For every style of singing, breath control is the key! Learning consistent breath control will provide for the greatest freedom within your entire vocal technique. As musical artists, our primary job is communication, making a connection to others through your singing. Your command of breath control gives you the confidence and competence to reach into your audience like never before!
“A human being is only breath and shadow.” — Sophocles
This post gives you practical instruction on how to breathe for singing and how to support and manage the breath you need to sing your best. Let’s first discuss some of the differences concerning the way you take in your breath. And there is so much controversy about exactly what a singer is supposed to do with the breath! Let’s touch on this, while keeping the focus on how you can take your singing to new heights. (I could have said “take your singing to the next level,” right? But it is so much better, when you are truly able to “take your singing to new heights!” Life-changing for your self-confidence as well as your whole musicianship!
Healthy Disagreement About Breath Control
Teachers of singing often have, shall we say, “diverging points of view,” about singing technique. But everyone wants to find the best ways to ensure that students learn and consistently utilize what is taught in singing lessons. Some teachers do not really like the phrase “breath control.” Some of us call it “breath support.” And others call it “breath management.” But there is no need for you to become confused! We all want the same thing here and we are all in this together. The goal is for you to discover new freedom for every aspect of your singing. Actually learning how to breathe for purposes of singing is quite easy. I can show you how to breathe in about 5 minutes. The disagreements have always been about exactly how a singer should manage, or support, or control the breath, if you really want to sing your best.
For example, many years ago when I was a Conservatory student, I attended a masterclass led by a famous teacher, whose students were hugely successful, singing stars, on the international opera scene. And one of the other participants in the masterclass was not a student but already a teacher of singing. She was talking loudly one day, during a break in the coffee room. And what she was saying is that she requires her female students to actually wear a longline bra, so they will learn what breath control really is. As far as I know, her male students were not being required to do the same!
In truth, it is not necessary for anyone to wear any special garment or undergarment, in order to feel and to use the right muscles, to sing well. This was an absurd remark from a person who was actually charging money, hanging out her shingle as a voice teacher. And you might find that the teachers who come up with the most outlandish methods of instructions are also the most close-minded.
“My Way or the Highway”
If you only learn one thing from this post, please realize that when a teacher claims his/her methods are the only valid ones it is a red flag. And it is also false. Remember, your voice is as unique as your fingerprint. People learn differently. A teacher who demands that his/her way is the only way to sing is attempting to intimidate you. This is terribly counterproductive. More on this in a moment. But always remember that your voice, your desire to sing better, deserve so much better!
Without question there are basic elements of singing technique which every singer must learn. How you breathe and what you do with the breath directly and deeply influences the sound of your entire voice. And how you manage breath also determines your physical comfort in singing as well as your freedom of artistic expression.
We can all recognize and appreciate a singer with great breath control, when we hear it. But the exact manner in which each individual singer discovers his or her best technique is a personal process. And a good teacher understands the main job is to communicate with you as an individual and to guide you toward consistent vocal progress. As your voice develops and your singing technique improves, you become not just a singer, but a human being who sings.
This is when it gets exciting, mainly for you, but for your teacher as well! Think of it as one of the many perks from learning how to sing better. A human being who sings is a person of depth, a person of grace and compassion for others. Your competence will increase in so many ways, in so many different aspects of life, and your self-confidence will grow by leaps and bounds!
A Thimble Full of Breath
There are many singing teachers (and singers) who are under the impression that we must inhale large volumes of breath for singing. This is incorrect. The truth is singing requires far less breath than we realize. And when we inhale huge amounts of air so we can use it all when we sing, the voice will quickly become tired. This is not what you want for singing!
All of that huffing and puffing is as unnecessary as it is terrible for your vocal health. Please remember that without your good vocal health, you have exactly zero. As mentioned in other posts, the vocal anatomy is delicate and fragile. Your health voice depends upon your looking after it every single minute. Two of the most essential needs for good vocal health are lots of consistent hydration and lots of rest. (You must get your sleep!) If your singing technique is making your voice tired, this won’t do.
When your voice is subjected to fatigue from over-breathing, you can easily sing yourself right into laryngitis. The problem must be worked on with your singing teacher. It certainly can be remedied with some caring supervision and the right vocal exercises. However, please be aware this is not the type of issue that can be remedied well on your own, without a good voice teacher.
If you are over-breathing, it is not likely you are aware of it. Here is one of the many reasons that having a good voice teacher can save you untold amounts of time and energy, not to mention the heartache of chronically losing your voice!
Fantastic Breath Control
Let’s listen to an example of a how little breath is required to sing well. The singer in this video is a boy soprano, classically trained. If your style of singing is non classical, please be assured that absolutely none of the information in any blog post on this website will change you into an opera singer! Whatever style of music you sing, the fact is your singing is very much needed in the world. And learning some good basic vocal technique will unquestionably make you a better singer, regardless of what style of music you sing! In particular, listen to the last two sung lines of this song, entitled The Call by composer Ralph Vaughn Williams.
This particular child singer makes it sound so easy! And please bear in mind it is not necessarily easier for a young child than it is for an adult, when it comes to singing well. A child’s lung capacity is relative to his or her vocal sound, in the same way this is true for any adult’s voice. Barring any disease such as asthma, emphysema, other forms of COPD, etc., you also can achieve tremendous breath control!
You don’t have to be a medical doctor to understand that the spine is the center of the body’s support structure. This means the way your spine is aligned or not aligned has an immediate and profound effect upon the freedom of movement throughout your entire body. With the spine straight but fluid (not rigid), your entire vocal technique is able to coordinate automatically. You will feel and hear a major difference, a big improvement in your singing, right away!
