Breathing for Singers…a discussion that never ends!

Breathing is a natural thing, but breathing for singing is a difficult matter to discuss. There are many theories and explanations out there, and they range from “don’t worry about it” to lengthy diatribes on what to do and how to do it. My finding is that people learn in different ways and feel things differently. What is easy for one person to do physically may not be easy for another, who habitually tightens his abdomen whenever he talks or moves. This is actually a subconscious body affliction called “armoring”, that some of us use when we feel vulnerable or threatened—tightening the solar plexus relieves the feeling of vulnerability. It is also one thing to tell someone to “take a deep breath”, and another to have them understand the physical process that is needed for singing. The inhale that is needed for singing is not the sucking in and raising of shoulders that we did as kids before we jumped into the pool. The gap between the explanation and the understanding is often wide when it comes to breathing for singing.
Here are my Quick Fixes for breathing, in no particular order of importance:
1. Breathing for singing is not normal breathing. Maybe for certain songs where there’s no range and no dynamics and it’s kind of like talking, you can breathe normally. But the instant you have to reach a higher pitch, or have an emotional impact, or belt out a note—be ready for “not normal breathing”.
2. The more relaxed your inhale, the better your sound will be. There is no way around this. The problem comes in because most of us have no way to relate to “relaxed” and nothing with which to compare it.
3. If you practice noiselessly opening your vocal cords, while filling up your “air tank” with just a little air, you can improve your speaking voice as well as your singing voice.
4. Most of us think singing needs A LOT of air to be loud. This is one of the paradoxes of singing. You need a lot of air PRESSURE, not volume of air.
5. To have correct support for singing, the diaphragm must be down and the ribs must stay out—(it’s a pulling down sensation). This is not debatable. The next part—whether you keep your lower abs out or bring them in, is debated to the point of blows by voice teachers in Europe, (and possibly here).
6. Getting the correct idea for how much air to use for singing is helped very much by using “zzzzzzz’s”. These are sssss’s with your vocal cords closed, and they make you limit the amount of air you’re using to make sound. Practice a difficult section of a song using the “zzzzz’s” and then use the SAME amount of air with the words. It will be amazing how much better your instrument will sound when it’s not overdriven with too much air.
7. Sometimes, if I just concentrate on keeping my back ribs WIDE, the breath support becomes perfect.
8. Just know that certain words and notes will cause you to subconsciously use too much air. That’s where practice comes in.
9. The “tiny brrrrrrrrr’s” will also help you find the amount of air to use on loud or high passages. They are performed by loosely flapping your lips like a horse and making the sound underneath. Lots of adults use too much lip tension for this, and they swear they can’t do it. You can.
10. The concept of your “air tank” is useful when you keep in mind that you are only supposed to use the top third of it. The biggest hurdle for most singers is holding BACK the air, while keeping the upper abdomen firm but not tense–not getting a bigger breath.
11. Your right brain has much more of an idea how to do breathing for singing. Try walking backward and singing a really long phrase. Chances are you can sing it and have breath to spare. Keep trying to notice how you did this.
12. The feeling that you are still inhaling as you are singing is PERFECT for you to experience what support is.

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