In the first lesson with every new student, we talk about breathing for singing. I often ask students what they may have heard about how to properly breathe for singing, or if they’ve ever tried any breathing exercises for singers, as it’s a good way to gauge if they have any prior knowledge that we can build upon, or any misconceptions that need to be addressed.
Breathing is undoubtedly the most critical aspect of creating sound. But breathing is also an automatic process of the brain. That means we don’t consciously think about it. When we sing, we suddenly need to control our cycle of respiration and make it more intentional, which can be challenging. Therefore, it is necessary for all beginning singers to develop at least a foundational understanding of how breathing works in relation to singing. From there, we can embark upon a series of breathing exercises for singers, specifically designed to enhance their ability to support their sound in the correct way.
The Basics of Breathing: How Breath Works
When we breathe in, our lungs fill with air. Muscles around our lungs expand outward. Our diaphragm, which separates our lung cavity from organs below, descends downward to increase the space within that cavity. We may feel a release in our abdominal muscles as we breathe in, giving the impression that our whole torso is filling with air. When we breathe out, we feel these muscles contract inward as the lungs release air. This cycle happens continually, on its own.
How Breath Works for Singers
When we sing, we make the actions of this cycle somewhat exaggerated. We think about expansion and contraction in the lower abdomen as a larger, more intentional gesture, and we try to keep our rib cage buoyant and expanded, even upon exhalation. The first step in becoming more aware of this process is to do it without singing. I often have students place their hand on their lower abdomen, just below their belly button, and try to feel the expansion as they breathe in, and the contraction as they breathe out. I have them place their hands on either side of their rib cage and ask them to feel the same thing.
These Muscle Groups May Feel New to Beginners
Because we are not usually consciously aware of our breathing, it can be challenging to identify the muscle groups involved in breathing for singing. For new students, I will sometimes have them engage in physical actions that help them to identify the muscles they are using.
One such action is to have them pretend to bend down and pick up a heavy ball off the floor. I ask them to think about how they would pick up a heavy object, and how they might engage muscles in both their lower back and lower abdomen—their core—to accomplish this action. Once they can feel the activation of those muscles, I ask them to do the same action while singing a simple five-note scale, with the peek of the scale corresponding to the upward lifting action. This is one of the very basic breathing exercises for singers, but it works wonders for getting newer students to find support for their sound.
Breath Support Will Require Muscle Development
Lengthening the amount of air that singers can expel during singing, and gaining control to create that airflow in a steady stream, are both tasks that require practice and muscle development.
One of the most basic breathing exercise for singers is to sing scales on lip trills. If the air is not flowing steadily, the lip trill will not sustain, thus why these are a great indicator of how the air is moving. For students who are unable to do lip trills, I will have them sing on a voiced consonant such as “v,” “z,” or tz”.
I start students with these breathing exercises on five note scales, and eventually expand to five notes followed by nine notes. It is important to remember to do these exercises with a great deal of intension, keeping the engagement of the support in mind throughout the time you do them.
When students are learning a new piece of music, I will often have them sing through each phrase on lip trills, so as to make sure we are creating connected vocal lines that are supported by the breath from the very start.
Be Aware of Unnecessary Muscle Tension
Something of which students must be aware as they embark on breathing exercises for singers is that they do not unintentionally create tension in their body. In order for air to move freely, students must pay special attention to posture.
A simple “roll up” exercise can do wonders to accomplish this. Students hang from the waist, with their entire upper body limp, and then slowly roll up, stacking their vertebrae one on top of the other, until the last thing to come up is their head, feeling as if they are being lifted up by a string towards the back of their skull.
Students should be able to swing their arms freely and move their head gently from side to side with ease. Students who still experience tension in the neck (especially trapezius muscles on either side of the neck), jaw, or tongue, may be helped by visualizing breathing into these muscles during inhalation and releasing them during exhalation. Nothing done during breathing exercises should create any tension. In fact, engaging support in the correct way should allow singers to create the most free sound.
Breathing Exercises for More Advanced Singers
For my more advanced students, breath work can often be accomplished even without phonation. Once the proper muscle memory around breathing for singing has been developed, students can engage in “silent practice,” meaning they go through their music breathing through each phrase and utilizing a form of creative visualization to inform how they want to execute the phrase, or exactly how they want it to sound in their voice. This way, even without singing, they are training their body what to do at each point in their music.
Breathing Exercises Will Improve Not Only Your Singing, But Your Life
It is important for singers to understand that breathing exercises will help them throughout their lives, and that it is imperative to continue to work towards creating a free, well-supported sound at every stage of their vocal development.
As our instruments change and grow, we must continually make adjustments to how we breathe properly for singing, and re-examine which exercises may be of most value to us at any particular point in time. Different breathing exercises may be effective for different singers, but they all serve a common goal of helping us create the most optimal vocal sound.