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Breathing is so natural and automatic to us; it's hard to believe that we could be doing it wrong. Breath exercises for singing can dramatically improve the caliber of vocal performance, though.
Masterful control of breathing is how Pavarotti managed iconic sustains, and how Maria Callas perfected the timbre of her soprano performance.
In the simplest terms, proper breathing provides singers with a full and supported voice, while minimizing strain on the rest of the body.
Each note and phrase rely upon a steady source of air behind it, holding it in place. This technique becomes possible only when a singer understands how to optimize their breathing techniques.
Conversely, there are many ways a singer can hurt their singing without even knowing it.
Breathing is automatic, so many singers do not notice when they limit their range by vocalizing from the throat, or by using their abductors to draw breath. Fortunately, these inefficiencies are possible to correct with a little time and practice, and plenty of stamina.
Why Proper Breathing Is Essential for Singing
Singing is the result of a process called phonation. During phonation, air passes through a person’s vocal folds in the larynx, which causes them to vibrate.
Based on how the singer chooses to increase or decrease the tension in their vocal folds, and the amount of air passing through them, they can change the type of sound they produce.
Breathing is an essential part of singing because it provides both the quality of sound and the volume level. Without the proper amount of air passing through the vocal folds, a sound is not possible. That is why breathing exercises are critical to the success of any aspiring vocalist.
Improving breathing technique allows a singer to have more control over their voice. Greater mastery will enable them to explore a broader range of notes and to hit those tones and semi-tones accurately.
Knowledge of vocal breathing exercises will also allow sustained singing stamina, and the ability to execute advanced techniques like vibratos and tremolos.
Essentially, if you want to become a better singer, you need to explore breathing exercises.
When a person breathes normally, the inhalation and exhalation are relatively shallow. Then, there is a short pause before the cycle starts again.
This style of breathing is like operating on autopilot because there is minimal effort required.
Trying to breathe the same way you would when sitting at a desk or walking in the park does not work for singing.
Singing requires a concerted effort and more diverse breathing techniques. If these foundations are not in place, a singer will have poor results.
There are several differences between how someone usually breathes and how they breathe when they sing.
When people sing the exhale is longer than the inhale and must be made with steady (even) exertion. The singer must also be aware of their breathing technique, as opposed to letting it flow involuntarily.
Furthermore, when we breathe normally, breaths are relatively shallow because our body exerts the minimum amount of effort possible.
As a result, we only use about five to ten percent of our lung capacity during any given breath. During singing, however, that number jumps up to 50 percent.
There are a myriad of ways a singer can breathe poorly. These can include, but are not limited to: running out of breath, not utilizing their diaphragm, poor posture, and not knowing at which cadence to inhale or exhale.
This inadequacy may result in unnecessary tension in the voice, and untapped potential.
There are several helpful breathing exercises for vocalists, as varied as the singers themselves.
The following list details some of the most common techniques singers use to improve breathing. Many of these breathing techniques for singers are presented here in their purest form, but customized or personalized depending on singing ability/level and preferences.
Proper posture is not only essential to improving the sound of a singer's voice, but it enhances the efficiency of their breathing as well.
Having great posture also creates the most abundant possible space in the chest cavity, so the lungs can expand to their full potential. This extra room means a singer can hold notes for longer.
The way someone stands when they sing can impact what type of breathing is possible. For instance, taking a deep breath can be a challenge while standing hunched over.
Optimized posture, though, will keep the chest high, which in turn allows for more comfortable breaths from the diaphragm during singing.
Posture helps with the end of phrasing, too.
Improved posture can release tension and improve airflow through the vocal cords, which allows singers to execute phrasing even when their chest feels like it is about to collapse. The key is to keep the chest high, let the rib cage expand, and breathe slowly.
So, what does it look like to have good posture? Here are a couple of pointers:
You should stand straight with your body relaxed.
Your feet should be shoulder-width apart with your weight tilted slightly forward.
Your shoulders should be back and pushed down; never raised.
Your joints should be flexible. For instance, you should be able to bend your knees and roll your head comfortably.
Your chin is parallel to the ground.
Your chest is held up in an elevated position.
The goal of this posture is to put your body at ease and maximize your singing ability. If you feel strained for any reason, you should not continue to hold the pose. For instance, if your chest is aching, rotate your shoulders inward to allow for a larger intake of air.
Similarly, you should not be too relaxed. Slumping forward can cut off possible airflow to your upper rib cage and constrict the lungs' ability to expand. Slumping can also prevent your diaphragm from moving around at will.
When singing instructors talk about supporting the voice, they are typically referring to breathing from the diaphragm.
The diaphragm is a large muscle sheath that covers the bottom of the rib cage, separating the top half of the bottom from the lower organs. When a person “sings from their diaphragm,” they flatten it, which lets the individual breathe deeply and have tighter control over the release of air across the vocal cords.
When the diaphragm flattens, it allows the lungs to maintain function.
This additional air then provides "support" to the singing voice. The goal is to work the entire body, including the muscles between the ribs, abdomen, and back.
One way to improve control of the diaphragm is through breathing control techniques. Breath exercises develop a constant flow of air with power and force.
Here is a simple breath exercise for singers:
Stand with proper posture and a hand on your stomach. Your fingers should be comfortably placed over your belly button. Inhale deeply and focus on the sensation of air filling your belly. Then, slowly exhale the air through your mouth.
Repeat this 10 or 15 times at your leisure.
Focus on your stomach moving outwards instead of upwards. Avoid using unnecessary muscles like the shoulders or chest to facilitate the breathing. Some people find it useful to visualize their stomach, expanding out, and their diaphragm, flattening while their lungs fill with air.
