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  • Dean Nash Vocal Coach

What is correct breathing

The more I talk to singers about breathing the more I’m discovering how often they are still in the dark about the particulars of correct breathing.

When we sing we want to use our diaphragm muscle to control our rate of air. We must avoid holding air in our chest. To do so would involve using the throat muscles to project our sound and this is bound to cause fatigue at best and permanent vocal damage at worst. The diaphragm is a large muscle connected to the bottom of our rib cage and wrapping around our torso (most infamous for spasming and causing hiccups) It is also the muscle we want to control our airflow whilst we sing.

When we breath deeply our diaphragm muscle drops, our ribcage wall lifts and our lungs expand. If we activate the diaphragm when we exhale it creates a bellow effect and keeps our throat clear and open like a wind tunnel as we project our air through it!

Breathing Myths busted!

I need to forcefully fill my lungs as much as possible!!

Not at all! Breathing should never feel forced, it should feel…well, as easy as breathing!

If you try to gulp or gasp your air in an effort to fill your lungs and engage your diaphragm it will actually tighten your throat muscles and close your vocal folds, which will create a lot of unwanted resistance on the exhale.

correct practice: Exhale all the air from your lungs, hold for 4 seconds and then simply drop your jaw and release that hold. the diaphragm will do what it is intended for and effortlessly streamline the air to your lungs without holding any in your chest. The diaphragm muscles is a hard one to find and activate, this exercise will help keep you familiar with correct air placement.

I have to try and hold my breath in-between phrases!

Holding your breath is a bad idea. Do you hold your breath when you are swimming? No, you blow bubbles and slowly/evenly release air until you can tilt your head to the side and take another breath. Singing is similar. Don’t hoard your air, keep your exhale controlled, consistent and even.

Correct practice: Take a deep diaphragm breath in and exhale on a soft “hiss” trying to keep the air flow as consistent as possible. Do you feel pressure anywhere other than the diaphragm? If so try and relax that pressure. It’s important that you’re not holding air anywhere else in the body and the diaphragm is the only muscle creating pressure. Aim to keep that consistent exhale for sixty seconds but don't be discouraged if it takes a little while to achieve!

Good posture just means keeping my back straight!

That is a part of it, but not all of it! Correct posture in singing involves keeping your diaphragm stretch’d. (no slouching of the torso.) but the most overlooked factor in regards to posture and breathing is shoulder placement. Why is how I hold my shoulders so important?

I’m so glad you asked! Directly below your voice box rests a small muscle called the Omohyoid muscle that connects from the shoulder to a small bone called the Hyoid bone. If your shoulders are hunched or tight whilst you sing, this muscle shortens and raises the larynx, hindering your ability to really open your throat and access your full breath support even when you are otherwise breathing correctly.

Correct practice: If you find you often raise your shoulders when you sing, lay down on your back with your neck well supported and practice the above breathing techniques. It’s almost impossible to shallow breathe whilst laying on your back. The more you strengthen your diaphragm muscle, the less likely you are to use your shoulders and breath to your chest. So use this position to safely strengthen that muscle.

Once I learn correct breathing I can stop practicing it specifically right?

Wrong! Sorry! If you're like me you took up music to stay away from physical exercise in high school, but the diaphragm is a muscle and like all muscles the more you use them the stronger they get. If you neglect them they waste away. Your breathing techniques should be revisited often!

Still having trouble with your breathing? Shoot me a message in the comments below or contact me to book a lesson! I’m available via Skype or for face to face lessons in the Sydney CBD.

  • Dean Nash Vocal Coach

Updated: Nov 5, 2018

As a vocal coach one of the most common things I'm hired to help singers with, is how to avoid vocal fatigue and sing without strain or tension. In the video below, the amazing singer/musical theatre performer Steph Panecasio graciously allowed me to film a coaching session in which we worked on just that. (Click the image below for video) and although the video is just a short snippet, I will completely dissect the process in the post below)

What is vocal strain?

Vocal strain occurs when the vocal folds can't vibrate as fully as they need to in order to cleanly create the pitch you are attempting to hit. (the folds move through vibration cycles from roughly 110 cycles a second and up, the higher the pitch the more cycles per second they vibrate) This is usually caused by some form of tension in the body, caused by either;

- incorrect breath support.

- or inadequate vocal conditioning in regards to the technique you are attempting.

Finding the problem!

Breathing: Steph is a highly proficient singer with a wonderfully warm tone and it's almost immediately evident that she is correctly supporting her breathing with her diaphragm.

On her inhale her chest and shoulders stay relaxed, she breaths deeply, her diaphragm drops, and her lungs fill.

When she sings, she evenly compresses the diaphragm (doesn't squeeze!) allowing for stable and consistent support. This is what accounts for her even tone and powerful projection! Steph gets a big ol'tick of approval on the breath support!

If you are unsure about your own breathing habits, then going back to basics and practicing proper breathing is where you should start!

Vocal Conditioning: Singing is no different to any other physical activity that requires specific and controlled muscle movements, coordination, and muscle memory. You need to spend time isolating those muscles and training them to behave and react the way you need them too.

In this session we discovered the problem was that Steph was attempting to place her sound further back in her mouth, with her soft pallet not elevated enough.

Her lower to mid range will work just fine like this, but it's not at all conducive to sustaining those higher belt notes!

Due to the huge amount of effort she was exerting to reach and and sustaining those high notes with her sound placed/resonating in a less than ideal position, Steph was tensing her tongue, jaw, and throat whilst enunciating. That was the root of the problem, and the reason for the vocal fatigue.

Fixing the problem!

The first thing we did was lift that soft pallet and open up the back of the throat.

The soft pallet will naturally lift when we yawn and when we laugh (two things my students do a lot of in my lessons, ha!) emulating this when we sing opens that space at the back of the aural cavity and allows for those higher tones to resonate more clearly.

Next, we took the enunciation out of the equation and attempted to sing the motif on a soft "Da" sound, focusing on keeping the tongue and jaw relaxed. It's staggering how often tongue tension/ placement can be a huge part of your singing woes! Finally, we used some "mhm and "nhn" consonants to move the sound so that it resonated behind the nasal cavities which took a lot of the pressure away from the throat. (creating Glottal pressure, a full explanation of this requires its own post)

In conclusion; Open clear pharynx, relaxed muscles, and correct air pressure/placement and we were on our way to a stronger, healthier, performance!

At no point should singing cause any discomfort to your throat. If your voice is sore, hoarse or easily fatigued whilst singing, make sure you are breathing correctly, keep your body and your face relaxed, and drill your scale work! Steph Panecasio is currently playing "Wednesday Addams" in the Hills Musical Theatre companies production of the Addams Family musical, showing this month! from the 9th of November until the 17th of November. tickets available herehttps://www.hillsmtc.com/tickets

Got a topic you want me to cover? Leave me a comment or shoot me an email, and hit subscribe! Want vocal lessons? I teach via skype or at two convenient Sydney CBD locations. Book online via the 'book online' page of this website or shoot me an email on my 'contact' page!

Until next time,

Lets sing some stuff!