Tag Archives: breathing

A Meditation on the Breath

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

Singing begins in the breath. Without air there can be no sound. Without air, there is no voice. Relax, stand tall, and begin.

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

To sing, you need to fill every crevice your lungs with air without trying. Breathe in to your diaphragm. Breath in to your ribs. Breathe in to your back. Release your muscles and fill the whole body with power.

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

Breathing is automatic. You don’t have to think about it. In fact, thinking about it can make it harder. When you breathe out, your lungs refill automatically, like a sponge. Breathe in effortlessly.

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

You can breathe in so many patterns. A long slow breath, flickering the candle flame, but not putting it out. A short sharp breath, putting out the candles one by one. Choose the breath you need for the music.

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

Everything comes from your core. Those muscles that surround your lungs and your organs are your strength. Use them to drive your sound up from the depths of your soul. Feel them in every note. Sing from the core of yourself.

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

Can you really breathe? Breathe with your whole self, and you will have a voice. Take that deep breath in with your whole self, and pause for a moment, a fraction of a second. Then you can let it run through your vocal folds, picking up a rich vibration before it rushes out to the world.

Breathe in.

Hold.

Sing.


Need some resources to help you with your breath control? You can find out more about how your breath works, or why not try my favourite slow breathing exercise.

Or, Vocalist has some exercises you can try, as does BBC Sing.

Oh No! I Have a Cold!

Image by Cieleke at freeimages.com

Image by Cieleke at freeimages

I’ve had a cold this last week. It always feels ironic to say I’ve had a cold in May, but there you are.

Times can be tough for singers when viruses run rampant through our respiratory system, making it hard to breath and sing. Here are some tips to help you make it out the other end without damaging your voice or missing too much practice.

Managing your practice

It can be frustrating to have a cold when you need or want to pratice! The good news is that so long as it doesn’t hurt to sing, you can keep on practicing. If it hurts to sing or makes you cough incessantly, then stop.

Of course, just because you can practice, doesn’t mean you want to practice. When you have a cold or are suffering badly with allergies, it can be hard to be motivated to do anything, let alone the “work” of practicing. Somethings that might help make it easier:

  • Plan a couple of very short practices rather than one long one
  • Pick songs you know well, rather than working on anything new and challenging
  • Avoid songs which require long phrases without breathing or which push your upper range
  • As soon as you start feeling better, try to up your singing practice little by little back to your normal level to help build up your strength.

If you do need to take a few days off singing, why not use that time to listen to some classical music or podcasts. Try the BBC Radio 3 Composer of the Week as a starting point. If you can’t sing, but are up to doing written work, why not have a go at some theory exercises, or try some online flash games that might help you with your musicianship.

Coping with performance

If you have a performance coming up, sometimes you have to suck it up and get through it. Unless you have lost your voice, it hurts to sing, or singing makes you cough, you should be ok to push yourself. If you can, try to take vocal rest in the days leading up to the performance rather than doing a lot of practice (a good reason to make sure you are ready long before the date for any performance). Make sure you keep hydrated. You can dose upon over-the-counter medication and traditional cures if you need to, and rest your voice afterwards.

Traditional cures

Cups of TeaThe best kind of cold cures for singers are the traditional cures of steam, hot drinks and citrus. Steam helps clear your sinuses and will soothe the headache that comes with a cold. Keep hydrated – honey and lemon is great for a sore throat, and citrus-based fruit teas are great too as they don’t contain caffeine. Citrus, ginger and honey all have properties which are good at helping your body fight off colds.

The other important thing is rest – take time off and let your body do what it does naturally. Your body is perfectly capable of fighting off a cold, so give it a chance! One day off work to let your body heal faster is going to be far better than struggling through and not giving yourself a chance to recover.

Over-The-Counter Medication

It’s perfectly fine to use over-the-counter medication to help with a cold, but beware that they only treat the symptoms, not the virus which is causing them. Your symptoms are largely your body’s response to the virus – trying to kill it off before it can do any real damage. Fever, coughs, sneezes, and snot are all part of your body’s natural defences, and by stopping the symptoms, you are reducing your ability to fight them off.

The only medication which comes with a word of caution is anything that has a painkilling element, especially if you are using something that numbs your throat. If you are ill enough that you need to take strepsills or paracetamol, take care when singing because it won’t be so easy to know if something hurts and you should stop. I would generally only recommend singing after taking throat lozenges in dire situations (e.g. a performance you can’t get out of) as you could do more damage than good.

When to See Your Doctor

The NHS recommends that you should only see a doctor if you still have a cold after three weeks unless you have another condition which might be aggravated by the cold (e.g. a chest condition). It is unlikely a doctor will be able to do anything for you anyway, as colds are caused by viruses and there is not really any medication that we have that can kill the virus. Antibiotics will be completely useless as they only treat bacterial infections.

Having said that, if your cold is so bad it is seriously affecting your singing for a week or more, it may be advisable to see a doctor just to confirm that you do have a virus and nothing more serious. Always tell your doctor that you sing, and make it clear if you have any upcoming performances.

