Tag Archives: anatomy

Natural Inhalation (Breathing Like Normal)

Breathing upwardsMany people come into singing and discover they don’t know how to breathe. Well. Kinda.

For singing, you need a very specific kind of breath, one which makes use of your whole lung capacity on the way in, and which you can control as you breath out. There are lots of ways to control the air going out, but it’s hard to practice drawing in the air in the right way.

We can try lots and lots of exercises, but one thing is vital – we need to remember we do know how to breathe. We’re not learning a new skill, we’re refining an old one.

Our lungs want to breathe in, and one way to help improve your inhalation is to let them do what they do best. Here’s how to try the “natural inhalation” exercise:

  1. Breathe out as far as you possibly can. Force the air right out.
  2. Relax

It might take a couple of tries to be able to do #2. There should be no active action of breathing in: don’t try and breathe in. Just stop breathing out and don’t hold your breath. When you get it right, you should just feel  your lungs inflate of their own accord.

Vacuum bagIt’s a little bit like the effect of opening up a vaccuum bag which has winter clothes in. They just want to suck all the air back in. The inside of your lungs is made up of lots of tiny chambers, like the gaps between the fibres in your winter coat. Just as the air rushes back into the winter coat, so the air rushes into your lungs. Combine that with the work of your diaphragm which is constantly creating and reducing a gentle vacuum in your lungs, and you have a really good way to get air in and out of the body.

If you find this exercise hard standing up, you could try it lying down. Lie on a firm surface, and let everything relax. Pull your ribcage down by breathing out until it’s as low as you can manage it. Then just relax everything.

When we breathe in as singers, we want to get this mechanism working really effectively. An in-breath should never be forced, it should just be the air rushing in to where it really wants to be.

How about you? What have you found helpful for managing to control your breathing for singing?

(With thanks to Gillyanne Keyes’ The Singing Actor where I first read about this method of controlling the in-breath.)

Old Wives’ Say: “Thou Shalt Not Eat Dairy”

MilkOne of the things that is often said in singing circles is that eating dairy products causes the body to produce more mucus and phlegm, so singers should avoid it on the day of performances. However, I was astonished to discover recently that this isn’t strictly true…

Dairy does seem to cause some thickening of phlegm and mucus in human beings, but studies have shown that it does not cause the body to produce more phlegm (Wüthrich, Schmid, Walther & Sieber, 2005/Pinnock, Graham, Mylvaganam & Douglas, 1990). Instead, foods which are high in dairy fats, like whole milk, leave a residue of fats on their way which can make it feel like we have more phlegm. This is a good reason to avoid dairy on the day of an exam or performance – but reducing phlegm production isn’t!

Dehydration is also something which increases the thickness of mucus and phlegm, and this is far more likely to be the problem than the cheese toastie you had for lunch. That’s why tea, coffee and fruit juices can contribute to phlegm issues. It’s water that thins out phlegm and coffee and juice both contain acids, caffeine, tannin and other things that reduce their effectiveness at treating dehydration.

Finally, singing stimulates large parts of your respiratory system making it vibrate. This loosens all the phlegm and mucus in your throat, which in turn means it feels like you have more of it. So even if you consume no dairy products at all, you can still get that annoying phlegm in your throat!

So what is so bad about milk? A lot less than most people think. In fact, thinking that milk causes more mucus is more likely to cause phlegm problems than drinking the milk (Pinnock, Graham, Mylvaganam & Douglas, 1990).

However, avoiding rich, fatty foods (including full-fat dairy) that can create the illusion of increased phlegm  on the day of exams and performances is definitely a good idea, alongside keeping well hydrated and avoiding any foods which are prone to upset your stomach at all. And if you feel all phlegm-ey? Reach for the glass of water rather than blaming poor milk.

Are you surprised to find out that dairy doesn’t cause mucus? What other singing myths have you seen busted? Are there old wives tales you’ve heard that have turned out to be true? Comment below, and follow the blog for more tips, tricks and myth-busters.

How the Voice Works – A Guide for Singers

Following on from the post last week about how breathing works, here’s a quick guide to how the voice works.

There are four parts to the voice the air pressure system, the vibratory system, the resonating system, and the modifying system. Each of these works to create the sounds we make when speaking and singing.

