Breathing to Sing
Fascinating Rhythm is renowned for close-harmony singing in the barbershop style, and we work on the basics of our craft at every rehearsal: from the fundamentals of breathing and posture to the more advanced skills of vocal artistry and performance.
Breathing to survive is something that most of us take for granted – we do it all day, every day without really thinking about it – but breathing to sing requires a combination of great posture and skilful inhaling and exhaling. Mastering the technique of breathing to sing gives us more control over our voices and supports our unique vocal sound.
Our Musical Director, Jo Thorn, is passionate about breathing to sing. “It might sound easy, but breathing is actually quite complex, and it’s something that lots of singers want to work on,” she says. “When the penny dropped for me about how to breathe to sing, it completely changed everything I did”.
How does breathing work?
Breathing is a fundamental biological mechanism that keeps us alive. Basically, it’s about getting air into and out of our bodies. We don’t need to think about having to breathe because our brains take care of it on our behalf by controlling the movement of specific muscles in our torsos.
Inhale: To breathe in, the diaphragm (a large, dome-shaped muscle located under your lungs) flattens and moves downwards; and, at the same time, small intercostal muscles between the ribs work together to push the ribcage outwards. The combination of these two actions expands the lungs and draws air into the body.
Exhale: To breathe out, the diaphragm pushes back up into a dome shape, and the intercostal muscles pull the ribs back in, which makes the lungs smaller again and sends air out of the body.
As singers, we try to manage our breathing to get as much air as possible into our lungs as quickly and efficiently as possible, then carefully control how we let it out. The tricky part is getting the diaphragm to work harder because it’s not a muscle that can be consciously controlled; instead, we have to use other muscles to encourage the diaphragm to make bigger and faster movements.
So how do we do this?
Check your posture
Adopting a good posture is the first step towards getting your breathing apparatus working well. Stand securely on a level floor or surface, with your feet shoulder-width apart and your knees ‘soft’ so you can gently bend them. Slightly tuck your hips under, open your chest and keep your shoulders low and back. Align your head and neck by imagining there’s a string holding you up from the very top (like a puppet)!
Standing like this allows you to take full, deep breaths because all your breathing equipment is nicely aligned and not squashed or restricted in any way. If you slouch or hold yourself too stiff, you won’t be able to breathe as efficiently.
If you’re unable to stand or you prefer to sit down to sing, try to keep your torso as upright as you can so air can drop into your lungs without restriction. Try to position yourself on the front edge of your chair and make sure you’re not leaning back.
Locate your breathing apparatus
The two main parts of your body to think about when breathing to sing are the area below your belly button and the area above your belly button.
In the area below your belly button, you’ll find your abdominal muscles, which can be used to encourage your diaphragm to lift and drop more efficiently. Engaging your abdominal muscles towards the end of an exhalation will push the diaphragm a little higher, so it drops faster and further and draws air more quickly and deeply into your lungs.
In the area above your belly button is your ribcage, which is flexible enough to expand by at least one inch to give your lungs and diaphragm plenty of space to work in! Using the muscles around your ribcage will aid the diaphragm’s movement and support the flow of air in and out of your body.
Breathing to sing involves finding and exercising these muscles, working with your body so that the air just drops in naturally!
Work those muscles!
Here’s how to find your singing muscles and switch them on:
- Bookwork: Lie on the floor on your back, place a heavy book on your abdomen and breathe in and out deeply. You should be able to see the book rising as you inhale and lowering as you exhale.
- All-fours: Get down onto all fours on the floor, with your knees below your hips and your wrists below your shoulders. Breathe in and out slowly and deeply. Allow your tummy to fall towards the floor as you inhale and notice it lift back up towards your spine as you exhale.
- Shhhh! Stand with good posture, inhale deeply, then exhale with pressure through a long ‘sh’ sound until all of your air is gone. Hold yourself empty for a few seconds before relaxing your abdominal muscles and dropping your jaw. As if by magic, a full breath of air should ‘drop in’ without you having to actively inhale!
- Shhhh harder: Repeat the exercise above and actively engage your abdominal muscles as you exhale by consciously drawing your belly button towards your spine. As you get close to the end of your exhale, lift those abdominal muscles up a bit to really push out the last bit of air. When you release, notice how the air ‘drops in’ deeper and faster than it did before. (Note: don’t do too many of these as they can make you feel a bit dizzy! Be sure to stop, sit down and just breathe normally if you start to feel giddy.)
- Ribcage lift: Place your hands gently on either side of your ribcage, with your thumbs towards your back and your fingers towards your front. Inhale deeply through your nose and notice how your ribcage expands in all directions (front, sides and back). Exhale steadily through your mouth, and your ribcage will start to fall but try not to let it fall all the way back to where it began – see if you can keep it a little bit lifted for your next breath. Your air should come in really fast, and your ribcage should expand at the same speed. Exhale normally.
- Spaghetti slurp: Inhale slowly through your mouth as if you were sipping the air in, like slurping on spaghetti. (Imagine your mouth opening is as small as the inlet valve on a football pump!) As you do this, you should feel your ribcage expanding and the muscles around it working hard to support your airflow. Exhale normally. Now, inhale again but with your mouth open wider, as if you were sucking through a hosepipe. Your ribcage should expand more quickly this time. Exhale normally. Finally, inhale again but with your mouth wide open like a drain pipe.
Practice makes pleasurable
Whilst breathing to sing involves techniques that can be tricky to master, a little regular practice will give you greater control of your singing instrument. You’ll know when you get it right because it’s such a joyous feeling!
So here are a few final tips to help you on your way:
- Try to include at least one breathing exercise in your daily singing routine
- Work on the breathing techniques one at a time; wait until you feel confident with one before you move on to another
- Don’t worry or feel embarrassed if the exercises make you yawn – it’s perfectly normal!
- Try to stay as relaxed as possible, although it is normal to feel some tension when you first learn where your muscles are and try out these breathing techniques
- Breathing to sing encourages a deep, meditative cycle of breath-taking, which is good for your mental welfare and physical health – so if you feel a bit stressed, have a breathe and a sing!
If you’re thinking about joining a choir but are afraid your breathing isn’t up to scratch, Fascinating Rhythm can help! Breathing exercises are always part of our rehearsal warm-up routine and, after many months on Zoom, we’re revisiting our breathing technique and working on getting back our breathing fitness.
So, if you’d like to find out more about singing with Fascinating Rhythm, we’d love to see you at one of our Thursday night rehearsals. Please get in touch via our Join Us page and follow us on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.
You might also like to see other articles in the Fascinating Rhythm Insight series:
05 – Why warm-up?