Proper Breathing for Singers


Musical Theory and Technique

This Side of Sanity

    Breathing for vocals uses the entire lung system. Normal breathing typically involves shallow breathes using only the tops of the lungs. Singing involves the entire lungs in deep breathing.

    Muscles only contract or relax. Muscles never push. Muscle systems involve two sets of muscles, each pulling in an opposite direction.

    The diaphragm pulls down, creating a vacuum that sucks air into the lungs. The diaphragm is a set of muscles attached to the lower ribs.

    The abdominal muscles contract to push air out of the lungs.

    Support is the combination of the diaphragm resisting the abdominals and the abdominals controlling the air flow and creating air pressure for singing.

    Too much air pressure against the vocal chords prevents the vocal chords from operating correctly and can cause damage to your voice.

    Too little air pressure produces weak and inconsistent notes, with an inability to reach high notes or long notes..

proper posture

    Proper posture is essential for good singing.

    Stand up straight with your feet shoulder width apart and your weight on the balls of your feet (just behind your toes).

    Keep your knees loose. If you lock your knees, you will eventually faint and fall over.

    Keep your head up and your chin level. Do not stretch your throat.

    Keep your shoulders in a relaxed position. Your shoulders should not bounce up and down as you breath.

    Relax your back muscles.

breathing in

    Most adults shallow breath, just using the upper 30% of the lungs. Singers need to learn to use their entire body with deep breathing.

    To learn proper breathing, lay on your back on a firm surface (such as the floor). Lightly place your hands on your abdomen, near or over your belly button.

    Completely blow all of the air out of your lungs, then slowly breath in deeply. If you do this properly you should feel your abdomen rising, lifting up your hands. Slowly fill your entire lungs with air.

    You should feel your lungs fill from the bottom up, your abdomen rising, then your chest rising, until your lungs are completely filled with air.

    When standing, your body will expand to the sides and back as well as the front. Laying on your back exagerates the forward expansion, making it easier for you to feel.

    All breathing for singing should be deep breathing, completely filling the lungs from the bottom to the top.

    Now that you know the proper motion, stand and practice breathing in.

    Open your mouth and throat widely and suck in air with your diaphragm. Start your practice slowly, moving your diaphragm down and forward to fill your lungs with air. Your stomach should push out as your diaphragm displaces your internal organs.

    Practice filling your lungs with a single breath. Consciously fill your entire lungs, not just the top portion of your lungs.

    The process of filling your lungs should be silent. Do not make a sucking sound with your mouth.

    Practice silently but completely filling your lungs with air in a single quick motion. Speed up until you reliably fill your lungs with air in a fraction of a beat without making a sound.

breathing out

    Once your lungs are filled with air, your abdominal muscles take over for expelling the air. Your abdominal muscles should be tight and firm. A friend should be able to gently tap or push against your stomach while you sing without causing any fluctuation in the note you are singing.

    Your abdominal muscles and diaphragm work together to give you proper support and control. You should be able to sustain proper air pressure (not too much, not too little) throughout a phrase. The ends of long phrases or notes should not be weak or taper off.

silent breath exrecise

    Now that you have the proper breathing technique, fill your lungs in a single silent gulp of air.

    While maintaining proper support and control, slowly breath out through your lips. Slowly let the air out as if you were gently blowing through a small straw. Do not actually make a sound.

    It should take you at least a minute (60 seconds) to slowly let all of the air out of your lungs. You should not be gasping for breath at the end of each breatyh.

    Pay close attention to keeping your abdominal muscles tight and keeping your air pressure up to singing levels and your breath control even and smooth throughout the exercise.

    Pay close attention to keeping your throat and mouth and tongue loose and free throughout the exercise. Your throat and larynx should not tighten up.

    Repeat this silent breathing technique several times as a warm up before every practice or performance.

long note

    The long note exercise is exactly the same as silent breath exercise, except that you actually sing a note.

    Pick a note that is comfortably in the middle of your chest voice singing range. Do not pick a note at or near the bottom of your singing range. Do not pick a note at or near the top of your chest voice, and particularly do not try to hit your highest head voice notes..

    Open your mouth widely (although not to the point that you are uncomfortable stretching your mouth). Open your lips (but keep them relaxed).

     Keep both the front and back of your tongue relaxed and down against the bottom of your mouth. It is natural for the front of your tongue to want to move around and for the back of your tongue to want to rise up. Consciously keep your entire tongue relaxed, still, and down, creating as much space inside your mouth as possible.

    Raise the soft palate to create more space inside your mouth.

    Open your throat and lower your larynx. Instructions for lowering your larynx: Gently (very gently) place your fingers lightly on your larynx. Yawn. Notice how your larynx naturally lowers in your throat when you yawn. This is the exact motion you want to do for this long note exercise.

    Sing the soft a vowel (“ah”). Try for a full and clear tonal quality. You want as close to a pure sine wave as your body can produce. Avoid a nasal tone. Avoid a raspy tone. Get as pure and clear a tone as you possibly can (relaxing will help).

    Sing at a moderate singing level. Do not sing as loud as you can, but also don’t sing too softly either.

    Hold the note as long as you cna without becoming short of breath. Do not suck in your stomach. Maintain proper singing support all the way to the end of the note.

    Smile. It will actually make your tone quality better.

    Repeat this loig note exercise several times as part of your warm up for rehearsals and performances.

    You can mix things up by using the vowel sounds “Oh” (long o), “A” (long a), “I” (as in “eye”), “E” (long e), and “U” (as in “moon”), in that order (making tighter and tighter sounds).

when to breathe

    Breathe in during the natural pauses of a song.

    Do not breathe in the middle of a phrase. Many songs will break up a single phrase over multiple lines. Do not breathe in the middle of a phrase, even if it is spread over more than one line.

    The secret to making your breath last for long phrases is careful control of your air flow. In particular, stop letting air escape when you aren’t actually singing something. Maintain pressure with your abdominal muscles so that you maintain energy across the musical phrase (and so that you hit the note cleanly when you start singing the next word).

    The natural spots to breathe are locations when a sentence would end (such as a period or exclamation point or question mark). If you must breathe in the middle of a sentence, pick locations where there is a natural pause such as a comma or semicolon. If you must cheat a breath someplace else, avoid locations of high energy or right in the middle of an important phrase. If you wouldn’t breathe at a spot when talking, don’t breath at the spot when singing.

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