Breathing for Singing
In general, I don’t teach too many breathing exercises to my students. In my opinion, all singing exercises are breathing exercises. I find that a great deal of singers who are trained to do an overabundance of breathing exercises in isolation tend to build a great deal of tension into their singing; however, insecurity around breathing creates mental and emotional uncertainty in a student’s overall ability to sing. Therefore, it is important that some amount of discussion on breathing be executed so as to clear up any misunderstandings.
When using the voice for speaking (in ordinary conversation), only a small amount of breath is necessary for the relatively small vocal range, dynamic intensity and duration of phonation required for each sentence. A singer, on the other hand, must have a sufficient supply of air at all times in order to accommodate their needs for long sustains, vocal phrases and dynamic requirements. A singer must be able to continue phonating to complete each musical phrase or textual sentence that they are singing. Singers don’t take breaths because we need air, we take breaths in order to make intelligent and artistic vocal phrases.
When we take a breath for singing it is important that we are careful that the lungs are filled, yet not over crowded. Inhales must be quiet and sure. We mustn’t inhale either too rapidly or too slowly, nor should we force our breathing in any way whatsoever.
A mistake made by a great many singers is to inhale into the upper part of the chest only. This is usually quite obvious, as these shallow breathers tend to have a great deal of movement in the upper chest each time they take a breath. They tend to tire quickly, and often inhale with an audible gasp.
The Old Italian Schools of singing taught singers to breathe “into the diaphragm and abdomen.” In order to accomplish this ideal, the posture of the singer is of utmost importance. When a singer is standing with the sternum comfortably high, the lower ribs and abdomen will automatically expand in order to accommodate the breath. This was often described as a low, or diaphragmatic breath, and is still the optimal way to breathe when singing.
When this so-called “low breath” is taken, the diaphragm is lowered yet not overly tense. The larynx tends to automatically lower into its optimal posture for singing; in addition, the soft palate rises to its optimal posture as well. When these things occur automatically, it is not necessary for a singer to artificially try to lower the larynx nor raise the soft palate. As a result, a naturally pleasing vocal tone is much more easily produced.
When singing, the air is emitted in a small and steady stream, according to the needs of the tone, pitch, dynamic and words being sung. This tends to occur naturally and spontaneously as long as the breath is supported properly. Breath support, or appoggio, is really the act of keeping the diaphragm in a somewhat lowered posture for the duration of the time the air is being used by the singer to create a vocal tone. The concept of breath support is often something that is a subject of great confusion to most singers, as teachers of singing often have misguided (and sometimes even harmful) ideas of what breath support actually is.
To support the breath, the singer actually maintains the “gesture of the inhale” throughout the vocalized tone. There is no rigidity in the solar plexus, abdomen, ribcage or throat. Everything remains flexible, yet not lazy. The sternum stays comfortably tall, and the rib-cage comfortably expanded in order that the diaphragm stays in a somewhat low posture during phonation.
In breathing for singing, it is not necessary to have a great supply of air at each inhale. Instead, it is important that there is a moderate amount of air inhaled which is managed economically and artistically. It is imperative that too much air is not expended at the beginning of each phrase. Instead, each breath is evenly distributed throughout the entirety of the phrase.
A “spinning” quality of sound on each sustain, which we call vibrato, is a natural byproduct of a well supported voice. This means that there is a balance between the breath, the vocal fold resistance of the breath and the resonance of the vowels. This vibrato, is a vibrant quality of sound that brings life to the tone being sung.
Overall, it is important to never forcibly push the stream of breath through the voice. All singing is an act of beauty and refinement regardless of the style of music being sung. Too much violent breath force results in an ugly tone and can ultimately result in a damaged voice.
The word “inspire” means to inhale. Learn to breathe like the master singers of old and you will keep your voice healthy all the days of your life; and you will give breathtakingly inspired performances.