We all breathe every minute of our lives! It seems crazy that someone has to learn to breath all over again when they learn to sing. While it may share some similarities, breathing for singing is not the same as breathing for living! Singing places demands on our breath that are not encountered in day to day life. A normal breath cycle lasts between 4 and 5 seconds, but singing requires us to extend (prolong) the breath cycle (sometimes for as long as 20 seconds) and to manage the outward flow of air. To do this skilfully requires practice and that a singer develops their body-awareness.
Breathing is a contentious topic among singing teachers and in the vocal literature. For some teachers, it’s central and it seems every solution they offer is somehow linked to breathing or more of some mystical skill called ‘support’. For other approaches to singing, breathing is secondary and virtually overlooked. I prefer to take the middle ground. Breathing is one component of a healthy vocal technique, but we have to remember that the purpose of good breathing is entirely functional. The singer needs to supply the vocal folds with a steady flow of air so that they can produce the required pitches at the required volume for the required duration. Directly related is the requirement of the repertoire being performed.
Different ways to breathe
Research is gradually emerging which suggests that various body types and adult males/females may breathe slightly differently, but essentially there are three ways to breathe – high, middle and low. If you compare your upper body to a house, it has a ceiling, a floor and walls. You can therefore move air around by (i) raising and lowing the ceiling, (ii) lowering and raising the floor, (iii) expanding the walls and (iv) a combination of these methods.
High or ceiling breathing involves moving the shoulders and upper chest. Sometimes called clavicular breathing, this is the breath of exhaustion and can be witnessed in an athlete who has just run at top speed. It is widely agreed that this type of breathing is not suitable for singing. Some say this type of breathing is shallow, which is not true. The primary reason for not using high breathing is because it is virtually impossible to slow down or manage outward breath if you use this method alone. Also, chest breathing creates tension in the neck and throat which interferes with skilled singing.
Middle or wall breathing involves expanding and contracting the rib cage. The upper five ribs are fused to the sternum and have a limited range of motion, but the lower seven ribs have more flexibility. Their expansion is primarily sideways and partly forward. Sometimes termed costal breathing, this method is associated with corsets (holding in the abdominals) and the traditional English school. Middle breathing has value in singing, because it offers the singer excellent opportunity to control the outward breath through coordination of the two sets of intercostal muscles. However, used in isolation it can create a lot of body tension and a strained vocal quality.
Low or floor breathing is also called diaphragmatic breathing. Invariably any discussion of breathing will mention the diaphragm and rightly so. However, there are many misconceptions surrounding the diaphragm. Firstly, it is a muscle – the second largest muscle in the human body. Second, it’s an involuntary muscle and responsible ONLY for the inhalation. Telling singers to place a hand on their tummy and to breathe from their diaphragm is misguided. We can influence the movement of the diaphragm with our posture, but we cannot directly control it. A simple glance at an anatomy text will reveal that the diaphragm is not located behind the belly wall.
When at rest, the diaphragm extends up into the lower rib cage. When you inhale, the diaphragm descends increasing the volume capacity of your chest and creating a pressure difference inside the lungs. Air flows into the lungs until the pressure is equalised. As the diaphragm descends, the space in your abdomen is reduced. Your stomach, intestines and organs need to go somewhere, so they are displaced downward and outward. You experience this as a feeling of expansion around the middle of the body – in your stomach, sides and lower back. The breath appears to move into your body and then down and around the middle. It probably feels like the breath itself is causing this expansion. However, in this case, feelings do not match the facts.
In low breathing, the abdominal muscles provide the action needed to achieve an energised breath stream. When the abdominals engage, the belly moves in bringing the abdominal contents back in and up. This action pushes the diaphragm upwards and helping it return to the resting position. As the diaphragm relaxes, the volume capacity of the chest is reduced and the lungs are “squeezed” which creates a positive air pressure to the vocal folds.
Which method should you teach?
Experts agree that high (or clavicular) breathing should be avoided for singing. The technique most used in classical singing and promoted in the “Italian school” of voice training involves a combination of middle (costal) and low (diaphragmatic) breathing. This method is generally effective for children. However, it should be remembered that we need take only enough breath to satisfy the lungs and replenish what has been used. This is dictated by the needs of the repertoire.
