement in your lower back. Your belly (above your belly button) will move out.
Make sure you do not force your belly out. Let the breath make your belly move.
Now, slowly exhale (count to 10 or 15 in your head while you are breathing out). Watch your chest – keep it open and high – do not collapse it while exhaling. This may be hard at first because your muscles are not used to this sensation.
Notice how your belly moves slowly in during slow exhalation. Do not try to force your belly in to “help” get the air out.
Repeat several times every day (not too much at once as you may get dizzy and faint!).
BONUS: Find Out If 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!
And that’s it! That’s how you can start discovering breathing for singing.
If you are ready to learn more, you can check out my two blog posts about breathing techniques and exercises by clicking on these links:
Or discover more myths about singing from diaphragm.