Everything You Need to Know About Breathing for Singing
As a voice teacher in Austin, Texas, one of the most common goals new students have is to learn breathing for singing and to breathe through the diaphragm.
Often times, students will ask for breathing exercises or breathing warmups and they think that I am going to make them hold their breath or give them an aerobic workout so they learn how to breathe properly for singing. I promise, I don’t do this often in my voice lessons.
The truth is that while breathing for singing is very important, recently it’s been proclaimed as the ONE BIG SECRET to singing success. One that no one knows unless they take lessons.
Here’s why that’s not the case:
First of all, singing involves three big systems that work together.
We have the respiration system which involves the diaphragm and lungs and provides the fuel for singing.
But that’s only ONE part of a large system.
Next, we have the phonation system which is the vocal cords (vocal folds) coming together in your throat to resist air. The resulting vibrations from that resistance produces sound and creates the raw material for the voice. Using the fuel analogy from the respiration system, phonation is like the motor that’s converting the breath from the lungs and diaphragm into energy.
Finally, we have the resonation system which is the way the vibrations and frequencies produced by the vocal folds vibrating interact with the cavities around them. The mouth, pharynx, nose and nasal cavity are examples of resonating chambers. To use the fuel analogy, this would be the carburetor in the car ensuring the best use of this energy.
Before your eyes start to gloss over with boredom from all these science terms and you start to wonder “Why the heck isn’t this guy giving me breathing exercises? I just wanted to know how you sing from your diaphragm!”, I say all this to prove a simple point. The breath is only one small part of the whole system that makes up a great singer! And in my honest opinion, it’s also the easiest to master.
The truth is there are lots of singing problems and vocal issues that no amount of breath support will help because the issues are not with the respiration system.
All that said, there are a few important things that you should know as a developing singer, especially if you want to learn how to breathe when singing high notes.
First, we have to make sure that the respiration system of singing is supported. And a lot of this comes down to breathing muscles and singing. So here are the most important exercises to ensure that your breath is supported.
Maintain a healthy posture
As simple as this sounds, posture is an incredibly important component to breathing while singing, especially if you’ve been having problems with losing your breath while singing or experiencing shortness of breath.
*You may want to grab a mirror for this.
- A general rule of thumb is that you want to ensure that your head is even above your shoulders, not jutting forward or pulled back.
- Then make sure that your shoulders are comfortably positioned at your sides.
- Using your shoulders as a guide, ensure your hips are evenly spaced and in line with your shoulders.
- Finally, using your hips and shoulders as a guide, ensure your feet are evenly spaced and in line with your hips.
Got it? Good!
It’s really not complicated.
You should feel that you are in a powerful stance and ready to take on anything.
If this feels uncomfortable or new, double check your position in the mirror and ensure the previous steps are accomplished.
Congratulations, you have taken a huge step in making sure you are breathing effectively and efficiently for singing
2. How to sing from your diaphragm
Now, with your posture corrected, we can move on to the fun part of engaging the right muscles for breathing.
In this section, we’ll be moving from chesty and costal breathing to abdominal or diaphragmatic breathing.
*Again, a mirror can come in handy here.
- Standing with your correct posture (see above), place your hands on the bottom edge of your belly, like you’re pregnant and holding your stomach.
- With your hands in this position, begin to feel the movement of your breath.
- Take a deep inhale through your nose and see if you feel any movement in your hands around your stomach. If you’re in front of the mirror, you can also check visually to see if there’s any movement in your body as you’re inhaling.
- Exhale and begin to breathe comfortably.
- Now that you’re aware of your breath, see if you can begin to breathe in a way that physically moves your hands on your belly. We want the belly to extend and push the hands out as you inhale, and the belly to contract and bring the hands in as you exhale.
As you practice moving your breath to the much stronger diaphragmatic breathing, you are beginning to find the proper breathing techniques for singing.
Again, check in visually to make sure that you don’t see these things:
- The shoulders rising
- the arms moving outwards or sideways
- The stomach contracting with the inhale (remember, you want the opposite. Your belly should always expand with the inhale and contract with the exhale)
These are tell-tale signs that you’re breathing in a less-than-efficient fashion. This would be clavicular or costal breathing, rather than abdominal or diaphragmatic.
If you catch yourself doing any of these things, simply reset your posture and try to move your breath to the abdomen.
3. One Daily Breathing Exercise for Breath Support
With the posture and diaphragmatic breathing in place, I’d like to show you the most effective breathing exercises for singing.
You can do a lot vocally with just the posture and breathing in the right place. So if you’d like to grow your breathing capacity for breathing while singing a fast song for instance, follow this exercise and repeat it daily.
This exercise was made famous by the castrato singer Farinelli. Farinelli was famed for his ability to sustain notes an incredible amount of time. I like to use these breathing exercises for singing warm ups.
*You will need a metronome or a clock with a second hand to do this exercise.
Set your metronome to 60 beats per minute. Don’t worry, your clock is already set to this tempo (ha!).
- Gently inhale through your mouth for 4 counts. *As an aside, it’s always better to breathe through your mouth than your nose when singing. Just be careful not to make a sound as you inhale through your mouth. Ideally you want to take what I like to call it a “scared breath” because it’s a quick inhale through your mouth but it is very quiet.
- Next, hold the breath in the diaphragm for 4 counts.
- Finally, exhale the breath for 4 counts.
- Repeat this exercise immediately after the exhale, but this time inhale for 5 counts.
- Continue to inhale, hold and exhale for greater counts until you feel ANY discomfort. Please don’t pass out or hyperventilate trying to get to 12 on the first day.
A couple of things you will note
First, you will have to very gradually control your inhales and exhales as the counts get higher. This is fantastic practice for your breath support.
Second, take note of the feeling of “holding” the breath. This is the feeling we want to have as we are singing. This small amount of pressure creates a strong tone, but it shouldn’t feel like a huge rush of air escaping like you feel when you exhale. While technically we sing on the exhale, the feeling of “holding” the diaphragmatic breath is much closer to the feeling of sustaining a long note.
While there is no ONE BIG SECRET to singing, breathing for singing is incredibly important. A lot of breathing singing exercises are helping your body become more efficient at breathing and singing from the diaphragm.
Once good breath support is accomplished, there is still a lot of work to do with the other two systems of singing: phonation and resonation. Consider checking out this blog or booking a free trial lesson to get you on the road to a more beautiful voice.