As a young teacher, I never realised that much of what I’d heard or read about breathing came from a classical tradition and from sources who worked with adult opera singers. Some teachers will assert that it’s all the same and that with a proper ‘classical’ technique, you can sing anything, but this is simply not the case! A classical technique will not help you perform R&B or Broadway belt with integrity. Likewise, the kind of breath coordination needed to sing an aria or art song is not the same as a 9 year-old child needs to sing “Peas Porridge Hot” in their music class. What is crucial is simply that children understand the concept of low breathing. In all likelihood, belly (floor) breathing is sufficient for most classroom situations.
Teaching Kids to Breathe for Singing
Before you teach any breathing techniques, it’s crucial to understand the elements of good singing posture and I encourage you to read my previous article on this topic (if you haven’t already). It’s possible to breathe with the body in numerous positions – even standing on your head if you really wanted! However, the muscles responsible for controlling the breathing process are connected to the skeleton and therefore the way students hold their bodies will directly affect their ability to breathe.
Breathing efficiency and coordination is greatly enhanced if the body is held a certain way and many students will be unable to experience good breathing technique without first attending to their posture. I suggest that the only positions suitable for class singing or choral rehearsals are with students either (i) standing or (ii) seated on a chair. The common practice of seating students on the floor for class singing is strongly discouraged. While it may be practical, it is not functional because the seated position restricts movement of the diaphragm, inhibits rib cage expansion, places the head/neck in poor alignment, and affects vocal resonance and diction.
A key question concerns how much anatomical information children need understand in order to breathe well. The study of breathing can quickly become very technical and too much information could well be off-putting. However, the key concepts are not difficult to understand. Even young students can understand the concept of taking a breath that is deep and low. Students in the middle years and above can readily understand pressure changes and these concepts can be reinforced using props such as a bicycle pump or set of bellows. Squeezing a semi-inflated balloon will easily illustrate how the abdominal contents are displaced during inhalation. Add to this various animated illustrations available on the internet.
Such information can help a person understand what is happening and why, but to become more skilful at breathing, children must refine their body awareness and develop muscular co-ordination. Some children will be better at this naturally and others will require time and patience. Breathing is best learned and practiced in isolation, perhaps during a warm up period, and it can be later integrated into the singing of songs. When you work with breathing skills, try to avoid being too verbose and instructional. Instead, use short physical activities that will allow students to directly experience good breathing habits. Then draw their attention to what they should be experiencing.
Practical tools for teaching breathing
Observation is the first and most important tool for teaching breathing effectively. Good voice teaching starts from “the outside” and works “inwards”. This means we must learn to become attentive to the things we can see the students doing with their bodies on the outside. Their shoulders and upper chest should remain relaxed during inhalation, the length and flexibility of the spine should remain unaffected by the act of breathing, there should be no obvious signs of tension on the face or neck and the abdominal wall must remain flexible so that the belly button moves towards the spine during singing and outwards on the intake of air. Through the use of mirrors, we can teach students to observe their own bodies. Where this is impractical, a buddy system (with one student as the doer and another as the observer) works well.
In response to what is observed, we can offer feedback. However, any corrections should be specific things a student can DO with the goal being to refocus a student’s awareness on a particular coordination. An instruction such as “put your hand on your chest and see if you can keep it high as you breathe out” is far more effective than using imagery and metaphor. Setting students small challenges is another way to give effective feedback. For example, “can you do that again, but this time, try and keep the in-breath totally silent.”
Breathing exercises are widely practiced in singing, but also in disciplines such as yoga, meditation, and Pilates. Often inhalation (breathing in) tends to be the main focus of breathing exercises, but for singing, it’s far more useful to focus on exhalation (the out-breath). The following sequence is particularly effective to focus students on breathing coordination:
- Raise the hands above your head or put them behind your head.
- Exhale fully and steadily while maintaining postural alignment. Ensure the belly goes inward while exhaling and that the chest remains high.
- Suspend the breath momentarily without locking the body or squeezing in the throat.
Release the abdominal muscles. The in-breath will be an easy reflex action, rather than something complicated.
When using this method, flexibility of the abdominals is important for both the inhalation and exhalation process. A lifting of the chest is the most obvious sign that students are struggling to release the abdominals on the in-breath. If this happens, you can assist them by putting their bodies into a position where gravity will assist the release such as, bracing at an angle against a wall or chair, or squatting down with the hands on the knees.
The purpose of this article is to offer sensible advice and workable solutions to generalist music teachers about approaching breathing in the classroom and choral rehearsals. I hope that my ideas lay a foundation, with the understanding that students who elect to study singing more ‘seriously’ will need to develop and refine their breathing technique relevant to their age/maturity and the needs of the repertoire. We never stop learning and we never stop teaching breathing.
(C) 2011 Darren Wicks