Any vocalist worth their salt will appreciate the benefits of good breath control. Developing these skills improves a vocalist’s ability to sing louder, softer, higher, lower, with controlled tone, with more power, hold notes or phrases for longer, with controlled dynamic and expression, as well as maximising the health of their vocal cords. All the fun stuff basically. Breath control is one of, if not, the most fundamental technique to master for any vocalist.
Whether you are an ultra beginner, or an experienced vocalist, you need to have a work out for your breathing muscles regularly to improve. Good breath control comes from ‘fitness’ of the muscles, which needs to be regularly exercised to be maintained.
Why don’t singers practise breathing?
So, if it is so great, why don’t we all practice our breathing all the time? Or why are the exercises we are doing not working? These are questions I have often asked, in relation to myself as well as my students. These are some possible answers:
- It’s boring
- It’s hard work
- Some students become frustrated with slow progress
- Practising incorrectly can develop bad habits
- Students find it difficult to find time within a busy lifestyle
- Students may find it difficult to chart progress on their own and therefore lose motivation
- Some students don’t know what to do or how to work their breathing muscles without a tutor
- Many students lack the privacy or space to practice
- Some students often find it more embarrassing than practising other musical skills like playing scales on a piano for example.
- Some students may not fully appreciate the benefit to singing
- Some students find it difficult to apply breathing techniques to singing songs
- The habit of many singing students is to practice songs, not singing techniques
I find these reasons can largely be split into three categories:
- Not knowing how to do it
- Not being motivated to do it
- Practical problems like not having time or space to do it
Any one of these reasons will impact on developing breath control, and limit progress in this area. So how do we overcome all these obstacles to developing fabulous breathing technique? My view is that a different approach must be taken for each type of obstacle.
How do I breathe correctly when singing?
If you are not sure how to breathe correctly or how to practice your technique, the most effective method is to have some personal vocal coaching. If you are already having tuition, ask your tutor to recap this for you, and give you specific instructions of what to practice.
Try this exercise to access diaphragmatic breathing.
- Lie on the floor with your knees up, and feet flat on the floor.
- Maintain the natural curve of your spine, so do not squash the small of your back into the floor.
- In this position, take a couple of relaxed slow deep breaths. Inhale and exhale fully each time.
- Now, place a book on your lower abdomen.
- As you inhale you should see the book rise, and as you exhale it will lower.
This is diaphragmatic breathing. If the book is not going up when you inhale, you are only filling the top part of your lungs when you breathe. Concentrate on moving the book up as you inhale. Once you have got the hang of this, try to repeat this motion in a standing position, and control you inhale by breathing in for four counts then out for four counts. Develop your control by increasing the number of counts. Make sure you maintain complete focus throughout to ensure your breathing muscles are moving correctly.
How to motivate yourself to practise breathing techniques
How can we tackle the second type of obstacle – not being motivated to do it?
If you are reading this article, I will assume that you have at least some motivation to improve. But like many other things in life, motivation ebbs and flows, so how can we remain motivated when things start to slip? What breathing exercises work when our motivation is low?
Chart your progress
As well as focusing on the multitude of benefits of good breathing, I find that charting progress is a great motivator. Keep a practice diary or rehearsal schedule, and record your development of technique. An example progress log is given at the end of this article.
One exercise is to breathe into the diaphragm and hiss on the exhale. Count in your head or ask someone else to count for you to see how many seconds you can sustain the hiss. Write the number down in your progress log.
Do this once a week. When you are feeling unmotivated to practice breathing technique, look back to the beginning of your log and see the difference in the number.
Secondly, try a different tactic. Group classes such as Pilates, Chi Kung, and Breathing Therapy For Singers can be a revitalising change of pace to re-motivate and refocus your attention to the breath.
Thirdly, listen to your idols. Think about all the reasons why you wanted to be a singer. This might be enough to get stuck in to that diaphragm work-out.
Finding time to practise breathing techniques
So what about the last category of obstacles – not having time or space to practice?
Finding adequate rehearsal time and space is becoming a common theme amongst my students, due to the increasingly demanding lifestyle so many of us lead. There is no substitute for finding regular dedicated practice time, but if this is just not possible, or there are periods when this is limited, vocalists need to find exercises they can fit into their everyday routine.
As improving breathing technique is mostly developing muscle memory and fitness, singers will see more progress through a couple of minutes focused practice every day, rather than irregular longer sessions with days or weeks between them. Little and often. If you’re really squeezed for time, try these ‘everyday’ exercises scattered throughout your daily routine.
Exercise 1: Breathe in Bed
When you wake or just before you sleep, lie on your back and repeat the floor exercise described above.
- Inhale into the diaphragm for four counts
- Pause briefly
- Exhale for 4 counts
Ensure that you breathe all the way out before you inhale again. You should feel comfortable and relaxed throughout. Repeat, adding a number with each repetition.
Do three or four seamless repetitions each day. Work up to inhaling and exhaling ten counts with complete control and no light-headedness. This will take approximately 2 minutes, and is a lovely way to quiet a busy brain before bed time.
Exercise 2: ‘Shhh’ in the shower
- Inhale fully into the diaphragm.
- With complete focus on the breathing muscles, exhale to ‘shh’, contracting the lower abdominal muscles and diaphragm until you are out of air.
- Repeat this two or three times every day.
Exercise 3: Trill at the traffic lights
If you commute or spend any amount of time in the car, you may fit in ‘trilling at the traffic lights’. Do not do this until you can do both the above exercises without feeling light-headed or dizzy, and make sure you are parked before you begin.
- Breathe into the diaphragm and as you release the exhale, ‘trill’ – this can also be described as rolling your tongue or purring like a cat.
- Sustain the trill as long as you can. If you lose the trill partway through your exhalation, you need to re-engage the breathing muscles to increase support.
- Repeat once or twice. Keep an eye on the lights.
Consider what stops you from developing your breathing technique and keep seeking ways to overcome those barriers. To quote Debbie Connolly – ‘Queen of Harmony’ champion of a Capella singing – “the breathing exercises that work are the ones that you do”.
Written By Dielle Lodrick