The Basics: The Singer’s Breath

When you think of singing, you probably think of powerful belting, glorious high notes, or beautiful sounds. You probably don’t think about what has to happen before any of those: the breath. We all breathe. We breathe all day, every day. Breathing is an autonomic response – meaning our body does it whether or not we think about it. Our body will try to make us do it whether or not we want. Because we don’t often have to think about breathing, we often overlook it when it comes to singing. Unless you’re the one doing the singing, of course!

Singing cannot happen without breathing. How one sets up the breath determines all of the sound that will follow. The more efficient and effective your breathing is the longer your phrases can be, the more notes you can sing without interrupting lines with extra breathing, and the more easily you will be able to feel the full-body connection to your voice needed to access your facilities. Singing with solid breath management will open the doors to allow you to sing higher, faster, and stronger.

The Breath Cycle
Take a breath. Now release it. That’s all there is to breathing, right? If it’s good enough to keep us alive, then surely it’s good enough for singing. WRONG! Sadly, it just isn’t so. Difficult singing is not a completely natural function; therefore, we have to do a few extra things when using the Singer’s Breath than we normally would for sitting or having conversation with friends.

The Singer’s Breath has a four-part cycle – preparation, inhalation, exhalation, and release.

Step 1 – Preparation: Preparing the Singer’s Breath is exceedingly important in ensuring the rest of the breath cycle happens easily. Singers prepare their breaths to allow for the most efficient breath and to make sure there is enough space in the thoracic (chest) cavity to allow the lungs to expand freely and fully. There are many different views on this part of the breathing cycle in the various National Schools of Singing. You can find out more about these various schools of singing in Richard Miller’s book National Schools of Singing: English, French, German, and Italian Techniques of Singing Revisited.

While there are many views from other schools, the most important and universal step to preparing a breath for singing is to allow your ribs, in the front and back, to expand and lengthen while maintaining a light and spongy feeling (do not let them become rigid). You will keep your ribs in this position during the next phase as well. This opening of the ribs allows for your lungs to expand, without resistance, during the inhalation phase. Think of your ribs like an accordion. When you breath in, they will expand and flex to allow air to enter. Like an accordion, you have ribs in the front of the body, on the sides and in the back of the body. Do not forget your back ribs, because this is the place where tension is most likely to appear in breathing (specifically the upper back ribs).

Step 2 – Inhalation: Now that you have prepared to breathe, you are now ready to inhale. When you inhale, if you have time, breathe in through your nose. Breathing through the nose allows the air to travel through the sinus cavities and to be warm and moist as it goes past the vocal cords, thus creating less shock on the vocal cords. If there isn’t enough time to breath entirely through the nose, then try to breathe through the mouth and nose at the same time.

Your inhalation will make your body expand. Many times beginning singers will take a breath where their shoulders go up to their ears in a vain attempt to suck in as much air as possible. This is only an illusion, because your lungs are smallest at the top. This also creates undue tension in the neck and around the voice box by thrusting and holding the shoulders up. Your shoulders have nothing to do with breathing. Try as they might, they cannot help at all.

Think of your inhalation cycle causing your diaphragm to move down. While you cannot directly control (or “sing from”) your diaphragm, its role in moving your stomach, intestines and organs out of the way for the expansion of the lungs is why many singers visually see a “low breath.” As you breathe deeply, your belly and lower back will expand down and out as the diaphragm gently pushes its contents down and out during the breath cycle. While there are no lungs in your belly or lower back, what you are seeing in low “belly breathing” is just your diaphragm doing its job in moving your vital organs out of the way to allow for the expansion of the lungs. Embrace the idea of low breathing, allow the space between your ribs lengthen further and keep your shoulders down!

During inhalation it is important to keep your breath silent. If someone can hear you breath, it is like sucking air through a narrow straw: your vocal cords nearly close and you suck cold air into your lungs. This causes tension in the cords by slamming them together and dries them out quicker. Both of those things will result in vocal fatigue. Many people also fall into the trap of noisy breathing because they allow, at inhalation, the tongue to fall into the back of the throat in an attempt to suck in as much air as possible. Keep your tongue still and out of the pharynx (throat) by allowing the natural vacuum created by the falling of the diaphragm to fill your lungs with air.

Step 3 – Exhalation: You have prepared your breath and inhaled it into your body, but now what? Usually during singing, this would be where you would sing and make beautiful sounds. But for now, we will talk about just the act of exhalation to not make things too complex. Once you understand this principle without sound, you can incorporate it into your singing appropriately.

During inhalation keeping your tongue out of your throat is important so you can have a silent, relaxed breath. During exhalation this is equally important. However, it is also important to make sure that your tongue does not cause your larynx (voice box) to rise by allowing your tongue to bunch-up at the root (the back of your tongue that attaches to your larynx). Think of your tongue as being a neutral party during the entire cycle: neither falling during inhalation nor rising during exhalation.

As you exhale, your body will want to collapse in on itself. You must fight this urge. Think of your ribs, that you worked so hard at preparing, staying out and slightly lengthening as you exhale. If they collapse and fall, you will not be able to get the maximum efficiency of your breath from your lungs. This is like squeezing a tube of toothpaste at the top instead of at the bottom. Sure, some will come out, but it makes it much harder to efficiently use the whole tube of toothpaste.

The muscles in your abdominals (lower, upper and transverse abdominus) and lower back will have slight tension (but not so much to cause them to be rigid, hard, and unmoving/inflexible) as you use them to slow the ascent of the diaphragm. The more lower abdominal support you have, the less chance that tension in the neck and tongue will occur during singing. This support should not feel like you are pushing your abdominals out or pulling them in. They will be mildly tense enough, the WHOLE time, to control the ascent of the diaphragm and offer support to the expansion of the ribs.

