BREATHING FOR THE VOICE / The lies you are told ...
Updated: Jun 19, 2021
When we talk about breathing, especially in the context of vocal training, it is essential to clarify that we are talking about two very distinct things to be worked on and tamed separately:
1- Inhaling / filling the air tank
2- Exhaling / vocalizing based on this air tank
Vocal quality, mastery, ease and health depend on the inhaling, and by learning to breathe, what we must understand is learning to inhale, as there is only inhaling and voice : I inhale and sing, I inhale and speak.
If you want to develop your vocal resonance, control, flexibility, endurance, etc, you want to master inhaling first, and separately from exhaling (the voice).
By trying to learn both breathing and singing at the same time, it will take much longer for the brain to integrate the coordination of the two; You will waste a lot of time and may even never master the process at all.
Filling the air tank
It is the phase where the diaphragm contracts in a downward motion, triggering the aspiration of air … through the nose... into the lungs.
You probably already knew this. However, this is where the problems lies. You would be shocked how many vocal or breathing teachers teach inhaling wrong and the catastrophic consequences this has, not only on the students’ voice but on their overall health (which I’ll explain in other articles).
1- Just because we inhale doesn’t mean the diaphragm goes down.
2- Just because we inhale through the nose doesn’t mean the diaphragm goes down.
3- Just because we inhale "with the belly" doesn’t mean the diaphragm goes down either.
And yet, this is the key ; We need the diaphragm to go down to be able to control the air flow and the degree of air compression to sing or speak easily, for a long time, high, low, loud, soft, without getting tired etc...
Inhaling through the mouth
When we sing or speak, we don't always have time to breathe in through the nose, and will necessarily have to breathe in through the mouth, to catch our breath quickly.
Nevertheless, the singer or speaker must absolutely learn the correct way to breathe in by practicing it through the nose first.
Why? Basically, mouth breathing does not allow the diaphragm to go down. It automatically triggers thoracic, paradoxical breathing.
Try this experiment:
Standing or sitting in a chair, up straight but relaxed, take a spontaneous full breath in through the mouth.
Observe what happens.
Do it several times if necessary in order to observe and physically feel what happens.
Does your chest rise?
Do you feel a tension in your shoulders (trapezius area)?
This is a high inhale:
the diaphragm does not go down
will not allow you to use the exhale properly to either sing or speak
will force you to compensate by contracting the neck, throat, and shoulder muscles to vocalize.
This breathing is also called inverted breathing. In addition to vocal fatigue, tension, pain in the cervical and trapezius area, this poor way of breathing, in the long run, damages the vocal cords.
The good news though, is that you can learn to lower the diaphragm and keep the muscles of the upper part of the instrument at rest, even when inhaling through the mouth.
But inhaling through the mouth is so damaging to your health that you do not want to use it to train the diaphragm to go down. You should practice proper nose inhaling first.
Inhaling through the nose
1- What not to do !
Belly breathing is NOT diaphragm breathing !!!! Most teachers teach their students to breathe by inflating the belly. If you have attended voice or breathing classes, you’ve heard it hundreds of times: « Breathe through your belly! » and you were told that this is diaphragm breathing.
You were even made to lie on your back to feel the belly inflate while the chest remains flat.
I have use this method myself sometimes, but ONLY when it is too difficult or even impossible for the student to feel their abdomen.
THIS IS NOT DIAPHRAGM BREATHING though, and If the explanation stops there, the student will understand and memorize that he/she must push the belly forward to inhale.
This is a forced, unnatural way to inhale: In order to inflate the belly, the person will block or contract the lateral and back muscles, which does not allow the diaphragm to go down (the belly inflates but the floating ribs remain fixed). This can lead to or aggravate low back pain, cause stiffness in the lumbar area as well as hyper-ventilation.
2- What to do
This inhale is done without any forcing whatsoever! On the contrary, it is only possible if the abdominal belt muscles relax completely. The diaphragm will then be able to go down without encountering any resistance from the abdominal or lumbar muscles.
To achieve this breathing, you must totally relax all the muscles of the area.
You should feel that it is not only the belly that inflates but the sides and the back, allowing the floating ribs to move. That's why I do NOT recommend practicing it lying on your back, as the position prevents the back and side muscles from relaxing and the floating ribs from opening. It is better to practice it in a standing or sitting position. The floating ribs will be able to expend freely and the lungs to fill up. Start by practicing it slowly to feel the muscles relaxe completely. This will mean that your lungs are filled.
The diaphragm is a large, flat, circular muscle located in the solar plexus area. Attached to the rib cage, it separates the lungs from the organs located in the abdomen.
In the resting position it has a bulging shape. When inhaling, it contracts and flattens downward, pushing the viscera downwards, not forwards.
NB: By pushing the viscera, it gives the physical impression that it is the abdomen that fills up, but of course it’s the lungs. No air is going in the abdomen. I prefer to call it abdominal breathing rather than diaphragm breathing though, as this visual image helps the brain achieve the right inhale more easily. If we focus on the lungs, or the diaphragm, we will tend to inhale high.
Once you have practiced this proper and natural inhaling enough, breathing in slowly, and have integrated the feeling of letting go of your abdominal muscles, to the point where you no longer have to think in order to achieve it, you can start practicing it breathing in quickly: by releasing your abdominal muscles all at once.
But be careful, breathing in quickly does not mean breathing in short. It means taking in the same amount of air more quickly.
To practice this, start by exhaling the air from your lungs completely, until the very last drop, digging the belly to the maximum (this will contract your abdominal belt muscles)
Then release these muscles at once and completely to let the air fill you up. You want to breathe in the same amount as when inhaling slowly. If you can't inhale the same amount quickly, it means you don't release your muscles completely, you stop inhaling before its complete by holding some contraction. In this case, start again slowly, to feel the physical sensation of the muscles total relaxation in order to reproduce it with the rapid inhaling.
When you know how to take a quick breath in through your nose, without any muscle resistance, you can simply do the same by inhaling through the mouth.
NB: When singing or speaking, you will not need to fill the tank all the way, but your muscles will have learned to let go totally and quickly.
Again, I'm not recommending inhaling through the mouth, I'm explaining how it is possible to do so in the specific context of singing or speaking when you need to catch your breath quickly. And, If you have the time to breathe in slowly while singing or speaking, do it through the nose.
Once this proper breathing has become a natural reflex, you are ready for phase 2: the vocal technique.
Manna, vocal and breathing coach