Belting is easy, breathing is hard.
I remember a singer once came to me after we talked about breathing; she said, “Wow. I thought I was coming to learn how to sing. It never occurred to me I didn’t even know how to breathe.”
Breathing is something that we, as humans, do without thinking about it. Then, someone like me starts talking about it, and then we start thinking about it, and it’s suddenly as though we were sick the day they taught breathing in school and now every breath is a pop quiz and we’re faking it and probably naked in front of the whole class. No? Too far? Ok.
Point is, it’s harder than you think. Listen, I work with some of the best professional singers, and it is EXTREMELY rare that a student starts with me knowing how to breathe properly when singing from day one.
If you have kids or know anyone who has kids, I want you to observe something the next time you’re around them. If you happen to see them when they’re sleeping, watch the body move as the child is breathing. Why? Because THAT is proper breath in its purest form. Then, when that same exact kid gets up from a nap, ask her to show you what it looks like to take in a big breath. Watch how completely different that kiddo takes a breath when awake and thinking about it. Just for fun, try the same exercise with an adult because the exact same thing will happen, only they might look at you strangely and ask why on Earth you were watching them sleep. Adults are judgey like that.
Ok, enough hot air. Let’s get to breathing! I’m going to show you how to breathe as a singer. Believe it or not, breathing like a singer is no different than breathing like any other, non-singing human. In fact, you innately already know how to do it.
Here’s why we’re talking about it: there is a huge difference in the way we instinctively breathe and the way we consciously breathe. Just like so many other things in singing, we have to dig down past the bad habits and strip them all away so that we can get back to what our bodies naturally were designed to do — just… be.
Some of you are probably still not convinced, and have started searching for cat videos because you already know how to breathe. Just do me a favor: stick with me and let’s see if you really know, or if you think you know. That way, we can be absolutely sure going forward.
Pop Quiz: What is the most important thing about breathing?
The most important thing is to relax your belly. Why? Because how on Earth are you going to be able to take a low breath or expand your rib cage or get in a nice big breath if your belly is a tense, tight mess? You can’t. It’s physically impossible. Try it. Clench your abs like you’re pretending you have a six pack (not that I do that every day in the mirror cause I don’t. I totally do) and try to take a big, low breath. Not getting much air, are you? And a lot of people think they are relaxed but they’re not. Even me. I remember learning this ages ago and then one day — years after learning it — I was bending over to turn on the faucet of the tub and I felt my belly drop. I immediately put my hand on my belly and stood up like a cartoon character with a lightbulb over my head and said out loud, “THAT’S what that means!”
A lot of us — especially women — have this horrible habit of holding in our bellies all day long because we’ve been told by society that the thinner we are, the more attractive we are. Well, besides that being a total load of B.S., it also makes it super hard to take a nice healthy low breath when singing. So if you haven’t yet mastered the low breath, I want you to get on the floor on your back, pick up your knees so your feet touch the floor and your knees are in the air, close your eyes and flop a hand on your belly and another on your chest. Keep your eyes closed and just relax.
It may take you a few minutes to get there, but eventually you will relax enough that your breath will start coming in nice and low.
It’s easier on your back because gravity takes over so we don’t feel the need to hold in our bellies in that position. Once you feel that starting to happen, see if you can maintain it while on your feet. And don’t be discouraged if you can’t — it’s hard to strip away a lifetime of bad habits to replace with good ones, just keep practicing this.
Also, I’ve just given you an excuse to lie on the floor and relax a minute. You’re welcome. And that’s how you take a proper breath as a singer. You totally relax so it just comes in naturally where it’s supposed to — nice and low.
But why? Why is it important to do this? Well, when we relax our bellies and take in a nice breath, the diaphragm — which lives just under and inside the rib cage — moves down to get out of the way so that our lungs have plenty of room to expand and take in a full breath. Notice I said “move out of the way.” If you remember from my post, “Diaphragm: The Myth, The Muscle, The Weirdness,” you don’t breathe with the diaphragm.
See, if our bellies instead are tense, the diaphragm can’t move out of the way, which leaves the lungs no room to fully expand, leaving us with a much smaller amount of air and no capacity for regulating what little we have available to last the entire length of just one line of a song.
We’re performing small miracles by singing. The least we can do is let our bodies do their jobs to make it happen. So there you have it. How to take a breath as a singer.