An understanding of what one’s body is already doing naturally and effortlessly all day long is key to learning breath control for singing. When one’s comfortable, feeling confident and enjoying oneself, the body is relaxed, and one naturally does things the correct way without thinking too much about it. This is one of the reasons why an untrained singer may sound great singing in the shower or singing along with music in their car — but when a stage is involved everything changes. When we are scared, as people often are before stepping onto the stage, our body tenses and our breathing contracts, becoming shallow or infrequent. Proper breath is about occupying one’s body and expanding one’s lungs and diaphragm without tension — thus controlling one’s airstream.
The implementation of correct breath and posture depends partly upon tricking our bodies into acting relaxed and confident. Before you sing or do any of these exercises ask yourself, “How would my body feel if I was relaxed and confident?”. All singers need to learn how their body experiences these sensations, so they can tap into it at will. It all starts with an inhale.
The Alexander technique is frequently used by both instrumentalists and vocalists to understand and develop posture. The Alexander process addresses inefficient habits of movement and patterns of tension. Many of the exercises focus on elongating the spine and keeping movement fluid and efficient.
1. Imagine there is a string coming up out of the center of your head, like a marionette, and that your body is being suspended by your head. The string pulls your head up and your body hangs loosely. Focus on where your spine and skull meet. Try to find a sense of fluidity throughout your body. How does this feel? Is it easier to stand upright without tensing up?
2. Laying on the floor with your knees bent, try to find a position where you are using balance (rather than muscles) to support your legs. The underlying concept is that correct posture and movement should take less energy.
When singers are first asked to take a good breath they often lift their shoulders and stick out their chest. A great deal of effort is put forth to do the opposite of what feels natural. The result is a shallow breath, a contraction of available space, and an overall tension in the body. This tension creates a state that makes it difficult to sing. When a singer starts paying attention to how they breathe in daily life it allows them to learn from self awareness — rather than force.
Engaging breath without first engaging tone is very helpful. Understanding the anatomy of the body and the muscles that are involved in the process is essential. I like to give singers exploratory exercises to help them feel and naturally engage the muscles they are using.
Exhale all of the air in your lungs, push every bit of it out, then hold your breath for 5–10 seconds.
Notice what happens in your lung cavity and body. What muscles were used? Where did the air go first? Did your lungs expand out, up, or down? What happened in your chest? What is the rest of your body doing?
Try it a few times and see what changes or what new details you notice.
Taking in the air should be a relief. The body relaxes with the inhale. When one inhales after releasing all of one’s air, the lungs naturally and effortlessly take a giant breath, usually filling down and out.
Much can be learned from eastern meditation techniques and their relation to breath. Singers use the same type of focus and fully conscious awareness in their practices. One of the most useful lessons is just slowing down. Generally speaking, one will understand something more clearly and quickly if one is able to slow down.
1. Sit for a few minutes, with your eyes closed, focusing on the breath and posture.
Observe what the body does when you don’t try to control it.
Does the amount of air shift with every breath? Is it a smooth feeling or jagged? What do you consider a good breath? Examine your own judgment regarding what is a proper breath.
2. Add tone to the out breath. Choose a vowel and tone and stick with it for a few minutes. How does adding tone shift the breath?
These initial breathing and posture exercises help students become more aware of their breath, and the muscles they need to engage. These observations will inform the singers practice of controlled breathing, muscle control and practical application. With the following tonal based exercises, I try to approach breath from a different angle. Singers focus primarily on expanding the lungs sideways, pushing the diaphragm, and lowering the stomach out — while maintaining relaxed shoulders and an elongated posture. I place my hand on the singers stomach until I can feel the proper expansion in the belly. Oftentimes, singers tense up somewhat between exercises. Therefore, do a quick check before singing: Are your shoulders relaxed? Is there fluid movement where the spine meets the skull? Are you breathing from your diaphragm?
You will notice that breathing is easy and intuitive with some songs, as their phrases naturally lend themselves to breathing, but with other songs one’s breathing needs to be carefully thought out, marked, and practiced — in tandem with every phrase. No matter where you are within the learning process it is always beneficial to slow down. These exercises and lessons must be learned — and relearned.