Breathing for singing: solutions to common breathing problems

While breathing for non-performers is a simple and involuntary process, singers and actors must take many variables into account while breathing in the context of a song or dialogue, including timing, length, and depth of breath. As musical and theatre artists explore more advanced breathing techniques, including sustaining air and breath planning, they are bound to run into a few challenges. This article explores a few of the most common breathing problems and what you can do to fix them.


Shallow breathing

Shallow breathing refers to an inhale that is taken mostly from the upper chest, rather than the lower abdomen, which offers a much fuller and deeper breath. To experience how ineffective shallow breathing is, try this exercise: pretend you are really nervous and breathe in and out quickly, almost hyperventilating. That’s not very comfortable, is it? This type of breath won’t give you nearly as much oxygen as a full, deep breath taken from the lower abdominal muscles, so you’ll run out of air faster and create a vicious cycle of needing air too often. For an in-depth explanation of how abdominal breathing works and how it should feel, see the post on breathing exercises.


Shallow breaths are usually taken in the chest for one of two reasons: 1) performers are nervous and their torso muscles are tense, which prohibits them from getting a deep breath, or 2) they have made poor choices with their breath planning and took an inhale when they didn’t have quite enough time to take it deeply. To solve these issues, work on muscle relaxation and understanding performance anxiety, and study appropriate breath planning strategies so you don’t end up in forced-and-fast breath situation.


Breathing at the wrong time

Trained singers are masters of planning out when and where they are going to breath, and when executed correctly, they make it look so easy and natural that most audiences don’t even notice. There are general guidelines to which most singers adhere when deciding when to breathe, and those universally accepted places include rest markings, punctuation, and ends of musical phrases. For more details, read the rest of the breath planning post.


The reason breath planning is so important is because taking one breath at the wrong time usually results in a chain reaction of needing subsequent breaths at inopportune times. Taking a breath in the middle of a phrase, or worse, middle of a word, is likely to end in needing your next breath mid-phrase, and so on.


Inadequate breath length

Similar to shallow breathing in the chest, many singers struggle to get enough air when they do take a breath. In order to maximize the oxygen in your body, you need to have enough time (usually 1-2 full seconds or longer) to fully release your abdominal muscles so that they are totally relaxed, and can refill completely once you start inhaling. If you are inhaling on abdominal muscles that are already partially full with air from your last breath that you didn’t exhale, or are tense and unable to release, you’ll get about half a breath, which might get you through to the next phrase but on sub-par vocal tone and richness.


Again, look to breath planning techniques to make sure you are choosing places that allow you enough time to fully release and refill. Choose places with rests at least a quarter or half beat long, or sustained notes that you can cut slightly short at the end.


Collapsing posture

A final common breathing issue has to do with performing posture. The ideal singer’s stance will have shoulders rolled back and down, with the chest just slightly puffed out (standing “tall and proud,” if you will). Typically as singers sustain very long notes and phrases, their lungs will exhale air and therefore shrink, and the shoulders, neck and back will collapse along with the lungs. This is natural and makes sense - as a balloon deflates, it collapses. However, trained singers learn to counter this natural process, and as they are running out of air they work even harder to keep their posture up. Why? Because a stretched out, fully aligned torso can more properly use muscle power to push out those last few gulps of air when you need it most. A collapsed, shrunken torso puts your abdominal, chest and back muscles in a position where they can’t push with as much force.  


More resources

For more techniques to practice breathing for singing, see chapter 1 of the Vocal Exercises eBook

Interested in improving your own breathing for performance? Try a vocal coaching session to get one on one evaluation and solutions.

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