We breathe constantly. You would think that makes us all skilled at breathing, but that isn’t true. Many people breathe shallowly, or have bad posture or a lot of tension that gets in the way of good breathing. Breathing is usually the first topic voice teachers discuss in a lesson. Everything we do as singers or speakers hinges on having control over breathing.
Singing and speaking are essentially the combination of breathing and phonation (the production of vocal sounds). I like to tell my students that using your breath well is the key to learning to sing or speak healthfully. There are some factors that must be in place before your breathing works well.
Posture affects our ability to use our breath optimally. Imagining roots under your feet, lengthening your spine, and finding a comfortable balance of your head on your spine are three ways I start the discussion of posture. These help get our bodies set up so that the breath can work without any unintentional tension that will get in the way.
I have one main exercise for breathing for singing or projecting the voice in speaking. It’s fairly simple, and involves breathing out on a loud “ssss” sound. The idea is to add some pressure to the out-breath, so that your body learns to use it more efficiently. The goal is to prolong the breath, so that when we do sing or project the voice, we have more time to sing or speak. We want to improve that out-breath and have control over it. We may want to sing louder or softer, we may want to sing a very long phrase, or speak loudly without shouting. But that’s just about breathing out. We also have to discuss breathing in.
Breathing in can be more problematic to teach, simply because we do it every day, and don’t have to think about it. When we suddenly have to think about it, it can become confusing. When I teach a new student about breathing, I have them lie on the floor. When they are lying down, they put their hands on their stomach, and can feel it rise as they breathe in, and fall when they breathe out. Gravity helps us feel what is happening naturally. It’s difficult to notice this when standing. This is the natural way our bodies move when we breathe. When we breathe in, the muscle below the lungs, called the diaphragm, lowers, and when it does, it pushes the organs down and out, so that the lungs have room to fill up, which they do. When the diaphragm moves down, it seems as though our stomach is pushing out. The area in the chest where the lungs are don’t move much, but the stomach does. Then, when we breathe out, the diaphragm moves up as the lungs empty of air, and the organs go back to their place. The confusing part is in the terminology: breathing in means the stomach moves out. Breathing out means the stomach moves in. It’s also confusing because we’ve never paid much attention to it before. With some practice, this way of deeper breathing in and longer breathing out, starts to come naturally. But it does take the body and the mind some time to get used to it.
Spending time learning to breathe well will help to improve your singing and speaking immeasurably. It’s also good for dealing with nerves, and being more mindful. There are many different breathing techniques that people use for yoga, freediving, and cold endurance, to name a few. Spending some time improving your breathing will always be useful!