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.
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?