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The Singing and Speaking Breath

“Belly breath!“, the voice teacher instructs the beginning singer. What is a belly breath? The student never asks because they are either confused or feel intimidated. How does your belly breathe? When you practice mindfulness or yoga, pilates, and other relaxation exercises you use the belly breath. You belly breathe while you sleep. Belly breathing is normal, just look at your pets while they rest!

A student or parent will call me asking about voice lessons for their student. I always spend a good half hour with a prospective student to ask about the student’s goals, age, prior musical experience, previous instruments that they may have studied, and to get a feeling for the student. What I hear over and over again is “my voice teacher told me to "breathe with my belly." Without causing anymore frustration I probe the student to find out what they have learned or what the know about breathing. Most of the time they will tell me that the diaphragm is used to belly breathe. So i then go on to ask what the diaphragm is and that’s where they are perplexed.

So why the confusion? in my experience singing teachers make an assumption that students understand the process of breathing. They take for granted that the student understands the anatomy and physiology of the breath. From my years of experience I can tell you that about 10% of the people I run into understand the processes involved in breathing. The rest have no clue!

Breathing. We don’t think much about it. Actually most of us have never thought about it. So why do we breathe? Most of my students have responded that we breathe to speak or sing. However they have not taken into consideration that we breather 24/7. So how does this really happen? We know it is an autonomic system like digestion and heartbeat but what happens in the process.

The process of breathing is pretty simple: You inhale, air passes through your nose or mouth and into the lungs. Well, there are other parts of the respiratory system that are included in breathing but we are only discussing the breath itself here. The lungs are not muscles but two spongy organs that sit on either side of the heart. The right lung has three lobes and the left lung only has two because it shares its space with the heart.

The lungs respond to air pressure. When the pressure of the air outside the body is greater that the pressure in the lungs while we inhale. When the inside pressure of the lungs is greater than the outside pressure (outside the body) we exhale. It is a simple vacuum pressure where our body tries to equalize the pressure to the atmosphere.

That explains WHY we breathe but the question remain . If the lungs are not muscle HOW do they move? We have a muscle under the lungs. The diaphragm is a large dome-shaped muscle that contracts. When the diaphragm contracts it creates a vacuum which pulls air into the lungs. When we exhale the diaphragm relaxes and returns to its done-like shape and air is forced out of the lungs.

We know now WHY and HOW we breathe but how to we CONTROL our breath consciously such as holding your breath underwater or in singing or speaking? Sounds simple but most new singers and speakers don’t understand that breath control begins in the abdomen. You use your abdominal muscles to control the diaphragm. Thus when you breathe your diaphragm drops, air fills the lungs and that pushes the diaphragm up. I like to teach students to lie down on the floor or the bed with your knees drawn up to protect the lower back. Take a heavy text book, find its center, and put the center of the book over your belly button. Then breathe in and watch the book rise. Exhale and the book falls. I have students practice this for a few minutes before I add voice. Start by exhaling on “ S “ (snake sound), Count the number of seconds it takes for you to use all your breath. Then try again. Then I move to the “SH” ( steam escape sound). Each time you try to make the breath last longer. After moving through several of these sounds we then work on humming.

Controlling the breath is predominately done by the use of the abdominal and pelvic floor muscles . Pulling the abdominals up and pressing into the pelvic muscles lifts and squeezes the diaphragm up against the lungs and air is thrust out. Some voice teachers tell student to “bear down” while singing. I prefer to use the great opera Diva and my teacher in New York, Eleanor Steber, technique which controls the breath also from the top of the diaphragm ( at the solarplexis) which requires less pelvic stress. That way the diaphragm is being pushed and pulled at the same time like an accordion.

So, the next time you hear “ belly breath” you will just do it! Happy singing.


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