For singers, good breathing is essential. What does “good” breathing mean? Ask different singing teachers and coaches and you are likely to get different answers.
Here is what good breathing means to me:
o Your posture is erect, but you are not tense. Your shoulders are broad; arms loose; hands soft and quiet and you are standing tall.
Imagine that a stream of water is running down your spine. The water is warm and flows easily but firmly, in a straight path. This image should help keep your back straight, but not stiff.
o When you stand tall in this way, your rib cage will naturally open wider.
o Then you concentrate your mind on allowing your diaphragm (a large muscle just under your ribcage) to move down, which pulls your lungs down and forces new air to flow deeply into your lungs. This approach is called deep breathing or diaphragmatic breathing as opposed to upper chest breathing, which is a shallow type of breathing and much less useful in singing.
o As you breathe in, your rib cage will grow wider to the sides and back especially.
The Long Slow “Sssssss…”
o When you exhale, let the air out with a long SSS sound through your teeth (keep a loose jaw).This way, using the steady, slow SSS stream of air, you must control how quickly the breath goes out. (Your stomach muscles are gently pulling in as your diaphragm presses down.)
Imagine that this SSS is a stream of sound (your wonderful voice) that sails steadily through the air in front of you.
Gently resist the collapse of your ribcage. It will of course go back to its natural relaxed state, but in resisting a quick collapse you are teaching your ribs and the muscles in between the rib bones to become stronger.
o When you come to the natural end of your breath, take another breath – this time even deeper, and exhale again on a slow steady SSS sound.
Different Kinds of Breathing
In a song, there is also the dramatic breath. In this case, the way you breathe is based on the expression or interpretational needs of the song. For example, you might take a louder, gasping type of breath to give an effect in singing – at a moment of anger or disbelief. You might use a slow sighing kind of breath to express tiredness or despair. Your use of breath in these cases is “expressive.”
It is also important to know how to take a silent breath. In fact, you will want to use this kind of breathing most often when you sing (and when you record). The breath comes in quickly through your mouth (and nose) and goes deep into your lungs with very little sound. Your ribcage is open and expands easily as the air pours in.
Deep Breathing Exercise
You can do this exercise as you walk along the street. Be sure that your posture is strong. This exercise is timed to your steps as you walk along. Breathe in to the count of 2 (or 4) steps and out to the count of 6 (or 8 or 10) steps – whatever feels right for you. Repeat this exercise for 5 minutes or so as you walk. But do not overdo breathing exercises. If you are not used to doing them, the quantity of oxygen that goes to you brain can make you dizzy.
When I do a deep breathing exercise with a student at the beginning of a lesson, it is not only to answer the question, “How do I breathe?” but also to help calm the person’s mind; to prepare them for the concentration it takes to work quietly but with focus on improving vocal technique.
So, as you do these breathing exercises, feel how your body is calming down – how your mind is becoming less distracted and more focused. Allow breathing to take you into a state of mind that is calm but energized. I suggest to my students that they have a cool head with a warm heart when they practice.
At the end of your practice session, do a short relaxation breathing exercise. No need to think of power now. You breathe in slowly and deeply – but the exhalation is a free flow of breath – not controlled. You simply let the air out. Your ribcage closes as it will. You let your breathing system relax. You allow your mind to be quiet. You thank your body for the work it has done and move on to your next task.
A Final Suggestion
Breathing in Trees
Many of us feel that being in nature can give us a strong sense of well-being. There are a lot of reasons for this. One unusual idea has to do with how nature mirrors our own bodies. For example, as you look at a tree, you see in the lines of trunk, branches and leaves a system that is very similar to our own internal system of blood vessels, arteries and veins. Apparently, viewing trees can have a calming effect on our bodies because of this similarity. When possible, I like to stand near trees to do my deep breathing exercises.