You can find other specific diaphragmatic exercises here. The goal of each is the same: to develop control and strengthen the diaphragm. These techniques are easy to learn and can be done before any vocal cord warm-ups.
If you have ever been a runner or watched Olympic track and field, you know the significance that runners, especially sprinters, put on stretching. Going into high-intensity exercise without priming the muscles first, leaves them susceptible to injury.
Not stretching is the same as an unused rubber band that nearly breaks the first time you extend it. Only once the rubber band is loosened up will it be flexible and robust.
The same principle works for vocal cords. Performing vocal cord warm-ups improves the elasticity of the muscles while removing excess mucous and limiting the chance of injury. Remember, the larynx is a delicate muscle, so treat it well.
Making vocal warm-ups a regular part of a singing routine helps keep the voice in shape. Consistent repetition will provide you with strong breathing muscles to sing more efficiently in the future (especially for complex high notes). Best of all, the warm-ups can be as short and straightforward (or as complicated) as you like.
Some of the most popular warm-ups include trills and scales. These allow the singer to focus on specific goals, such as breathing technique, tone quality, and more. Here are some more vocal warm ups for any level of ability in singing.
Regardless of what warm-ups you decide to do, there are a couple of things to keep in mind:
Make sure to start gently and ease your vocal cords into singing with techniques such as humming or lip trills.
After you finish those, move into drills that will specifically help with the song you are rehearsing. For instance, that may mean doing extended exercises to bolster breathing control.
Finally, focus on the most challenging aspects of a song and what you must do to conquer those hurdles. Concentrate your effort on these technical aspects, whether that is breathing succinctly or resting your tongue to improve airflow.
Even twenty minutes of warm-up a day can pay massive dividends.
A hissing exercise is a great way to slow your breathing down, so you can lower your voice when a song demands it.
The idea is to force the singer to focus on supporting their breath without the distraction of a sound. It also teaches people how to release the air in an even manner.
You can do a hissing exercise while sitting, standing, or lying down. The key is to be relaxed when you do it. Like the diaphragmatic conditioning listed above, make sure your hand is on your stomach, so you can gauge the intake and release of air.
Slowly breathe in through your nose and fill your lungs, so that you can feel your diaphragm flattening. When exhaling, grit your teeth together, and use your tongue to regulate the release of air. You should be able to hear a low, but constant hissing sound through the process.
The goal of the exercise is to hold down tension from fully inflated lungs while still maintaining command over your voice. You can modify this example by producing a higher-pitched hiss.
This approach works your abdominal muscles more as you must push air through a tinier outlet in your mouth.
When done correctly, you should feel a sensation in your belly.
This result is a byproduct of your abdominal muscles working to push air out of your lungs while the muscles between your ribs try to keep it in. Any sound you make should resemble a "sssssssssssssssss" as opposed to "ssssSSSSSssssSSSSSsssss" if you are keeping it even.
This is one of my favorite singing exercises to practice, but there are many more to try out also.
Being able to release your air in a controlled and unbroken manner will go a long way towards improving your singing. Of course, there are many ways singers can inadvertently sabotage their best intentions at enhanced breathing.
Here are techniques you should avoid doing if possible:
Sure, panting like a dog might not seem like the most natural thing to improve singing ability, but it works. Like so many of these other exercises, it starts with a hand placed squarely on your stomach. Make sure your abdominals are relaxed.
When you begin panting, you should feel your diaphragm push against your hand abruptly.
It should feel like you are sighing out a phrase with each pant as there is a downward push of air. Every muscle in your torso should be engaged, from your back to your abdominals.
The key here is that the breath is pushing out your belly, not your abdominal muscles (remember, these techniques are for breathing control, not core workouts).
The panting exercise can be modified to incorporate audible noises, too. When each pant and corresponding sound is released, make sure the noise is starting from the diaphragm, not your throat. You will know you are doing this exercise correctly if you feel the power coming from your diaphragm.
Don't “tank” up. Singers do this when they breathe as deeply as possible to prepare for a phrase or vocal exercise. While it may seem like more air is vital to support the tone, it typically results in the singer running out of breath.
This method produces a strain below the larynx, called subglottic pressure. Instead, the singer should rely on a measured release of air throughout the phrase or exercise.
Let the air out instead of forcing it out.
Singing is comparable to air escaping a balloon. Ideally, the air should be allowed to come out of the balloon with a steady pitch—slowly. When it is forced out with a squeeze, however, the balloon produces an unpleasant and irregular tone.
Like the tank up is holding back air supply, singers may hold back air in their lungs after inhaling. This action constricts the throat and compresses the sound of their voice. Instead, they should focus on making a clean tone that maintains an open and relaxed vocal chamber.
Mastering proper breathing techniques is a necessary step in becoming a better singer. Not only can a breath exercise improve the support of your voice, but it will give you more control over the shape, texture, and tone, too.
When done correctly, your body should be relaxed and pliable, even under the most challenging singing demands.
We have outlined several different breathing exercises for singers, but none of these are possible without proper posture. It allows a singer to maximize the intake and release of air.
Even a small adjustment, such as moving your shoulders back to prevent slumping, can make an enormous difference in air supply.
Some of the most popular breathing exercises include focused breaths with the diaphragm, hissing training, and the panting technique.
Each exercise focuses on a slightly different outcome and target area of the body. The end is the same, however, as singers gain more control over their muscles when singing.
As a last note, make sure to warm up your vocals.
Even spending a few minutes a day practicing scales, or other vocal exercises can keep your voice healthy.
Remember, singing is like any other exercise; the more time you spend honing the craft through focused training, the better your results.