Breathing is the most significant activity of the human body. No one has ever committed suicide by holding her breath.
Your limbic brain is programmed to get the oxygen in and the carbon dioxide out no matter what obstacle it has to overcome to do so. It is the reason people drown, because sooner or later, you will inhale. People have trained themselves over years and years to go as long at 15 minutes without breathing, but they are very rare. Most people can barely hold their breath for a minute.
Breathing shuts down when you are frightened. It is part of the “flight-fright” programming in the limbic brain. It works the same for the animals. When they are frightened, they freeze. For us, our breathing gets very shallow, the blood flows into the core of the body leaving the external areas cold and the forehead also gets cold and clammy. You cannot override this response. If it is strong enough, you will go into shock. The whole system shuts down.
Deep breathing is often a response to relief. We let out a big sigh. Sometimes it is a result of deep relaxation and contentment. In all cases, it is the fuel which allows the body to best do its job of being alive.
Aliveness is the capacity to experience life through the body through the five physical senses. We experience the physical world through what we see, hear, smell, taste and touch. The phrase “being spirited” usually connotes the idea that an individual is full of life, exuberant, and spontaneous. Having “high spirits” would mean being optimistic, energized and happy. In some traditions breath is equivalent to spirit. In the Catholic Church, receiving the “Holy Spirit” is evinced by a feeling of grace, humility and inspiration. The word inspire means to “fill someone with the urge or ability to do something”. [Oxford English Dictionary, 2006]
The lungs are the vehicle for the breath to enter and leave the body. Oxygen is converted there to energy which goes into the blood stream. It is used as fuel to run the other organs, including the heart, until the blood returns depleted of oxygen and full of carbon dioxide, where it is released into the air, and the cycle begins again, thousands of times a day. For the most part, this breathing process happens on its own, without any conscious direction or effort. We can, however, learn to breathe very deliberately. Singing is an activity that asks us to do just that.
Inhalation is largely related to postural stance. The rib cage needs to be strongly open and expanded and it takes quite a few muscles in the body to accomplish this effectively. A “deep breath” is one in which the air goes all the way down into the lungs, filling them up to the bottom, where they are widest. A comfortably lifted, open rib cage, without shoulder tension and without tightening or shortening the pectoral muscles, allows for the fullest, deepest inhalation; one in which the lungs are fully expanded to maximum capacity. Since the body doesn’t do this on its own without being stressed (like running in a race), learning to elicit this behavior deliberately, while standing still, takes time. And, doing it repetitively is also not something the body does without vigorous physical activity, so one must learn this as well. Controlling the exhalation requires that the ribs remain stabile, and not collapse, (this is a very weird behavior to teach the body) and that the abdominal muscles simultaneously engage during exhalation to keep the pressure level consistent even though it is dropping inside as the lung volume decreases. All of this is learned behavior as well.
If you do not fully inhale and exhale, you will inhibit your ability to feel and experience deep, free emotions, and to release them. If you doubt this, watch any young child. Emotions flow through them all the time. Happy one minute and sad the next. They make no effort to “control” their feelings. Since emotions are meant to move (like waves) through the body, as physical sensation, any attempt to suppress emotion will suppress feeling. Suppression is done through shallow breathing, so if you don’t feel you don’t breathe and if you don’t breathe you don’t feel. They are equal partners. Since singing is about being expressive (unless you want to sing like a robot), you need to learn to ride on the exhalation, as sound, guiding it, but not holding it back. The deep equilibrium that one acquires after training the voice for a while allows the larynx to stabilize the vocal fold response such that the folds allow just enough air to pass through them for an appropriate sung sound to emerge. The final effect is to blend emotional expression, musical expression and vocal sound into a seamless whole.
We are in an epidemic of emotionless singing. Jazz is filled with insipid, breathy singers who don’t really feel much of anything. A great deal of what ones hears is effect. It is, unfortunately, all too rare to hear a full throated, emotionally passionate jazz vocalist because the trend of singing only softly (which is wrongly read as being “sexy”) is so popular at the moment. The other thing that’s popular in other styles of music is various kinds of screaming. Pop, rock, gospel, country, R&B, all kinds of styles equate loud screamy singing with emotional passion. It is, in fact, the exact opposite. The brain eventually rejects the continuous onslaught of sound as being “too much” and just registers it as all being “intense”. Intense what? You can’t tell. Loud for loud’s sake is not being expressive. And, believe it or not, the continuous vocal response to this screaming is to tighten and close the throat making it less and less possible to take in air easily. Over time, the capacity to inhale deeply becomes increasingly difficult. As a consequence, it is less and less possible to really deeply feel anything, especially subtle differences like melancholy rather than full blown despair, or frustration rather than high intensity anger. The larynx rides high in the throat, the breathing becomes shallow, the rib cage collapses and the genuine deeply felt aliveness that should be part of singing just slowly diminishes. It is insidious, but it is reliably so.
The way to be expressive is to be fully alive. The way to be fully alive is to fully breathe in and out. The way to sing authentically and uniquely is to be in touch with your body and your feelings while you sing. Nothing else can substitute.