Proper breathing is absolutely essential for vocalists. So, what are the best breathing exercises for singing? Read on as Glendale, CA voice teacher Ben M. share his singing tips…
In a previous blog post, we discussed the importance of preparing the body to sing with hydration and proper rest. We also discussed the importance of relieving tension in the body in order to give your voice as much space to build and create that rich, full sound you want. The next step in your vocal master class is to get your breathing right.
Breathing is the foundation for all good singing. In fact, without breathing there would be no singing. Vocal cords only make sound once air is passed through them. You might think that breathing is no big deal – after all, you’re doing it right now. You breathe in and out thousands of times a day without much of a problem at all, right? Well, the process gets a little more complicated when you bring singing into the picture, and the fact is that most untrained singers don’t use nearly enough air to sing the way the way they want to.
How Your Voice Actually Works
Let’s start with a basic overview of how singing actually works. I’ve found the easiest illustration of this is the glass bottle. If you fill one quarter of a bottle with water and blow air across the top of it, you will create a relatively low pitch. If you fill that bottle up to three quarters and blow across it again, you will create a relatively high pitch. The other thing you’ll notice is that it’s harder to make a clear tone with the bottle three-quarters full than it is with the bottle one-quarter full. So, what’s the big idea? It all comes down to the space the air has to resonate in.
- The more space there is available in the bottle, the more room the sound has to roam, which leads to fewer vibrations per second. The fewer vibrations per second, the lower the frequency of the tone.
- The less space there is available in the bottle, the less room the sound has to roam, which leads to more vibrations per second. The greater vibrations per second, the higher the frequency of the tone.
As for the effort of air exerted, this has to do with producing enough air to achieve the greater number of vibrations required to create a tone in such a limited amount of space.
Now, let’s consider how this concept applies to your vocal cords. You inhale and exhale. Once the exhaled air reaches your vocal cords, it is met with either a wide or narrow aperture. Sing a low note – your vocal cords are configured wide. Sing a high note – now they’re configured narrow. And just like the bottle, the less space available in your vocal cords, the more vibrations per second. This means that the higher you sing, the more air that is required! This is one of the reasons why singers report more difficulty singing high notes as opposed to low – high notes require more air than what your regular speaking voice calls for.
So, we’ve established that we need to have access to a lot of air. The next step is figuring out the most effective way to produce that air. Breathing exercises for singing are essential for this. Here are three techniques to consider:
1. Breathe to expand, not to raise.
A common tendency among new singers is to fill up with air vertically instead of horizontally. Take a deep breath and sing a phrase of a song. Did you shoulders move? If so, you are pushing a good amount of that valuable air into your shoulders, where it has absolutely no use to you. Locate your diaphragm below your chest and above your belly – buried behind muscle, but detectable when you notice your chest expanding on the inhale. The goal is to direct all your inhale air into your balloon-like diaphragm – not your shoulders.
2. Now, expand your breathing capacity.
Pacing yourself, inhale for a count of four so that your diaphragm is fully extended, then exhale for a count of four so that your diaphragm returns to rest. Repeat the exercise for a count of eight, and then for a count of 16. You’re expanding your breathing capacity while training your muscles to ration out the available air – an important tool for singing phrases of varying lengths.
3. Add a tone.
Repeat the same exercise as #2, but this time, allow your voice to create an easy, free-flowing and descending tone for the duration of the exhale. It should sound like the descent of a siren blaring in the distance. You are now teaching your vocal cords to sync with your air supply.
Breathing exercises for singing work well at the beginning of your regular vocal warm-ups. If you’re having trouble figuring out the right way to breathe, a voice teacher can observe your process and help you identify the breathing muscles you need to utilize. You’ll be amazed at how much easier it is to achieve your vocal goals when you just learn to breathe!
Ben M. teaches music performance and singing in Glendale, CA. He attended Northeastern University and is currently studying voice at Brett Manning Studios. Learn more about Ben here!
Photo by hmomoy