Breathing, for most people, is a completely involuntary process that doesn’t require thinking or action. However, as singers and actors we have to manipulate our breathing to fit around the structure of a song or dialogue. We have to take an uncontrolled process and learn to control it, while still allowing the mechanism to work fully and properly on its own. This is a tall order!
Although you'll learn to control the process, breathing for singing still should remain natural and easy. There are no special skills needed, and you don't need to work on developing new muscles or movements; your body already knows how to breathe just fine on its own. Rather, singers will just learn how to intake more air, and exhale it over a controlled period of time. Below are a few exercises to help new performers get started with feeling, understanding and controlling how this works.
Step 1: find your breath lying down.
Again, most people don’t spend much time thinking about or even feeling their own breathing, so the first step is simply to pay attention to it and feel it. The best way to do this is by lying down on the floor with your knees up and bent, which forces the small of your back to completely flatten and make full contact with the floor. Starting on the floor is best because it allows you have a surface against which to feel your abdominal movement.
Try putting your thumbs on your belly button and let the rest of your hands rest down upon the very lowest part of your abdomen, right above the pubic bone. This low, low part of your abdomen is where you want to feel your deep breaths originating from. With your hands in this position, just relax and breathe. Don’t do anything special, don’t try to take deep breaths, just breathe normally and notice what you feel happening in your abdomen. Most people feel their abdomen rise and fall slightly as they breathe. It rises and expands when you inhale, and lowers and contracts when you exhale, but the movement is small - maybe only an inch or two. After you’ve successfully felt this, try a few relaxed deep breaths and see if you can the feel your abdomen rise a little higher and contract a little lower. It should be the exact same movement, just bigger.
Step 2: find your breath standing up.
Now it’s time to stand like you normally would while performing and feel the same thing. Standing sets your internal organs a little differently than lying due to gravity, but we will try essentially the same exercise. Put your thumbs on your belly button and let the rest of your hands rest down upon the very lowest part of your abdomen, right above the pubic bone. Stand and breathe normally, feeling your lower abdomen expand when you inhale and contract when you exhale. After you feel a few normal breaths, try deep breaths. Your abdomen operates like a balloon: it fills up with air and expands, and empties the air and contracts, as demonstrated in the diagram below.
Step 3: the power breath.
Thus far you have witnessed the involuntary process of breathing, and we have not yet tried to control or manipulate it. Now I’ll explain the part we do get to control, which is the exhale. While the inhale is allowing air in to fill you up, and needs to remain an involuntary, receptive process, exhaling is the opportunity to control how much, how hard and and how fast we actively push the air back out.
For an exercise, stand and with your hands in the same position on your belly button and abdomen. Allow an inhale to fill you up, and then push small pulses of breath out while making the sound “sh.” It will sound like this: inhale slowly and relaxed, then exhale “sh”, “sh”, “sh”, “sh”, “sh”, “sh”, “sh”, until all your air is gone. The “sh” sound should be short and forceful. Then inhale and repeat. You should be able to do about 16-20 “sh” sounds before running out of air, or you can work up toward that number and beyond. Seasoned singers can usually do 30-40 “sh” sounds before running out of air.
The purpose of this exercise is to show you that you can indeed start to be in charge of the muscles that control your breath, and how powerful those muscles can be onced trained.
Step 4: sustaining breath over periods of time.
Once you’ve felt your breath and start to see how you can manipulate it, it’s important to put it back into the context of singing (or dialogue). In most songs, we need to sustain a breath over a musical phrase of some length before it is pedagogically acceptable to breathe again (as to not interrupt the continuity of a musical phrase). Therefore, we need to put into practice the powerful muscles we discovered in step 3, but rather than short little bursts, we need those muscles to push air out slowly and consistently over a longer period of time. This technique is similar to holding your breath underwater: we inhale, go under, and slowly let little air bubbles out of our mouth gradually, until there is no air left and we emerge from the water to inhale again.
As an exercise, try a lip buzz or rolled R sound, and see how long you can sustain it. These are excellent sounds to use for this technique because the buzzing lips or tongue will only happen if you are letting a small, consistent stream of air out to support it. If you let a huge gush of air out at once, the buzz will explode and collapse, and if you let out too little air, the buzz will just stop. Place your hands in the abdominal position, allow a deep inhale, and then buzz for as long as you can. You should be able to sustain around 10 seconds to start with, and seasoned performers can do around 30 or more seconds of this exercise before needing to inhale again.
While you do this exercise, don’t forget to keep your hands in position and feel your abdominal muscles working as they slowly push the air out. It will feel like a slow burn, and toward the end you’ll really feel your muscles crunching hard to get out those last few bits of air.
Step 5: start incorporating these techniques into your repetoire.
The point of all these exercises is to get you breathing properly and powerfully so that you can sing properly and powerfully. The exercises are a good start on their own, but eventually the goal is to achieve a full, deep inhale and exhale, a powerful abdominal contraction, and a consistent sustained air supply all within the context of a song. In order to create opportunities to practice these techniques, choose songs that have longer phrases and areas of your range that will require you to sustain a long breath and activate your strong abdominal muscles.
For more information on acting and performance techniques, check out our eBook, Sensational Scenes and Songs.
Interested in improving your own breathing for performance? Try a vocal coaching session over skype (or in person in the San Diego area) to get one on one evaluation and solutions.
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