Updated: Jul 20
Chi sa respirare, sa cantare- Who knows how to breathe, knows how to sing
- Italian mantra attributed to Maria Celloni, 1810
Every sound your voice makes begins with a breath. A breath begins with your diaphragm- a large dome shaped muscle that separates your lungs from the internal organs in your belly. As the diaphragm contracts it creates a vacuum in your lungs that fills them up with air. As your diaphragm relaxes (and perhaps your abdomen contracts), the air reverses direction and passes between your vocal folds on it's way out. I used to tell students breathing was half of singing. As I've become a more seasoned vocal coach I now say it's at least half. Learning to take advantage of vowels when you sing may be the other half of singing. But without proper breath these are empty shapes in our mouth. Breath is the driving force behind your singing.
Quality vs Quantity
A lot of younger singers I meet are concerned with breath capacity. They tell me they can't gather enough air to sing through a long phrase or support their difficult notes. Capacity certainly improves these things, but controlling your exhale matters just as much.
To feel fully supported by your body as you sing you need awareness and control over both your inhale and your exhale. Better breath for singing happens when you have enough breath and you make the most of it!
Increase Breath Capacity
All of us are born with the knowledge of how to fully engage the diaphragm to take deep, refreshing breaths. As we get older, however, we get out of the habit. Everything from the stresses of everyday life to the practice of 'sucking in' the stomach for a trimmer waistline encourages us to gradually shift to shallower, less satisfying 'chest breathing.'
Relearning how to breathe from the diaphragm is beneficial for everyone. Diaphragmatic breathing (also called 'abdominal breathing' or 'belly breathing') encourages full oxygen exchange — that is, the beneficial trade of incoming oxygen for outgoing carbon dioxide.
-Harvard Health Publishing
I've found the best practice for better breath capacity is changing where you feel your inhale. I see many people inhale by raising their shoulders and chest; this is called superficial breathing and it's not great for singing. Superficial breathing tenses muscles in your neck and shoulders that interrupt your vocal folds, making them tired over time. Superficial breaths may feel big and powerful, but they take in a fraction of the air a low belly breath does.
Belly breathing supplies more air to your lungs, relaxes your throat, and even improves your overall health. For an illustration of the difference between these breaths, refer to the TikTok clip on the right.
Making belly breathing a habit will increase your breath capacity and make singing feel better. And bonus- you'll feel calmer and happier too!
Increase Breath Efficiency
Even more crucial than how much breath you can take in, is what you do with the breath once you have it. Controlling your exhale is a huge factor in how long you can sing between each breath. It increases how much power you have in your sound, the tone of your voice, and your vocal health.
There is a principle in singing called resistance. It refers to how much you hold the air in your lungs or let it go. When you hold your air back more- increase your resistance- your vocal folds come together completely which creates more power in your sound, allows you to sing louder, and allows you to sing longer between each breath. It makes your singing more efficient. Singing with less resistance creates breathy, smoky singing that's useful for creative expression and feels good in the right situations. But, singing with less resistance limits power and volume.
Resistance can be taken to the extreme. If you add too much or use your throat to create it, your singing will feel uncomfortable and won't sound as good. The healthy and helpful way to add resistance is by engaging your diaphragm as you sing and gradually release your air without feeling tightness in your throat. The diaphragm is a powerful muscle used to working constantly and it should be relied upon.
If you don't use the diaphragm to create resistance, the muscles in your throat will likely squeeze to force your vocal folds to stay together. Your vocal folds attempt to be a dam for your breath to sustain your notes. The throat isn't built for this and will get tired and make singing harder. This is called Pressed or Squeezed singing. Singing this way consistently will feel uncomfortable and could even damage your voice. For an illustration of this concept watch the TikTok clip on the left.
Practice Both Capacity and Control
On your way to mastering your voice, practice deeper, slower breathing. Practice releasing your breath slowly by keeping your diaphragm engaged. Doing these things take more effort at first, but eventually they make singing feel better and sound better. Here's an exercise that will help with both:
Place a hand on your belly, between the button and the sternum. When you breathe in focus on pushing your hand outward with your belly.
As you exhale make it as slow as possible. Keep your belly extended outward- don't let it come back towards you right away.
Aim to make each breath take longer than the last one.
You can do this exercise for as long as you like. You may notice some tension or discomfort in your belly if you don't usually breathe like this, and that's normal. The more you do it the better it will feel. Your body will adjust back to this natural way of breathing and it will make your singing feel better.
Advanced Better Breathing for Singing
For additional exercises and feedback on how you're breathing, I recommend taking a voice lesson from me and tell me you want to improve your breath. Readers who sign up to be notified of new blog posts and studio updates get 50% off their first lesson. You can click here to check availability in the studio calendar. If you have a specific question about your breathing please comment it below! I'm happy to answer it.
I hope you enjoyed the read and enjoy the benefits of better breath as you practice!