As your exhalation continues, your abdominals (abs) will slowly come up from the bottom, in on the sides (the abs NOT the ribs) and in from the back. This is an exceedingly slow process. If this muscular support system collapses, your air will be forced out of your lungs as your diaphragm pops up. Imagine yourself as a body builder: Large chest cage and small waist. This is what the end of your exhalation cycle will feel like, because you have kept the ribs out (while maintaining a relaxed and spongy feel by using the intercostal muscles in the ribs) and allowed the abs, belly and back to slowly move in and up (while still remaining slightly flexed) as the diaphragm ascends.

Step 4 – Release: This phase is the step most people find foreign when they begin singing. “What am I releasing?” I am often asked. The answer is quite simple: any leftover air in the lungs and tension in the body. As we sing, we often do not take in exactly as much air as needed for the phrase we are singing. We generally over-compensate and take in too much air. As we do this over time, we build up “bad air” in the lungs. As this bad air in the lungs builds up, it causes us to breath more shallowly (because the bad air is taking up space for good air) and builds tension as our body starts to feel as if it is running out of air.

Also during the course of our breathing, we have used a great deal of muscles to open up and keep the rib cage expanded and used our abdominals and lower back to slow the rise of the diaphragm and keep tension out of the neck and throat. We use the release phase to allow a momentary relaxation of these muscles and to release any “bad air” left in the lungs.

To fully release all you have to do is breath out any remaining breath in your lungs and allow your ribs, abdominals, back and neck to release any built-up tension. After that you immediately go back into preparing for your next breath (Step 1 of the Breath Cycle).

Breathing Exercises
Finding your lower back: Bend forward at the hips and hang with your head looking at your feet. Now place your hands on your lower back, slightly beneath your bottom ribs. Make sure the tips of your middle fingers touch. Now take a deep breath. You should feel your fingertips move away from each other as your lower back expands. Stand up, keeping your hands in the same position, and see if you can then feel the lower-back expansion as you breathe. If not, repeat this process until you get a sense of the feeling of the lower-back expansion.

Master Vocal Pedagogue David Jones also gives this exercise for finding the lower-back expansion:

Use a flat part of a wall or a door. Posture yourself with your back against the wall. The feet can be a bit away from the wall or door. However, the lower curve of the back needs to be flattened against the wall or door. Take a breath and then make a ‘hissing’ sound. Notice that as the lower back muscles push into the wall that the epigastrium gently turns and the lower abdominals slowly pull in, up, and under to fuel the breath stream.

Finding an expanded and lifted rib cage: Start with your hands above your head, pointing toward the ceiling. Take in a breath allowing for the lower-back expansion and a feeling of a deep and easy breath expanding into the lower abdominals. Now hiss on a “ts” sound. As you hold the hiss, allow your arms to slowly fall until they are at your shoulders. You should look like a capital “T” at this point. Keep them there and feel your chest slightly raised and your ribs out. Now keeping your upper arms in the same place, bend your lower arms at the elbows and use your hands to feel your ribcage.

Let out the rest of the air, release the body and do the exercise again. This time as you get to the position where you look like a capital “T” allow your arms continue down to your sides. As you do this, fight the urge to allow your ribs to collapse. Keep them out, allowing them to be firm and spongy and keep your chest slightly raised. If you cannot move your ribs, you are holding them too tightly. You can do a little dance to check your rib flexibility, once you have a handle on the exercise.

The Farinelli Exercise: This exercise was left to us by one of the greatest singers that music history has ever documented. His breath capacity was listed at being able to sustain a single note for over a minute and to be able to sing more than 250 notes on a single breath. People thought his capacity for breathing was so great that the only way he could have achieved this was to sell his soul for a box that held his notes while he took another breath.

To start the Farinelli exercise, you will need a steady beat. I suggest setting a metronome to mm=80. After your beat is set, there are three steps to the exercise.

Step one: Inhale slowly and completely over five beats, breathing in through the nose and mouth at the same time. The breath needs to be completely silent (no sucking in sound) and needs to fill the lungs completely.

Step two: Let the breath rest for an equal amount of beats (five in this case). Stay away from using the idea of “holding your breath.” That evokes trying to muscle the breath into staying in place, which only ends up causing undue tension and a cascading tension effect in the rest of the body that eventually shows up in the singing voice. Let the voice rest by slightly opening your mouth, keep your tongue completely relaxed and forward. Do not allow the back of your tongue to act as a stopper for your throat to hold the breath in. You should have a sensation of a neutral (not lowered or raised) larynx and it should feel as if you are about to breath in, even though you are not. Allow your abs, lower back and ribs to support your diaphragm and keep it stable to allow your larynx and tongue to be relaxed and calm.

Step three: Exhale the breath. Fully exhale the breath over the same amount of beats. This breath should not be forceful. Your throat should not clench in letting the breath out. Your tongue should remain in a stable, neutral position (it doesn’t have anything to do with breathing, so it needs to stop trying to be altruistic by helping).

Step four/one*: Repeat the cycle, but add an extra beat to all three steps. After step three (exhalation), you immediately go back into step one (inhalation) with no break in between. You repeat the entire cycle each time adding an extra beat until you cannot maintain the support needed to keep your tongue, larynx and neck calm and released. If you become light-headed, STOP IMMEDIATELY and resume normal breathing. Passing out helps no one.

As you can see, breathing for singing is a lot more involved and complex than the breaths we take for granted in every-day functions. After you spend time working with your breathing, this supported “Singer’s Breath” will become automatic. Like everything, however, it takes practice. Stay focused. Stay motivated. Stay calm and relaxed. You can do this!