When I teach breathing to singers, I tend to take a “try this and see what you feel” approach. I can’t clamber into anyone else’s body and feel what they’re feeling. In my view, it’s up to students to develop their own lexicon of sensations related to the breath. I can, at best, offer accurate information about different aspects of breathing: things to notice.
Like this: Start with an inhale. Your diaphragm descends, pulling your lungs and heart with it. Your lungs are connected to your trachea, which you can feel at the base of your neck, just above your sternum. Your trachea is connected to your larynx. On a deep inhale, you may be able to feel your larynx (Adam’s apple) move slightly downward. Notice. What happens when you start to speak or sing?
I like to collect odd instructions I’ve heard given to singers on the subject of breathing. Here’s one:
Lift your shoulders and hold them up so you can make more space for your lungs.
My lungs have always liked a little space, so while I’m at it, maybe I should get a bigger house? What the hell, maybe I should invade some other country so my lungs will have enough space!
Squeeze your butt cheeks together and hold them so tight you couldn’t fit a tram ticket in there.
This one is clearly a partner exercise, with one person doing the cheek squeezing, and the other checking to make sure they can’t “fit the tram ticket in.” Don’t have a tram ticket? No worries. I’m sure your voice teacher can give you a business card to use instead.
Tense up your abdominal muscles as if someone is about to punch you and hold them there to support your singing.
Singing is, after all, very dangerous (especially if you’re invading other countries to make space for your lungs). You never know when someone might come along and punch you.
Okay, one more:
Inhale, let your ribs expand and hold them in this position for as long as possible on the exhale.
Hey, just as an experiment, why not try all four things at once? Lift your shoulders and give your lungs a little space. Tense up those buttocks, lest someone mistake you for a turnstile and try and “board your tram.” Inhale and expand your ribs. Tense up your abdominal muscles to support the exhale, and be sure keep your ribs out.
Ready to sing?
The above methods all have something in common: the injunction to hold.
When you hold, you are making something that should move static.
But breathing is dynamic. It involves movement of many bones, muscles, ligaments and organs. With all of these moving parts to organize, it’s no wonder the singer might sometimes take the rearranging-the-living-room-furniture approach to breathing: “Put this over here, that over there, and can you hold this picture up for me so I can see how it all looks?”
Let’s go back to noticing.
- Take a nice big inhale. Feel your rib cage expanding in all directions. (If you let your ribs move, you’ll probably find that your lungs have all the space they need!)
- Exhale on a sibilant [s] (hiss). The lungs are very elastic. If they weren’t anchored to the body wall, they’d crumple up into little balls. In a resting breath, we let this elasticity do most of the work of the exhale. See if you can sense this elastic recoil as you slowly exhale on the [s]. How long can you go without activating the abdominal muscles? (If you put your hands on your stomach, you should be able to feel when your abdominal muscles tense up.) Can you feel the movement of the exhale on all sides of your rib cage?
On your next exhale, try singing one of the long-tone vocal function exercises, using just the elastic recoil of the lungs to provide the necessary air pressure. You won’t be able to sing the note as long, but it’s interesting to notice how much work the elastic recoil will do for you. (For me, this exercise has some of the qualities — such as ease and pleasure — of a sigh. An elongated sigh, mind you.)
You cannot sing on the elastic recoil of the lungs alone. There has to be some balanced use of abdominal wall musculature. However, singers also need to learn to be able to feel the elastic recoil in the lung so they can tap into it, and let it do its share of the work.
Play with it. See what you notice.
Every breath is different.