Diaphragm: The Myth, The Muscle, The Weirdness

In this post, I’m going to clear the craziness surrounding the diaphragm, and provide some facts on what it does and does NOT do. More importantly, I’m going to show you how to use it as your powersource in singing. It’s one of the main ways you can stay healthy and never lose your voice as a singer. Ready?

When I ask singers to tell me what they know about their power source and how they support their sound, well, you wouldn’t believe the answers I get. Probably the most common answer is related to breathing, which is a common misunderstanding about the diaphragm and support. 

For example, people will say things like, “you breathe through your diaphragm” or “you breathe INTO your diaphragm”, both of which, by the way, are completely impossible to do. How often do you breathe through your biceps? Never. Because you can’t breathe into or through muscle fiber. But every once in a while, I get the really fun answers. One woman told me awkwardly, “you just, you know… tighten…down there… like those Kegel exercises.”Nevermind that she had to say, “down there” but felt totally comfortable talking about Kegels while singing. 

Fun Fact: Singing shouldn’t really involve your lady bits. If it did, how would guys be able to sing? And before you answer that, I’ll tell you another one. One singer said, “Well, I’ve always been told to squeeze my butt.” In both cases, I’m going to answer a big fat NOPE. I mean, it’s not THAT surprising; this IS the most commonly misunderstood part of singing.

In my 15 years of working with singers, this topic seems to be shrouded in the most mystery. And tension…I guess. So, I’m going to show you the REAL story behind your power source and how to make it work for you. Trust me, your singing will be SO. MUCH. EASIER. Since we know we can’t breathe into or through the diaphragm, let’s talk about what its purpose is with respect to your singing. I promise, this will be fast and painless. 

1. It helps to make room for the lungs to expand, offering more space for the breath.

2. It helps support you so your vocal cords aren’t doing all of the work and straining. 

The end. All done. No mention of any private parts.

Have you ever laughed so hard that your belly felt like you’d just did a million crunches? That’s your support system working for you so you don’t lose your voice from laughing. Nice, right? Even better, it happens naturally without you having to think about it. Your body is just built to protect you like that. 

In singing, though, we do have to think about it a little more just to stay extra protected. Have you ever done a workout and the instructor tells you to “engage your core”? Well, engaging the diaphragm is really the same principle. 

I discussed undoing all the belly tightening you unconsciously do all day in my post, “Singers, Do You Know How To Breathe?” and we’re going to do it again here. I always tell my singers, you get to keep that belly nice and tucked and flat while you’re singing as long as you relax it every time you need a breath. 

Let’s try it. I want you to imagine that I just punched you in the belly. Don’t think about it too hard, or we’ll get caught up in what a terrible person I am with the power to reach through your screen. That’s terrifying. So…theoretical punch, yeah? 

Ok. Now, if I did that what kind of sound would you make? Something like this: 

Great. Now I want you to think about what would happen to the belly region of your body if I told you in a few seconds a swimsuit photographer was about to knock on your door and take a picture of you in a bikini? If you’re honest, you’re probably going to stand a little taller and tuck in that belly area of your torso so you look like you have a flatter stomach. Me? Well, I’d laugh and run out of the room as fast as I can, right after I filed a restraining order against that photographer at my door. Anyway. Okay, so let’s put those two things together. You are going to tuck your belly like you’re posing in a bikini while making the sound you would make if I punched you in that belly. 

It would look and sound something like this:

Now if you’re trying to figure out what on Earth this has to do with singing, I’m getting there. First, we’re going to practice this movement a little bit so you can develop some agility with it.

In this exercise, we’re going to tuck one-at-a-time; so we’re going to increase by a number each time.

Like this:

It’s okay if you’re not able to do it as fast. You’ll build speed as you keep practicing. The most important thing is that you relax in between, before you tuck again. The reason that’s important is that, when you’re doing a phrase, you’re going to be holding it the whole time that you’re singing and you need to be able to quickly release so that you can breathe, and then go back into that tuck again.

So really the most important part of that motion is the release, so that you can (ideally later), breathe. But while we’re doing it now, you’re NOT going to be like:

Instead, you’re just relaxing, and then tucking again without taking a new breath. For now.

The next thing we’re going to do is what I call the 5-Tuck and Hold exercise. We’re going to do four tucks and then on the fifth tuck we’re going to hold it as long as you can (doesn’t matter if it’s very long), and release.

It will look like this:

Now, I usually do this with singing, but for today, we’re just doing it spoken.

Let’s do a couple more: 

Excellent! Now I’m going to show you one more and this one is going to be on the piano. It’s a little bit harder; we’re going to say “Hee-heh-haw”. I call this The Vowel Tuck. 

We’re going to go like this:

It will look like this:

Remember, you’re not going tuck-tuck-tuck-tuck-tuck, you’re going, tuck-release-tuck-release-tuck-release-tuck. So you’re constantly releasing in between each one. Now, you’re not singing like that. You’re singing more like the Tuck and Hold, where you hold it out, relax, take a breath, and then hold again.  You’re mostly going to be in the tucked position the whole time. But we do all of this like you would do sit-ups — it helps get the muscles ready to do stuff like this.

Let’s do a couple more:

Fantastic! Now that you have a better handle on how to do that, let’s talk about what it actually does for your singing. I like to call this the 4 Ps.

The first P is “Protect”. Engaging your diaphragm like this while singing helps to protect those tiny, but mighty, vocal cords from getting swollen or developing nodes. Nodes, by the way, are callouses on your vocal cords. Ouch and yuck and no. By letting those big strong abdominal muscles do the hard work, you’re letting them take the initial impact of the sound. So the first p, “protect” is pretty important. Or…Primary.

The second P is “Prolong”. Even though it may sound counterintuitive, maintaining tucked abdominals while singing allows your diaphragm to help regulate the amount of air that comes out so it doesn’t all run out so fast. So, the second P is prolonging your breath so you can last longer in your phrases.

The third P is “Power”. You know how when you were a little kid you would sit at the top of the stairs and go down one step at a time while sustaining a sound? Or maybe you’re me and you did that this morning? And each time you landed on the next step down your voice would let out this big powerful jolt of sound, right? Well, the 3rd P works kind of like that. When you tuck those abdominal muscles it automatically gives your voice a jolt of power so you don’t have to work so hard or put extra strain on your voice.

The fourth and final P is “Pitch control”. Having this area of your body nice and tucked while you sing gives you grounding and a greater ability to stay in the center of the pitch so you don’t sing flat (too low) or sharp (too high).

There it is. Your body’s built in support system and how to use it to help your singing. Because this one is so important, I’m going to give you some homework on it. I want you to do the 5 Tuck and Hold exercise for a few minutes each day. You don’t even have to sing when you do it, just speaking is fine. Do this at least 10 times in a row once a day for a week. Then tell me in the comments section if you notice a difference in your singing, and what that difference is. I can’t wait to hear about it!