Breathing is an essential part of life and provides us with oxygen to our cells and rids the body of waste. As singers we value the importance of being able to regulate our breath and increase our lung capacity for strength and endurance. Over the course of my many years as an educator I have observed that breathing seems to be one of the most misunderstood activities. As a result it can affect our ability to produce volume, quality of tone, and well-supported phrases.
The function of breathing
Many years ago I had the pleasure of meeting with Johan Sundberg, a highly regarded researcher on the singing voice and music performance. In an article from the NATS Journal (January/February1993) he wrote about the function of breathing:
“Subglottal pressure is determined by muscular forces, elasticity forces, and gravitation. The phonatory function of the breathing apparatus is to provide a subglottal pressure. Both in singing and speech this pressure is adjusted according to the intended vocal loudness but in singing it has to be tailored also to pitch; higher pitches need higher pressures than lower pitches. As subglottal pressure affects pitch, singers need to develop a quite virtuosic breath control. Some singers activate the diaphragm only during inhalation and for reducing suhglottal pressure at high lung volumes, while other singers have been found to co-contract it throughout the breath phrase.“
According to Sundberg’s statement above there are three different forces that contribute to vocal volume; muscles, elasticity and gravitation. If we break these down into inhalatory and exhalatory we get the following:
- Muscles include: 1) External Intercostals, 2) Diaphragm
- Elasticity includes: Lower LV (lung volume) Rib Cage
- Gravitation includes: Upright and sitting positions
- Muscles include: 1) Internal Intercostals, 2) Abdominal Wall
- Elasticity includes: 1) High LV (lung volume) Rib Cage, 2) Lungs
- Gravitation includes: Supine and hanging positions
When you inhale the intercostals widen the rib cage by lifting the ribs and when you exhale the intercostals muscles decrease the rib cage volume. The diaphragm is an important breathing muscle working in coordination with the other muscles of inspiration and expiration.
What is diaphragmatic breathing?
I have included a YouTube video to show how the diaphragm works and functions since in my experience it’s clear that the majority of singers have no concept of what “diaphragmatic” breathing really means. That phrase is generally tossed around in singing circles without much understanding of the actual function of the diaphragm in the process of singing. From the same article as above Sundberg explains it this way:
“The volume of the abdominal contents cannot easily be altered appreciably. Therefore, when the diaphragm contracts, it presses the abdominal contents downward which, in turn, press the abdominal wall outward. Actually, expansion of the abdominal wall during inhalation is a safe sign that the diaphragm was activated. If, on the other hand, the abdominal wall remains flat during inspiration, this means that only the intercostal muscles were used. An expansion of the abdominal wall during phonation is not necessarily a sign of diaphragmatic activation. It may equally well result from the increased lung pressure that is required for phonation. An overpressure in the lungs is transmitted downward through a relaxed diaphragm. Hence, the subglottic pressure will exert a pressure on the abdominal wall. By contracting the abdominal wall muscles, this expansion can he avoided.”
So often people tend to breathe by pulling in the abdominal wall in inspiration and pushing it out on the expiration. This is completely contrary to the natural function of the body and easily observed by watching a baby breathe. Unfortunately in our society we have obtained negative patterns of posture therefore creating less than desirable breathing as a result of sitting at desks, in cars or on chairs that do not give us the freedom to use our muscles with ease.
One of the best ways to understand how your body breathes is to lie on the floor with one hand on your belly and the other on the bottom of the rib cage with the thumb towards the back. In this position you can feel the combination of the diaphragm descending (or belly coming out) and the external intercostal muscles expanding together on an easy inhalation. As you exhale notice the diaphragm pulling up (belly coming in) as the air is gently released from the lungs and the internal intercostals work in conjunction. Once you can sense this connection in your body then take it to a standing position.
To extend the concept further for singing, as you are lying on the floor see if you can coordinate the muscles to move slowly so that the air is regulated or released at a slower rate. For singing we need that kind of control for longer, legato (connected) phrases as opposed to every day speech where we release the inhalation and exhalation with less lung volume.
The importance of posture and correct body movement
Remember, when you are in a standing position if the gravitational forces are not positioned ideally then you may have a more difficult time coordinating the muscles for the best efficiency. That is why posture and movement play such an integral part in the breathing process. I always suggest that singers combine their warm up exercises with some kind of established bodywork that supports the best posture, like Alexander Technique. I have witnessed far better singing with the inclusion of these types of postural improvements. Not only breathing but also it will assist with excessive tension in other areas of the body. That is why I periodically combine workshops with Kay Hogan, an Alexander Technique educator and trainer. (See the workshop or calendar link for current sessions).
Remember, your body is your instrument so it’s imperative to find the best way for each individual to have optimal movement so that your singing can be free of constriction and give you the best sound possible with the greatest ease.