Here’s Exactly How to Breathe for Singing
First the easy part, learning how to breathe for singing. Remember that breathing is the foundation. When you give your instrument the advantage of proper breathing and breath support, your voice will develop into the most beautiful and free singing instrument. Place your hand in the center area of your upper abdomen, roughly 2-3 inches under the area of your chest. (For women place your had in the center area of your abdomen, about 2-3 inches under your breasts.)
Exhale fully through the mouth. When you are ready, inhale fully, through both the nose and mouth, simultaneously. As your lungs fill with air, your hand will be gently pushed outward. At the same time, you can feel the expansion of your diaphragm, rising to support the air in the lungs.
Techniques for Great Breath Control
As you are following the instructions above, your next step is to slowly “hiss” out the breath in a sustained way. Realize that you are now supporting the breath as you should for singing.
While you are hissing out the breath, it is crucial that you understand only the lower body, not the throat, “holds back” breath pressure. Good breath support means you are holding back the breath pressure with muscles of the lower body, while creating a constant “narrow stream of breath” through the larynx.
Next time you are laughing, focus on the muscular coordination of breath support. If you immediately go from the laugh reflex to singing, you learn a lot about how to sing with good breath control.
This instruction above is one of many ways to achieve the same goal: singing with good control of the breath. And, yes, you will be relieved and delighted to experience that good breath support requires inhaling only a small amount of oxygen.
More Than One Way to Get There
Here is another technique to achieve the same thing. Which method should you use? The one that makes the most sense to you personally is the one you must use.
Renowned American opera baritone Thomas Hampson is also a brilliant teacher of singing. We have a video of a masterclass led by Thomas Hampson, in which he is coaching young opera singers in training. The video is queued up to the moment in the class, when Mr. Hampson explains his simple but highly effective technique for great breath support.
In short, he is saying that we should all stop arguing and worrying so much about how to control breath for singing. Mr. Hampson believes totally in the method of simply maintaining the feeling of inhaling, from the moment you begin singing. This holds back the breath pressure and allows for the narrow stream of breath we really need to sing our best.
Your Own Style But Better!
Now is a good moment to reassure any non classical singers that literally all of the singing techniques you will read and watch and hear, throughout this blog, will in fact help your singing enormously. You will not be transitioned into a classical singer, just because you learn healthy singing technique. However, what will happen is that you will be singing whatever style of music you want better than ever!
Thomas Hampson tells the truth. Supporting the exhaled air is accomplished by steadily using the muscular coordination and feeling of inhaling. And you begin the sensation of inhaling at the precise moment you begin singing. In reality you are singing on the narrow stream of breath, and this is constantly being supported by the muscles used for inhaling breath.
If you want to try this and then add your comments below, we can all learn from each other. And if you prefer, you can give these breathing methods a try and can always email me directly with questions and comments: Gretchen@SingingAndYou.com.
Breathe Into Your Artistic Freedom
It is no secret that I frequently write about the role of body alignment for singing. I also sing with this concept and teach it as well. About a million years ago, when I was a young singer, I did not pay enough attention to whether my body was aligned well for singing. I was too focused on separate aspects of my vocal technique. The truth is that more emphasis on having a straight and fluid spine would have saved me tons of time and energy!
Now let’s finally get to the business of my personal method for breath control. I hope this technique, or one of the above described concepts of breath support, will suit you well. Most of all I hope you will actually use one of these suggestions for consistent breath support. Your greatest singing and maximum freedom of expression awaits!
When it comes to breath support, it is this approach, this exercise, which means the most to me personally. Please give this a real try and see how if it makes sense in your body.
Stand with your back against the wall, with only the back of your head and your heels touching the wall. No other part of your body should touch the wall, for this exercise. Feel the spine straighten, feel the diaphragm widen, and feel the lower ribs open.
Now breathe low, allowing your diaphragm to expand with the lungs (so your abdomen will naturally move outward). Sing a little in this position. You might feel a great deal of new freedom in your singing.
Now come off the wall. Remember the head position, which is on top of the straight spine and slightly back. Important: Do not allow the head to be forward.
When the head is slightly back, floating easily on top of the spine, without tension in the back of the neck, the throat will naturally open in the back, allowing for more resonance in your sound. The best news is your new body alignment instantly makes it so much easier for every aspect of good singing technique to automatically being working properly. So exciting! You must try this!
Your Main Take-Away
Breath control, or if you want to call it breath support, means we take the pressure off the throat. Remember the body alignment you had while standing with your back against the wall. When you have stepped away from the wall, keep that same alignment. Now use your heels to press firmly into the floor. This causes the correct lower muscles (in the pelvic floor) to begin to work, holding back the breath. And this is how we support the breath for singing.
Now you are feeling the power of engaging the lower network of muscles. Specifically we are talking about the muscles between the ribs (intercostals), the muscles of the abdomen and pelvic floor, the muscles of the buttocks and legs, and even the muscles of the feet. These are the muscles which give power and stamina to the singing voice.
So the muscles of the neck and throat do not support the breath. And the muscles of your neck and throat do not make your voice powerful. All of this happens only with engagement of the lower network of muscles. And this is how we engage an audience, like a magnet, pulling listeners into the beauty of our vocal sound.
The purpose of this post is to get you thinking about the vital business of breath control, for your greatest singing ever!
Contact me now to discuss how the lessons I provide can help your singing enormously! Email address: Gretchen@SingingAndYou.com.
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