Candle-flame-no-reflectionWe’ve already looked at the air pressure system – it’s the diaphragm and intercostal muscles that pull air into the lungs and then control the outflow of air. You can test it! Imagine there’s a candle in front of you or use the one on the right. With your first breath out, blow over the candle very gently so that you would make the flame flicker, but not go out. Now, with your next breath, blow a strong puff of air as though you’re going to blow the candle out. Manage it? Congratulations – you can modify the air pressure coming out of your lungs!

You can see how the lungs connect to the throat and mouth in this diagram:

So let’s look now at the vibratory system. This is what turns the air into sound – at this stage, it’s just any old sound, though. To create sound, your body has vocal folds (or vocal chords as they used to be called). These are flappy bits of flesh which are normally relaxed when you breathe in an out. When you choose to speak, your body uses muscles to create tension, and the air rushing past them makes them vibrate. The closest analogy in the musical world is the way in which blowing into the reed on a clarinet or an oboe produces sound. If you watch the video below, you can see the vocal folds vibrating as the poor person with the camera down their throat tries to sing for us…

balloon-squeakerOne way in which I demonstrate this for my students is by getting a balloon and blowing it up so it’s full of air. Then I pull the neck of the balloon taught and let the air out – it makes a very loud, but unfocused noise! Try it for yourself next time you are blowing up balloons for a party.

Singers learn to adjust the muscles around their vocal folds and the larynx that protects them so that the quality of the sound is clearer. Learning to sing also involves exercising these muscles to make them stronger and more flexible which increases the range. Because we can’t normally feel these muscles, it can involve some creative exercises and lots of imagination!

Now the body has made sound, we need to make the sound louder. The noise made by vocal folds is quite small, so the body has a resonating system to amplify the sound. Many instruments have a resonating system – for example, the body of a violin or acoustic guitar, or the long length of the tube on a trombone.

In humans, our resonating system is our mouth and nose, or “oral and nasal cavities”. Just as the body of a string instrument allows sound waves to bounce around and get bigger inside it, so the space in our mouth and nose allows the sound from our vocal folds to get larger. You can feel the effect a little if you hum single note in the lower half of your voice. As you hum, relax your lips until you can feel them vibrating. That vibration is the effect of your mouth magnifying the sound into much larger waves.

Part of singing training is making use of this resonance to not only amplify the sound but to modify it’s quality so that it has a lovely tone. We can do this by adjusting the shape of our mouths – lowering the tongue, and raising the soft palate, for example. We might also want to limit the nasal resonance of sound for classical singing – though if we’re singing a country song, some of that nasal sound can be useful!

Last of all, the human body is designed to be able to shape the sound we make into distinct forms that allow us to form words.This is the modifying system. Every time you form a word, you use your lips, tongue and teeth to form and pronounce different phonics. Babies are born with the capacity to make all the sounds used in all the languages in the world, but they very quickly copy adults to learn what sounds they need to be able to use to communicate in the language their family speaks. Young children will start to sound like their parents, not just in language, but in accent because they copy the sounds around them. That’s why teens are so easily mistaken for their parents on the phone!

Here’s a labelled diagram showing all the parts of the resonating and modifying systems:

Head and cavities

You can experiment very easily with this modifying system by comparing the letter P and T. P, when pronounced as “puh” uses the lips to control the sound. T, when pronounced as “tuh” uses the tongue at the roof of the mouth. We also use our soft palate (the soft part of the roof of your mouth at the back) and the glottis (the flap that closes the airway when we swallow) to form different sounds.

Singing lessons help singers to learn to form letters in a way that still allows the sound of their voice to resonate properly, and doesn’t change the air pressure or vibrations of their vocal fold. This can involve learning to modify vowels, for example, to make the mouth and throat more open on a high note. Compare singing the sound “ah” to the sound “ee” for an example.

Each exercise a singer practices aims to develop control over different parts of these systems. Great singers have developed excellent control over these systems so that their lungs produce well controlled pressure, their vocal folds vibrate free from strain that might damage them, they can direct sound to the places of best resonance and then modify it to communicate not only sound but words to the audience. A good teacher will develop all of these skills in their students.

Want to know more about how to make the most of these vocal systems? Why not take singing lessons? Discover Singing provides lessons based in Leith, Edinburgh.

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.