Learning breath support for singing doesn't have to be hard
Working on supporting your breathing for singing is one the topics that my students say causes them the most stress. I can't tell you how many of my students come into a lesson and announce, “I don't know how to breathe!” Of course you know how to breathe, you're reading this blog. It's really about how you manage your air so that you create adequate air pressure to support the movements of your vocal folds.
The singing instrument is a wind instrument. As you know, your voice can't function without a stable air supply. The air comes up from below to your vocal folds (cords) and passing through them where they’re located inside your larynx. As your folds move into position for a note, the air causes them to vibrate together. The scientific name for this process is the Bernoulli effect. This is the same phenomenon that pulls a shower curtain in toward you when you're taking a hot shower on a cold day. It's also the same phenomenon that helps lift an airplane off the ground.
So, if your air pressure is less efficient then desired for producing a note efficiently and with ease, your neck will tend to tighten to compensate. Your neck muscles do not control your vocal folds. For that reason, when you practice your breath support your goal is to keep a sense of always having some air supply available to you. Your goal is to release your neck muscles and let your core do the work. Your vocal folds become somewhat passive, responding to thoughts for pitch, register and volume.
There is always air in your lungs. Otherwise, you'd have a collapsed lung and be in the hospital! Remember, too, one of our most primal fears is not having enough air. And, another one of our most primal fears is not sounding good enough, fearing being rejected by the tribe. So, putting these primal instincts together, this explains why we worry so much about breathing for singing. Here are some tips you can practice to help you find breath support balance when you sing, and help you from overthinking the process.
First, each time you take in a breath for singing, go through these steps. You can do this very slowly at first to build coordination, and then it will become more automatic and you’ll find you’re doing it instantly.
- Breathe in slowly and deeply, letting the air move downward into your core. Your lungs are the largest at the bottom, where you also have the most muscles for managing this air. You don't need to take in as big a breath as your lungs can hold—you're not about to swim under water for the length of an Olympic pool! Think of this breath instead more as if you’re meditating. Keep it slow and steady, allowing your ribs to expand and your diaphragm muscle to descend.
- As you're taking in this breath, picture the note you're about to sing, and on which word or vowel. Allow your mouth and vocal folds to get into position for that note—before you sing it.
- Once your breath has come into your body, pause. Engage your upper abdominal muscles gently, almost as if you're just holding your breath for a moment. This is the feeling of support: healthy breath support means you are engaging your core muscles in a balanced, active manner, without over-tightening your muscles. And you definitely do not want to suck in your stomach or pump out your chest. Breath support should not feel tense. Instead, it is a feeling of being engaged and active. Your shoulders don’t need to rise. Your whole chest will rise some, but it’s more of an outward movement around the area of your lower ribs.
- Your diaphragm muscle contracts downward when you inhale, and releases upwards as you exhale. Therefore, engaging breath support Is the same thing as controlling the release of your air by slowing down the release of your diaphragm muscle. Our bodies are not designed to do this directly. You cannot sing from your diaphragm! There is no air in your diaphragm, it is a muscle. Instead, your core muscles are helping you to slow down the rate at which your diaphragm muscle is relaxing. This coordination keeps the air stay in your lungs longer as you gradually release air through the vibrations of the note you are singing.
- Continue this sense of engagement as you sing the note. Try imagining that the note you are singing is flowing on an air current, similar to how a twig floats on the current of a river. Imagine that you have an abundant supply of air and will not run out.
- Also imagine that your air supply continues past the end of the note. In this way, your breath support won't collapse at the end of your phrase.
You can practice these tips with simple vocalizing. If you own my Belting book, begin with the first breathing exercise. In this exercise I count you through a disciplined process of breathing in for counts, holding your breath for counts, then releasing a steady stream of air on a hiss sound. I will record a video with this exercise soon to publish here in our Members section as well. A second exercise has you holding a steady note while doing this breathing practice. As you hold the note, keep your tone and volume steady, and lift off the note without letting it collapse.
Let me know how it goes!