By Lis Lewis
Breathing is the single most important element in singing. In order to control your voice you have to put out exactly the amount of breath you need for the sound you want. That breath needs to be as focused as a laser beam. How you exhale controls the quality of the sound, the volume and partially controls the pitch and the tone. How you inhale governs how you exhale.
Most people in their everyday lives inhale into their upper lungs i.e., their shoulders go up as does their chest. When the air is in your upper lungs, you don’t have the kind of detailed control you need. The muscles available to control the air are the wrong ones: throat, jaw and tongue muscles. These little tiny muscles are easy to find when you want your sound to be louder or higher but they will wear you out and cause serious vocal problems. A singer (or a swimmer or runner–anyone who has to control their air) should fill their lower lungs allowing the bigger, stronger muscles of your abdomen and diaphragm to do the work. This means that instead of a breath that is vertical, with your chest filling with air and expanding upwards, the breath should be horizontal, with your stomach expanding outwards.
Put one hand on your abdomen and the other hand on your back, both at about waist level. Inhale by filling your lower lungs with air so that your hands move apart, the air filling the space between them. As you exhale let your stomach go back in gently. Think of your stomach as a balloon that inflates and deflates. Your chest shouldn’t move, not even an eighth of an inch. As you get better at this, your back will also move out when you inhale. Try putting your thumbs one on each side of your spine, at about waist level. Relax your shoulders. Now inhale into your thumbs. This helps you feel the outward movement of your back. Lie down on your back. Relax for a minute. After a few seconds you will notice that you are breathing into your abdomen. This is because when you were an infant, this was the natural way to breathe, but as we age and our stress levels increase, our breathing tends to move upwards. Unfortunately, you might lose the abdominal breathing once you stand up, but with practice it will become natural again.
Here is an exercise called Fiery Breath, to help you get comfortable with this new way of breathing. Put one hand on your abdomen. Inhale into your abdomen and exhale forcibly so that your stomach muscles push in and the air comes out suddenly. Repeat this–inhale, abdomen out, exhale forcibly, abdomen in–thirty times picking up the tempo as you get comfortable with it. Breathe through your mouth. As you go faster you may find that you’ve fallen back into the old habit of breathing vertically again. In that case, stop and start over by breathing slowly and gently into your lower lungs until you have the feeling again. Fiery Breath is only meant to make inhaling properly more intuitive. When you sing, you don’t need to exhale forcibly. There is very little need for a great deal of air pressure if you have a strong voice. It is very easy to get hooked on the feeling of ‘pushing’ a lot of air into your vocal cords and actually it can be very harmful. Your vocal cords will tend to tense against all the air you are shoving into them instead of stretching to the pitch. Singing requires finesse, not aggression. Try singing a song a capella (without instruments). Think about your breathing. Initially you may feel that you can’t get enough air, but that is because your lung capacity is underdeveloped. Your lower lungs will stretch out and your ribs in the back will loosen up and make room for the larger inhalation. This way of breathing will become intuitive and you won’t have to think about it while you sing. If you breathe properly and don’t use the muscles in your throat, tongue and jaw to control the air, you will find that you have a lot more air to use but you don’t need as much.
The diaphragm is a muscle that sits below your lungs and causes them to fill with air. Once you put the air in the right place, you must learn to control it with your diaphragm and abdominal wall. This is what is meant by the expression ‘breathe from your diaphragm’. Not only do these muscles need to be strong enough to give you power and volume, but they need to have even more control and strength when you want to sing a fast and accurate lick, or a big jump in pitch, or very, very quietly.
Building strength and control begins with proper breathing. Be patient with yourself. After breathing vertically thousands of times a day all the years of your life, a new way to breathe takes lots of concentration. Remember that your voice is an instrument like any other. It takes time to learn to play it – time and patience and practice.