As for allergies, you should work with your doctor to find a good antihistamine. These won’t affect your singing, but will make it much easier to practice!

So there you have it. If you’re a singer suffering with a cold, take time out to rest, try to sing if you can, but make good use of your time if you can’t.

What tips do you have for singers suffering with a cold or seasonal allergies?

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.)

Excercises for Beginners: Straw Singing

StrawsI have recently rediscovered the childhood magic of the drinking straw. I don’t know what it is about this small, plastic thing that creates such joy, but I love ’em.

Why have I rediscovered straws? Well, I have been looking for some new ideas for technical exercises, and I have discovered that straws can help improve your singing technique.

One of the biggest problems singers have is nasality – allowing air to go through the nose when singing even when it’s not necessary (which it is to say ‘m’ and ‘n’). By using a straw, this can help to focus breathing and direct air and sound away from the nose and through the mouth.

First, let’s try overdoing the nasal sound. Sing a note and try to drive the sound through your nose. It’s going to sound silly! Can you feel the air is rushing much faster than when you sing normally?

Now, grab your straw. First, blow through the straw. All the air should go through the straw, not through your nose at all. You should feel something closing off your nose. That’s your soft palate. You can’t feel it moving as such, but you should feel the effect. Try allowing air to go through your nose on the next breath. Keep alternating between just blowing through the straw and then blowing through the straw and your nose until you can identify what’s different.

Next, we’re going to sing through the straw. Pick a pitch that’s in the middle of your range and comfortable. Sing the note down the straw. Don’t let any air escape through your nose. It should make the straw buzz at your lips.

Now sing the same note, but allow sound to go through your nose too. You should feel the buzz in your nose rather than your lips. Repeat a few times, and then try alternating between singing down the straw and singing with your nose too on the same breath. It’ll sound a bit like “nnn-ooo-nnn-ooo-nnn-ooo”.

Lastly, take good breath and sing down the straw. Then, about halfway through the note, open your lips and switch to regular singing. Don’t move anything else – can you do it without letting any sound come through your nose? Test this by pinching your nose as you sing. If it changes the sound, you’ve let air escape down your nose.

This is not really a daily strength building exercise, but instead it’s a great way to build awareness of how your voice works, and the ability you have to control it.

I hope you find this exercise helpful. For more help with improving your tone and reducing nasality in your singing, do look for a qualified teacher in your local area as they will be able to give you advice and training suited to your body and voice. If you’re based in the Edinburgh area, why not contact me?

Exercises for Beginners: Square Breathing

One of my favourite exercises for beginners, and for warming up with a choir is square breathing. It’s all about developing control of your breath, and extending lung capacity.

From the beginning of any vocal training, it’s really important to work on your breathing. To breathe properly, you need to breath into every part of your lungs, especially the bottom part near your stomach. Your ribcage, back and abdomen will expand when you’re breathing to your fullest extent (this is no time for vanity about having a ‘flat belly’!). You want your shoulders and upper chest to remain as still a possible and not rise up. They’ll likely move a little bit, but it should be hardly noticeable to the eye.

Before you try square breathing, take a few deep breaths, focusing on filling the bottom of your lungs with air. If you’re struggling, place a hand just at the bottom of your ribcage – you should feel it going up and down.

Once you’re comfortable with this, you want to start to inhale and exhale on a rhythm. Count 1-2-3-4 as you breathe in and then 1-2-3-4 as you breath out.

Square breathing

Now, let’s try the exercise itself.

Breathe in for a slow count of 1-2-3-4 and then hold the breathe in for a count of 1-2-3-4, then breathe out to 1-2-3-4 and then wait for 1-2-3-4 before breathing back in again. Look at the handy diagram on the right to get a better idea of how the pattern works.

When I’m conducting a choir, I use hand movements that model this square shape (hence the name square breathing), moving my hand up for in, across for hold, down for out, and across the other way for hold.

As you get used to it, start to increase the count to 8, 12, 16 and more – try not to speed up the counting though! You could also try doing this while walking as that makes it harder because your body is using slightly more oxygen to walk rather than sit or stand. You could also mix and match the numbers so breathe in for 2, hold for 4, out for 8 and wait for 2.

I recommend my students to try to do this exercise every day as part of their practice. It’s something you can do easily in all kinds of situations, so while you might use it as part of a warm-up for singing practice, you could also do it silently in your morning commute, or sat at the back of a dull meeting (one of my students does it during school assemblies). You could even do it in bed as it can encourage physical relaxation.  I wouldn’t recommend doing it while driving, or where you might be called on to speak though!

The muscles in your lungs, just like those everywhere else in your body need to be used to get stronger. Doing this exercise every day will help you to focus on good breathing technique, so it becomes automatic, and it will strengthen your muscles so you can control the outflow of breath when you are singing.

I hope you find this exercise helpful. For more help with improving your breath control for singing, do look for a qualified teacher in your local area as they will be able to give you advice and training suited to your body and voice. If you’re based in the Edinburgh area, why not contact me?

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.