How Breathing Works: A Guide for Singers

When I started taking singing lessons, I never expected that I would come to know so much about the human body. I’m still not convinced that anatomy is my favourite subject, but it’s vital for singers and singing teachers to understand what’s going on in the body.

The very first process singers are introduced to is usually their breathing mechanism. Breathing is an automatic process for the body – a reflex. We don’t have to consciously decide to breathe in and breathe out (how bad would it be if we did?). Instead, our body knows to tense and relax the right muscles at the right time all by itself.

The muscle which does most of the work for our breathing is called the diaphragm. It’s a large muscle located right on the bottom of your lungs, dividing them from the rest of the organs in your abdomen (stomach, kidneys, liver, intestines, etc). It is what draws air into your lungs. Without it, your lungs would be empty, like a party balloon when it comes out of the packet.

Here’s where it gets a bit technical. Unlike a party balloon, where we push air into it, and it expands (this is how medical artificial respirators work), our body uses an amazing bit of science to draw air into our lungs. When our diaphragm becomes tense, it creates a vacuum in your chest which sucks your lungs down. Our muscles around our ribs (intercostal muscle) also tense, moving our ribcage up and out, increasing this vacuum that’s opening our lungs. As our lungs open up, that creates another vacuum in our lungs which air rushes into.  It’s exactly the same scientific principles as a vacuum cleaner uses. When the diaphragm relaxes, the vacuum stops, the lungs close down again, and the air in the lungs flows back out again. Amazing stuff, eh?

So what does this mean for singers?

Well, our diaphragm works automatically without us noticing most of the time, but singers need to become aware of it. Sometimes it goes wrong, and we get hiccups – the feeling you get at the base of your ribs when you hiccup, or when you’re waiting to see if you’re going to hiccup? That’s your diaphragm you’re feeling. You don’t want to try to induce hiccups just to feel your diaphragm so when you’re breathing normally, place your hand just across the bottom of your ribs, where the left and right separate, and you should be able to feel a rising and falling sensation. That’s the effect of your diaphragm.

Some people say singers need to learn to “breath with (or from) your diaphragm”. This isn’t anatomically correct, but the principle is the right. We need to learn to do two things as singers – breath using our whole lungs and control the speed of our breathing.

Normally, our breathing is fairly shallow – we don’t need to breath heavily as we’re not using much oxygen up when we’re sitting down. As we do more active things – walking or running, our breathing gets deeper as we need more oxygen. Singers harness this natural ability to vary the depth of our breath by developing conscious control over how far out the muscles inbetween our ribs (our intercostal muscles) move out, and how quickly or slowly our diaphragm tenses. You can already do this a little because you can already choose to take an extra large and deep breath.

Singing is always building on natural things our bodies do anyway. It’s not a mythical or mysterious process – there are lots of buzz words and jargon some teachers use, but really, it’s all about getting your body to do the stuff it already does even better! You can already control the speed of your breathing a little too – you can hold your breath. When we hold our breath, we are consciously telling our diaphragm to stop moving. Eventually, our body will override this command as we need oxygen, but we can control it. Singers develop a very fine control over this muscle, not only being able to hold their breath, but to control how slowly the diaphragm releases, and using the muscles around our intercostal (rib) muscles to control the speed of our breathing.

Lots of techniques exist now that help with general breathing. Many people, singers and not, find yoga really helpful as there is a focus on breathing deeply and rhythmically. The Alexander Technique can also help with breathing along with improving posture and movement.

Keep following the blog for exercise ideas that will help you with controlling your breathing for singing. If you’re serious about getting better at singing, do find a singing teacher in your area to help you. For Edinburgh-based lessons, contact me.

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