Breathe In, Breathe Out

Mixdown Magazine article

Why am I going red in the face, running out of air, or sounding breathy and thin when I sing?

This is one of the most commonly asked questions of me and our singing teachers here at Vox Singing Academy.

We find the main cause for students running out of breath is that they are pushing through, using, and expelling too much air when they sing.  Simply, too much air is being taken into the bronchial tubes and not enough is being taken into the diaphragm.  To correct this issue we work to teach and apply correct breathing techniques enabling our students to sing more clearly, with more stamina and breath control.

How it all works

The outer laryngeal muscles are what bring the vocal chords together. When we push air gently through the vocal chords, they will vibrate together allowing us to sing or speak in the desired pitch. As you sing higher through your vocal range the vocal chords will thin out and vibrate together at a much faster pace. As you sing lower through your vocal range the vocal chords will thicken and vibrate together more slowly. This is the same principle that applies to the strings on a guitar or piano.

We have been using the vocal chords for thousands of years as a communication tool, one that allows us to make various noises. We are now going to look at using them with a little more control so we can sing the correct vowels, notes and sounds

Your diaphragm sits directly under your lungs between the “V” of your ribcage. If you have ever been forcefully hit in this area you would have felt the uncomfortable sensation of being “winded.”  Being winded means that your diaphragm has actually gone into a spasm. The diaphragm plays a very important role in your vocal abilities as it is the engine room for all breathing and breath control.  It is in charge of allocating the right amount of air support from underneath and through the vocal chords, creating the desired pitch and clarity of all the notes you sing. Your ear controls the diaphragm and your diaphragm controls the pitch. If any muscle in your body is going to tighten up or work while you sing, it should be the abdominal or diaphragm area, not your face or neck. Diaphragmatic breathing, use and support are vitally important, especially when you are sick or very tired -you don’t want to strain the vocal chords. So, your diaphragm must come to your aid to support, work and function to preserve your voice and get you through the show, recording, performance, rehearsal or whatever it may be.

HOW TO USE YOUR DIAPHRAGM WHEN SINGING

Firstly, I recommend standing up in a relaxed posture when conducting all breathing and singing exercises. Now, start by taking a conversation sized breath into the V of the rib cage, or what is known as the diaphragm. Place your hand on your diaphragm. You want to feel this area move out slightly. Look sideways into a mirror when doing your breathing and try to see your upper stomach expand and stick out slightly. If you are not having any success breathing into your lower lung capacity or diaphragm, I strongly recommend this exercise to activate this area.

Secondly, roll up a towel into a ball or purchase a size 3 basketball or soccer ball. Lie face down on the ball or towel and make sure it is placed up into the V of the ribs for 10 to 30 seconds.

Next, relax your stomach and legs while holding yourself up with your shoulders and then place your arms in an “L” shape. If the ball or towel is placed in the right area you should be feeling a heartbeat or a pulse and a slight winding sensation. The V area should now feel stretched out and loosened.

Finally, stand up immediately and place your hand on your diaphragm or the V of your ribs trying to breathe into this area and not into your upper chest. You should now be breathing into your lower lung capacity or diaphragm.

Now that your diaphragm is full of air, you can proceed to tighten or relax your stomach muscles in accordance with how much breath pressure you want underneath the vocal chords and for any specific note you may want to sing. If you desire to sing higher or louder, more breathe support is needed from the diaphragm. If you want to sing lower or softer, less breath support is needed from the diaphragm. Now that you are breathing correctly and into the right place, this next exercise will allow you to gauge the correct amount of air to be inhaled.

Steps to a Great Breath

Exercise 1

1. Begin by taking the biggest breath in that you possibly can. Hold that breathe for 5 seconds   while focusing on how full it feels.

2. Then, breathe it all out. Completely relax.

3. Now, breathe in about a quarter to a half breath of what you just took in. Hold this breath for 5 seconds and focus on the sensation of how a quarter to a half lung capacity feels.

A quarter to a half a breath is what you will use as a beginner to intermediate singer. A full half breath is to be used for any singing that is a little bit higher, louder or with longer sustained notes. This may sound silly and contrary to the common belief that you need to take a big breath in before you sing however, this technique will greatly reduce the tendency the singer has for exhaling excess air, thinning your voice out and subsequently running out of air.

Exercise 2

1. Place your hands firmly over the “V” area of your ribcage and breathe in a half breath (see exercise 1)

2. Next, Pretend that you are hailing a cab by saying, “Hey”. Sing it firmly and in a key. You should feel the diaphragm or stomach muscles firm up and even push slightly outward. If you didn’t feel it, sing “Hey” more firmly until you feel your stomach muscles activate and come to your aid. This is your diaphragm coming to your aid naturally. This is very important; this is your engine room. Your diaphragm or stomach muscles control your power, projection, support, vibrato, breath control and support of your singing.

If you are running out of air when singing try pronouncing your words with less of an “H” sound and physically expel less air. You can test this by putting a candle in front of your mouth and keeping it alight, or by standing close to a mirror and making sure it doesn’t fog up. Alternatively, you can put your hand in front of your mouth gauging how much air is coming out. You will naturally have more air expulsion pronouncing syllables and consonants and a lot less when pronouncing vowels.

All breathing when singing should be done through the mouth, not through the nose.

HOW TO SING USING ADVANCED DIAGRAMMATIC BREATHING TECHNIQUES

When you have mastered the above techniques you may begin trying what we call an 80% – 20% diagrammatic singers breath. This is when you breathe 80% of your air into your diaphragm, also known as your lower lung capacity, and 20% into your bronchial tube, also known as the top of your lungs or windpipe. You will need to try inhaling this breath in one smooth simultaneous action. Once you have mastered that breathing technique you will exhale all the air in what we call a “V” or vase shaped expulsion. Meaning, you will pull the ribs in as you are singing and expel air for greater power. This technique is specifically used for long phrases with very few breaths. As you run out of air your rib cage will hold its  “V” shape as you expel that breath. This keeps the appropriate amount of air support underneath the vocal chords at all times.

SUMMARY: RULES FOR BREATHING WHEN SINGING

1. Only Inhale a quarter to a half diaphragmatic breath.

2. Use Less stomach support and take in less air when you are singing down low. Use more stomach support when you are singing up higher. This does not mean that you expelling more air when singing higher, it just means you have more breath pressure and support behind the vocal chords.

3. Firm and tighten your stomach muscles and diaphragm as you travel higher up your vocal register.

4. If you are going to sing a long phrase or hold long sustained notes, take in a little more air.
5. Explore your vocal range and always remember to have fun singing!