Deep Breathing

There is so much emphasis on breathing in singing training. You must “support the tone” no matter what. Unfortunately, so few teachers really understand what that means. It’s not surprising, then, that they don’t know much about assisting their students to improve their breathing behaviors.

Let’s start with the basic information. If you are singing a vigorous song…one that is fast, high, energetic, long, or complex, you need to take deep breaths repeatedly. Right away, you are doing something the body has no reason to do on its own. The only time the body takes really deep breaths continuously is when it has been stressed through exercise. Then, it heaves the chest up and down and pulls the vocal folds very far apart so a maximum amount of air can go into the lungs. Clearly, that won’t work in a song. Somehow one has to learn to get breaths that are just as deep while keeping the body quiet, minimizing rather than exaggerating, movement. That is a major task to accomplish and takes a while to learn and years to master.

Thankfully, people are going away from the idea that the voice must “come from the belly” or that one must “breath in or support from the diaphragm”. Science has allowed us to look at all vocal function from a place of clarity and accuracy.

You must breathe into your lungs. Your lungs are in your ribcage or chest. Keeping the ribs lifted and open is a function of “carriage” or posture. If you are standing correctly, the ribs are already expanded to their fullest before you fill the lungs with air. If the chest cannot rise further, (and as long as the pecs or shoulders don’t tense, it won’t), the movement of the air into the lungs will fill them to the bottom, where they are biggest.

This kind of inhalation expands the lungs down into the torso. It works best when there can be expansion forward and down in the area of the abdomen. Said another way, when the ribs expand and the lungs fill up, the diaphragm contracts, lowers and flattens out, and as it does so, it pushes the contents of the middle of the body, the viscera, out of the way. The pelvis is a bowl, and there can be some direct downward movement inside the torso, but the easiest way to get more room is to expand straight out (or forward). Consequently, we experience the feeling that we breath “in the belly”, as it is the belly that seems to expand.

Then, one has to deal with learning to exhale deliberately. A sung phrase is often longer than a spoken phrase and if the phrase has high notes at the end, or gets louder at the end, or both (typical), there is no reason why the body, left to its own devices, would do that easily. When the lungs are full, the air pressure in them is high. The beginning of a sung phrase wants to be loud in a beginning singer. When the lungs are more than half empty, the air pressure level within them drops rapidly, and the sound level (volume or intensity) would also drop off rapidly if something didn’t compensate. The belly muscles are large and strong. There are four layers of them and they move in complex ways……in, up, across, down and out. If, while maintaining a steady ribcage position, one can contact them (in any number of ways) such that they push harder and harder on the viscera, which in turn pushes up against the taut diaphragm, which pushes the bottom of the lungs to keep pushing the air out, the air pressure level will remain relatively constant and the volume will remain the same, or, in a more experienced singer, even get louder. It’s a chain reaction. We push more air out with greater efficiency as we become more skilled.

There has to be a relationship, then, between the rib cage muscles (the intercostals) and the abdominals (particularly the rectus abdominus– the one that helps us stand erect) throughout both inhalation and exhalation AND when the exhalation becomes sound, the vocal folds control the airflow, as they are the valve over the sacks of air (lungs). This is a scientific fact. THE VOCAL FOLDS CONTROL THE AIRFLOW. It is NOT the other way around, no matter how we experience singing. The truth is that when you have a sound that is neither squeezed (pressed) nor flabby (breathy) the air will go out on its own neither fast nor slow and it will be possible to contract the abdominals gradually, while keeping the ribs in a steady state, over the length of the phrase. What takes time, and skill, is to develop enough strength in the ribcage to keep the intercostals working in opposition to their natural function (to stay open as the lungs deflate…..that’s weird, but must be learned). And, if the rest of the body isn’t strong and the belly muscles don’t respond well, that will slow things down, too. Finally, there is the issue of coordinating all this while making sounds, as the sounds will vary, and therefore the airflow will vary, too, and that makes learning to control the breathing process unpredictable, and therefore, somewhat tricky.

IF all of this is mastered, while singing no less, the person will feel that the sound can easily get louder by simply pushing, lifting, or contracting the belly muscles. That is breath support. It is a very complex process but it will not, in and of itself, make someone an excellent singer (else all brass and woodwind players would automatically be great vocalists). You still have to learn to make a nice, or stronger, or better sound (call it what you will). You have to sing from the throat down, not the belly up.

Now, if that weren’t enough, the capacity of the body to breath has a lot to do with being able to feel….sensation and emotion. Breathing is your “aliveness” factor. The more you can breathe, deeply, freely and easily, the more you are vital, alive, energized and “spirited”. So, not only do singers need to learn how to breathe this way for mechanical purposes, but they must be able to do this for expressive purposes, too.

The catch here is that it is difficult to take a full, deep, free, easy breath if you are tight, restricted, or muscularly bound up in the muscles that effect the areas discussed above. Tight shoulders and upper back muscles, tight ribcage muscles (intercostals), tight belly muscles, and, inside, a tight diaphragm, will restrict the amount of muscular expansion and contaction, but the worst restriction, and the thing that makes taking a really deep breath very difficult is tension somewhere within the throat itself. And guess what? Almost everyone has some tension inside the throat, because we live in a stressful society.

The phrases we have for “caught” throat muscles are numerous: “Cat got your tongue?” “Can’t spit it out”, “All choked up”, “Got a lump in my throat”, “Tongue tied”, “Speechless”, “Couldn’t get it out”, “the words stuck in my throat”, etc. The body closes the throat when we are under attack so the energy can go to the core (flight/flight reflex generated in the limbic brain). If you are chronically stressed (do you know anyone who isn’t?), taking a full deep breath isn’t always easy. The larynx itself has to be freed up and THAT is a really tricky business. You have to have a real expert help you get out of that mess. If you don’t, you will never be able to sing really freely, you will never experience feeling deeply emotional and letting the emotion flow out through your throat as fluid, released sound, and you will never know the excitement and joy that singing in this way gives to you and to your audience. It’s worth fighting for.

Deep breathing is its own reward.

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