Breathing for singing

How to get aware of your breathing and eventually manipulate it in your interest!

The rhythm of our breathing is the fundament of our lives. It is a reflex action and it occurs approximately 24,400 times a day. The efficiency of this act can be modified by poor physical habits, posture, exercise, air quality, injury, and misconceptions about how we breathe. 

While our physical/mental state of mind can be reflected in our breathing, in return, breathing can also manipulate our mental state. You need to become aware of your breathing if you want to control and use it wisely. 

📌 TIPP.  If you want to become aware of your breathing you need to observe it correctly and in different situations. I recommend: randomly check on your breathing, throughout the day. How do you breathe when you sit, walk, lie, when you are doing sports when you are singing when you are stressed, nervous, excited, happy, sad… Try to pause for a second and carefully listen to it! Is it fast, slow, mainly breathing into the chest or more into the abdomen?  Make a mental note of how your breathing is in that particular moment and check back a couple of hours later again. 

What breathing influences and how can it be influenced?

As soon as you’ve become aware of your breathing you will realize that there are specific habits that reoccur. When you are excited, nervous, or are doing something that requires effort, your breath usually gets fast and high (breathing into the chest – probably lifting your shoulders). You might even gasp, depending on the level of the mental/physical state. On the other hand, you will discover that when you are relaxed, let’s say, lying on your couch or in bed, your breath gets slow and lower (taking place in the area of the abdomen – probably blowing up your belly with every inhalation). This is a basic observation of how breathing normally reflects your physical state. In order to now manipulate your mental/physical state, you can try calming down your breath, breathing low into your abdomen in situations of stress, instead of maintaining short and gaspy breathing. Meditation techniques and Yoga, for example, are based on the control of breathing, because the effect on your physical as well as a mental state, is major. 

So when you are stressed, take a couple of deep breaths!

Now let’s talk about your breathing while singing.

Breath management, and how we pitch

It might be strange to try being actively aware of your breathing since it is an automatic process you’ve been doing from the day you were born. Breath management is a quick and easy way to improve your singing and shouldn’t be underestimated! Talking about breath management I mean that you as a singer need to learn how to breathe in quickly, if possible inaudible, and afterward distribute the exhaled air over the musical phrase you want to sing. So it is a short inhalation and a long exhalation. The pitch and volume of a note are dependent on the amount of air pressure you give it. High and loud notes require more air pressure (subglottic pressure) than low and soft notes. 

📖 TERM. Subglottic pressure takes place in your Trachea and is critical to vocalizing. Subglottic pressure is created through expired air (so the air that was inhaled and is now being exhaled). The expired air flows against partially closed vocal folds. This pressure is important to controlling the intensity of sound (volume). It can be altered by active breath control.

Just to clarify, subglottic pressure should not be forced at all! It is something that happens in daily situations like coughing or when you lift things! 

🙃TRICK. How to feel your subglottic pressure: Try simulating the actions mentioned above: coughing or lifting something. You will feel that your diaphragm contracts and the airflow sort of stops.

The higher the air pressure, the more vibrations you’ll have on your vocal cords and the higher the note.

💡FACT.  The pitch of the human voice is determined by the frequency with which the vocal folds vibrate. If the singer is singing the pitch A440 then the vocal folds are vibrating, or opening and closing, 440 times per second.

Breathing types

There are 3 main breathing types

  1. Low Breathing is the most natural way to breathe and the way babies do it. Through stress in daily life and breathing habits, almost everyone develops much more shallow breathing, only using a fraction of the lung capacity. „This leaves us in a state of perpetual oxygen deprivation. We breathe enough to live, but not really enough to thrive as we could“. Low breathing is often referred to as abdominal breathing, diaphragmatic breathing, or belly breathing. But belly breathing or when someone says „breath into your belly“ is based on how it looks and is theoretically incorrect because we always breathe into our lungs. This expression is mainly used in teaching because it is good for explanation purposes. When you inhale low, your lower ribs, intercostal muscles (muscles between your ribs), and diaphragm contract and make your abdomen move outwards. With low exhalation, you have two types: passive and active. When you sleep, you exhale passively, which means that the abdomen moves back as soon as the diaphragm relaxes. If you want to influence the force and speed of your exhalation, which can sometimes come in handy while singing/speaking, you actively tense your abdominal muscles and the abdomen draws in.
  1. With High Breathing or Shallow breathing, the abdomen doesn’t move with the diaphragm. The movement mainly takes place in the ribs and/or shoulders. When you breathe in deeply but high, the top part of your lungs fill up, the shoulders will come up and the abdomen goes in. Through exhalation, the abdomen comes out again and the shoulders go back down. The shoulder movement will tense up your whole neck and throat area, which you don’t want because this tension interferes with the functioning of the larynx. 
  1. When Breathing from the ribs, the main movement during inhalation is an outward expansion of the ribcage. Furthermore, the abdominal wall draws in. During exhalation, the rib cage gets smaller due to the relaxation of the intercostal muscles. This kind of breathing is often used by dancers, very high sopranos, and flute players. This technique puts less pressure on the abdomen, is mainly used with a high larynx, and is suitable if you want to control a small stream of air. You won’t be able to sing in a warm Pop/Jazz sound though, because, in order to do so, you need a low/resting larynx!

Literature references: 

Singing From The Inside Out – Ineke van Doorn 

How to Breathe like a Baby – Nate Guadagni

Sub glottal air pressure – Ron Murdock 

How to Sing – Breathe Right and Sing Amazingly – Aron from Superior SInging Method