Breathing for Singing – What they haven’t told you

Let’s talk about breathing for singing.

Diaphragm breathing for singing
The Diaphragm (Rib Cage and Vertebral Column) – Based on Zemlin 1988)

They told you that the key to good singing is learning to breathe properly. Maybe you’ve already spent some time doing breathing exercises on your own or with a teacher. They told you to “sing from the diaphragm”, “push the belly out”, and then “pull the belly in”. They might even have told you the opposite of that.

I remember I was really confused when I took my first singing lesson. I couldn’t figure out where the diaphragm was and how to use it like the teacher was asking.
Besides, when it came to singing a song, those directions and exercises weren’t helping at all in getting me where I wanted.
That’s because I didn’t have a breathing problem to solve. In fact, I hadn’t had one up until that point! And the moment I started messing with my breathing is when things became difficult.

What is the diaphragm and what does it do?

The diaphragm is a dome-shaped muscle that divides your torso in half. When it contracts it creates a vacuum for the lungs, and air is sucked in.
It’s important to see that there’s no such thing as “singing from the diaphragm”. It’s impossible. That’s because the diaphragm actually contracts only when we inhale, and is passive when we exhale. We don’t sing on the inhale, we sing on the exhale!
During the exhalation phase in singing, the intercostal muscles continue to maintain the expansion of the rib-cage, reducing its dimensions more gradually. The diaphragm doesn’t actively move when you sing. It just goes back to its relaxed state slower than when you are silent, because other muscles are working to keep the rib-cage expanded.

Your diaphragm moves on its own. It’s been doing it since you were born, even when you were sleeping. This is what it does all the time:

Diaphragmatic movements breathing for singing

The truth is that too much focus on breathing will often lead you to more tension and strain, which is what you want to avoid.

The concept of breathing for singing has been overemphasized

Let me be clear. While I do believe that correct breathing for singing is important, I don’t think it is the solution to every vocal problem. And I certainly don’t think that being a good “breather” automatically makes you a good singer!

Here’s a funny analogy by Dr. Scott McCoy, professor of Voice and Pedagogy at the Ohio State University. He compares singing to driving a car. Breath is the fuel, the engine is the phonation system (vocal cords), the clutch and transmission are the resonators, and the steering wheel and brakes are the articulators (mouth and tongue).
With this in mind, saying “One who knows how to breathe, knows how to sing” is like saying that “One who knows how to fill up a gas tank knows how to drive.” And we’d be crazy to think that.

Breathing is not the only element of singing!

Although the breath is the source of the voice, there is much more going on from the moment you inhale to the moment sound comes out of your mouth. And we can’t talk about singing without looking at the balance between the three systems (respiration, phonation and resonance).

In fact, most of the time what looks like a breathing issue is actually an issue at the level of the vocal cords. In other words, it’s an issue with how the air is being handled as you sing, how the vocal cords resist it, and doesn’t always depend on the amount you took in!
Think about someone who is always running out of breath while singing. This is common for people who sing with a breathy voice. Maybe they are taking a perfect breath! But they might be “wasting” the air by letting it seep through the vocal cords. In that case, breathing exercises won’t fix the fact that they’re not able to keep the vocal cords together!

If you aren’t mixing, great breathing technique is not going to help you. Correct breathing is a by-product of good technique.

It’s also important to remember that we need less air as we go higher in pitch. That’s because the vocal cords get thinner and don’t need a lot of air to vibrate. So why train to take in massive amounts of air?

When should you work on your breathing?

Sometimes it is necessary to focus on changing the way you breathe. For example when you have bad habits, like poor posture or shallow breathing. In that case, it is important to work on breathing, because that system isn’t working properly. This means that there can’t be balance with the other systems. And in singing, at least when working on technique, balance is the goal.

How do you reach balance?

You reach balance with specific exercises created by the teacher and tailored to your voice. We call those exercises “vocalises”. They are a combination of vowels, consonants and patterns or scales. If you’ve been given the right vocalises to practice, you shouldn’t need to actively “do” anything to your breathing. Vocalises are supposed to target all three systems together and put them in balance.

If you want to experience vocal balance and get a personalized training, book a lesson today!

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