Most of us don’t give too much thought to the act of breathing. It’s something we take for granted, something our bodies just go ahead and do, every minute of every day. We only tend to pay attention to it when we consciously want to change our breathing patterns for a particular purpose – for example, athletes breathe in ways that help them to get the most oxygen to their muscles, women in labour breathe to help them manage pain, and people who suffer from anxiety attacks employ special breathing techniques to help them feel calmer. The way we breathe can have a profound effect on our bodies, and our health.
Singing well requires you to “breathe from your diaphragm”. Although most people have heard of diaphragmatic breathing, not many really understand what it is, and even fewer know how to use it to successfully improve their singing voice. I am going to explain firstly where the diaphragm is, then how it acts when we breathe, and finally how best to breathe when singing. I will also talk you through a simple diaphragmatic breathing exercise.
What is your diaphragm and how does it work?
The diaphragm is a muscle that lays horizontally across the middle of your body. To simplify things it helps to think of it as a tent that points upwards in the middle (towards your sternum or breast-bone), but whose base is attached to the left and right sides of the bottom of your rib cage.
When you take a deep breath, your rib cage expands outwards and your lungs (which sit inside your rib cage) also expand as they fill with air. The diaphgragm muscle contracts as it is pushed downwards and flattened, to make room for the expanded lungs which are now full of air. When you exhale, air rushes back out of the lungs, and the diaphragm muscle relaxes and moves upwards in the middle again, because it has room without all that extra air in the lungs.
Diaphragmatic breathing versus upper chest breathing
It sounds like all this should happen quite naturally, without us having to consciously think about it, but many people these days do not breathe this way unless they are asleep and nature takes over. Many people employ what is known as “shallow breathing”, or “upper chest breathing”. That means that when they inhale, they do not fill up their lungs right to the bottom, instead they only take a shallow breath that fills just the top part of the lungs, which is the narrowest part. It is impossible to obtain enough air to sing well if you use upper chest breathing.
Diaphragmatic breathing exercise
To practice diaphragmatic breathing, follow these simple steps:
- Place your hands on your hips, and then move both hands up slightly until you can feel the bottom of your ribs on both sides.
- Exhale completely.
- Slowly take a deep breath and imagine that you are filling up with air right to the very bottom of your lungs – almost all the way down to your belly button. You should feel your hands being moved outwards as the base of your rib cage expands and pushes outwards (note: your shoulders should not move, and the top half of your chest should not lift as you inhale – all the expansion should be around the lower half of the rib cage).
- Hold the breath for three seconds.
- Exhale as slowly and evenly as possible.
Practice this exercise three times in a row, and repeat it throughout the day. Over time, you should build up to holding your breath for longer, adding perhaps a second each day. Remember not to hold your breath for too long if you feel light-headed (especially in warmer weather).
Using diaphragmatic breathing when singing
Whenever you start to sing a phrase, you should prepare by taking a full breath as described above, using diaphragmatic breathing. As you sing, make an effort not to expel air and exhale too quickly – you will only last through longer phrases if you conserve air and release it slowly. This takes practice, but it’s worth the significant improvements to your singing voice. Correct breathing technique may be just one aspect of a successful singing program, but it’s the foundation for almost everything else you can do to sing better.