Breath / Pos­ture

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.

Try it:

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.

Try it:

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.

Try it:

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.