The Golden Rule of Breathing for Singers

With expanding interest worldwide in yoga, meditation, and martial arts, what I’m about to say should come as no surprise. The single most important factor you can change to improve your voice is how you breathe. Of course, how well you control your breathing is also directly linked to how you use your vocal cords and the other systems of your vocal instrument.

Numerous individuals from wide-ranging fields have analyzed the best practices for optimizing breathing, whether to heal disease, enhance athletic performance, or alleviate anxiety. When you sing, your inbreath and outbreath are fundamental to the production of sound. Plus, the relationship between breathing and mental or emotional state cannot be separated from the quality of your singing voice.

Although the theme of ideal breathing has been deeply explored and richly developed, I prefer to give my students on epigrammatic piece of advice: “Breathe in, stomach out.”Take a few moments right now and just notice whether your lower stomach expands outward when you breathe in. See if you can breathe easily and deeply, so that your belly gently expands out each time you inhale.

Remembering “breathe in, stomach out” when you sing will help ensure that you maintain diaphragmatic breathing throughout your warmups and performances. Doing so will in turn have an enormous influence on how powerfully and easily you can sing. As a further reminder, try placing a hand on your lower abdomen, just below your navel. Feel your belly pressing your hand outward as you inhale. Then, as you sing, notice how slowly and smoothly your abdomen can pull back inwards. Remember that you don’t want to exhale suddenly, with a rush of air. You’ll hear much better results by letting the air out gradually, as you sing all the way through an entire phrase.

Once you’ve started to master “breathe in, stomach out,” you can bring your attention to one other element of your breathing. Notice, as you inhale, whether your shoulders move dramatically. If you have the tendency to shrug your shoulders upward, you may be in the habit of something I call the “drowning breath.” This reflexive breathing often brings along with it a sense of anxiety, which will interfere with your sense of freedom in singing, as well as your general state of mind. Try singing in front of the mirror to catch this type of reflexive pattern. Simply increasing you awareness of these habits can go a long way toward cleaning up how you breathe when you sing.

The best news of all is that air control is crucial to singing, and it’s also extremely easy to practice. Whether you’re sitting in the car or on the sofa during commercials, take a moment now and then during your day and check on your breathing. Does your stomach expand outward when you breathe in? For most people, it takes some time for diaphragmatic breathing to feel normal, but most of my students find that, with just a little practice, it becomes second nature. In fact, it can even be useful outside of singing, bringing on a sense of calm whenever you’re feeling stressed. Just recall four words: “breathe in, stomach out.”