Breathing is one of the most misunderstood and debated elements of singing, even amongst voice teachers. Get a roomful of teachers, bring up breathing, and watch the fireworks commence.
“Give it more support!”
“Sing on the breath.”
“Sing from your diaphragm!”
The list goes on. I believe almost all teachers are going after the same result, but the language can get confusing.
This is because our nervous system does not process the act of singing in a very clear way – we can’t really feel the tiny muscles we need to adjust, but rather only feel the results of our adjustments, primarily the sensations. This leads to some odd language when learning the instrument.
Let’s break breathing down.
There are two movements of the breathing system, air moves in and air moves out. We want to maximize efficiency for both.
When breathing in we want to make sure it is done quickly, and with enough volume of air for the vocal line we are about to sing. This is usually a pretty quick fix for most singers and not the usual cause of most problems.
It is the exhale, or the act of sending the air to the vocal cords where most singers get into trouble. Why is this?
Let’s think of the airflow using a range of 1-10, 1 being very little air and 10 being as hard as you can push the air out.
If your vocal cords are tensed to withstand a level 7 blast of air, yet your lungs only send a level 3, you will sound like you are squeezing and choking, because the air pressure is not enough to properly blow the cords open. However, this is not the most common issue in my experience.
The more common problem is when your vocal cords are set to withstand a level 4, yet your lungs blast a level 7. Now your cords will either blow apart too quickly, giving you a breathy sound, or they will over-react and seize up, causing constriction.
Here’s why this is so common: The muscles that push the air out are much bigger than the vocal cord muscles and can easily overwhelm them.
So what do we do? We need to send air in coordination with the vocal cords, and in a smooth, efficient flow.
Most singers I talk to think they need to learn how to get more air into their singing. The fact is, most need less! Singers take ideas like support and singing from the diaphragm to mean PUSH.
I can tell you, no decent voice teacher is looking for you to push too much air, but unfortunately, that’s what often ends up happening.
The more you know about how the breath and vocal cords interact, the less likely you are to get into these unfortunate imbalances.
You need to learn how to send just the right amount of air to your cords. It’s actually not that difficult to learn. Just be aware that you are likely using too much, try backing off the “push” of air, and see if it helps your singing.
Flow the right amount of air to your cords and your singing will improve quickly.