Students come into my studio at all different skill levels with good and bad habits for us to work on. With only a few exceptions they all make this critical mistake. They are not breathing well, and while sometimes I truly mean that literally, most of the time I mean they are not getting as much air as they could be with each breath. Here’s how it normally goes:
Me: So how do you breathe?
Student: *Blank Stare* Air comes in and goes out?
Me: Yes, but how does that work?
Student: *blinks twice with a panicked look on their face*
Breathing is actually pretty simple at its basic level, it is functionally as simple as air comes in and goes back out. But I think it is important that people understand how the system works just a little bit more.
You have a muscle called the diaphragm and when it engages it pulls down on your chest cavity which creates a vacuum, this causes air to be pulled into your lungs. When the diaphragm relaxes it creates pressure causing you to exhale. This relationship with the diaphragm has caused many a choir director to say the words “Sing from the diaphragm” or “Breathe with your diaphragm”. These statements are confusing to students and even more confusing to voice teachers. The idea they are trying to express is not wrong just not explained well.
Since you are reading this post I am assuming that you are doing the above steps correctly. The mistake singers make is not that they aren’t breathing, of course, they are breathing, it is an efficiency issue. The human body is not full of empty space so when the diaphragm is moving to create that vacuum it has to move other things out of the way. There are two things that can happen at this point; either 1) you’re abdominal muscles relax and your belly expands or 2) your chest and shoulders move. If you are like 99% of everyone I have ever met you are doing option 2. This is where we can optimize and improve. It turns out that you will get considerably more air if you allow your belly to expand rather than allowing your chest and shoulders to raise.
This is where breathing gets more challenging. How in the world do we do this? The first step actually is really simple, all you need to do is lay down. As soon as you lay down on your back you will breathe into your belly. Spend some time laying down and singing and notice how it feels. Once you are ready, stand up and try and find the same sensation.
Once you can master this one thing your singing will improve drastically and every other part of singing will become easier. Stick with it you can always breathe better.
For quick reference here are my three steps for double checking my breathing.
1. Place your hand on your belly and take a deep breath. Does your hand move? In? Out? For most people, their hand will either not move, or will move in!
2. Take another deep breath and see if you can expand your abdomen. (Hand moves out).
3. Try laying down on your back. You will breathe this way laying down naturally. And this will increase the amount of air you are allowing into your lungs with each breath.