Effective breathing is vital for learning how to sing well and is a skill you can master over time. Trained singers practice daily and build it into their warm-up routines, using breathing techniques called diaphragmatic breathing that are often found in various forms of yoga and meditation.
In this post, we show you how you can use these diaphragmatic breathing methods to enhance your singing performance and we list out 12 of the best exercises to try.
Table of Contents
- How Proper Breathing Helps Your Singing
- Reasons for Dysfunctional Breathing
- List of the 12 Best Breathing Exercises
- 1. Releasing Tense Diaphragm Muscles
- 2. Hissing Sound for Optimal Breath Control
- 3. Bouncy Hissing Sounds for a More Flexible Diaphragm
- 4. Practicing Slow Breaths for Deeper Breaths
- 5. Correct Singing Posture and Vocal Endurance
- 6. Lay Flat
- 7. Yoga Breathing
- 8. Snatched Breaths
- 9. Breathing Control Techniques
- 10. Breathing Exercise for Inhalation
- 11. Breathing Exercise for Exhalation
- 12. Yawning Exercises
- 13. The Straw Exercise
How Proper Breathing Helps Your Singing
If you’re singing a song and suddenly start gasping for breath, the performance is often over. It brings the audience back into reality, away from the magic of the song.
Unfortunately, most singers experience this at some point while they learn. But just as you can improve your ability to reach high notes or stay within your vocal range, you can also learn to manage your breath properly. It’s all about breathing from the diaphragm. The organ plays a central role in singing.
Learning how to control your breathing directly affects the quality of your voice as well as your volume, pitch, and tone. So to sing better, you must re-train your respiratory system.
Proper breathing expands the abdomen as you inhale. You may also hear this process called horizontal breathing. Most people instead use vertical breathing, which causes the chest and shoulders to rise. The result is short breaths and an unsupported voice.
To breathe properly, you must focus on controlling the diaphragm muscles while you inhale and push to exhale. Make a conscious effort to pay attention to the abdominal and intercostal region. These are the muscles near the diaphragm you can exercise to help your breathing.
Reasons for Dysfunctional Breathing
Dysfunctional breathing takes place when you fail to consciously master your breath. There are many ways you can inadvertently breathe the wrong way, but the main three results include:
- Shallow breathing
- Holding the breath
It’s tempting to breathe using your neck, chest, and shoulders rather than draw the breath from the diaphragm. But when singers don’t use the diaphragm correctly, only the upper lungs can fill with air. The result is a voice without power.
As babies, we are born to breathe using the diagram. We recognized the central role the diaphragm plays in proper breathing. Yet, most people simply forget over time. Children learn from the world around them, and observation leads us to copy the bad habits of our elders. Over time, these bad habits build up and become more difficult to stop.
However, there are many other reasons singers don’t breathe using the diaphragm, such as:
- Smoking – Smoking causes a series of issues, from chronic bronchitis and swollen bronchial tubes to conditions like emphysema. Both results limit the air your lungs can pump out and make it nearly impossible to breathe using your diaphragm.
- Sitting too much – If you spend too much time in a sitting position, breathing from the diaphragm can feel uncomfortable and the body will lose the ability to breathe from the abdomen area over time.
- Lack of use – Without proper exercise and regular use, the diaphragm can lose strength. The limiting performance can also result from illness.
Kicking bad habits is only the start. You must re-train your respiratory system to rely on your diaphragm muscles or you may revert back. Breathing exercises help.
List of the 12 Best Breathing Exercises
Getting rid of bad breathing habits takes time and plenty of effort. You will need to pay attention to every performance, focusing on how the organ functions and helps you control your singing voice. Use the following 12 best breathing exercises to help.
- Reduce tension in the upper body
- Allow the shoulders to remain in a relaxed position
- Inhale through the nose and exhale with the mouth and nose
- Breathe as deeply as possible
- Fully utilize your lungs at their maximum capacity
1. Releasing Tense Diaphragm Muscles
Perhaps the most common breathing issue among people in general and especially singers is to breathe from the diaphragm continuously. The best way to exercise the diaphragm muscles is to release tension.
For this exercise, focus on the muscles around your diaphragm. Aim to release the tension by starting on your hands and knees.
The position allows the abdomen to hang freely rather than extending from the body. Gravity takes it from there, keeping your abdomen and shoulders in place. When you pull your belly in toward your body to exhale, you must use extra strength to tense the abdominal muscles.
It’s an effective exercise for working the muscles, especially if you can inhale slower than you exhale. Keep a slower pace to maintain muscle engagement longer as you fill your lungs.
2. Hissing Sound for Optimal Breath Control
This breathing technique is well-known and highly impactful. It helps you exercise the breath to reach lower notes without hurting yourself. You’ll feel the tension in your abdomen and diaphragm muscles when you attempt a high pitch, and notice the same tension melt away as you push more air out.
You can sit or stand. To start, inhale for a specific time allotment and, as you exhale, hiss. Grit the teeth and release the trapped air with your tongue. It should sound like “sss.” Most singers practice using a metronome, setting the time to 80 bpm and 4/4 time. You can download a metronome app to help you get the timing right.
Practice your breathing using this exercise for varying amounts of time, and keep in mind that you should maintain proper posture as you inhale and exhale. Breathe using your diaphragm and mouth rather than moving your shoulder and neck as you inhale. Challenge how long you can hold the breath before you run out of air using this key:
- Step 1- Inhale 4 counts; exhale 4 counts
- Step 2 – Inhale 4 counts; exhale 8 counts
- Step 3 – Inhale 4 counts; exhale 12 counts
- Step 4 – Inhale 4 counts; exhale 16 counts
- Step 5 – Inhale 2 counts; exhale 4 counts
- Step 6 – Inhale 2 counts; exhale 8 counts
- Step 7 – Inhale 2 counts; exhale 12 counts
- Step 8 – Inhale 2 counts; exhale 16 counts
- Step 9 – Inhale 1 count; exhale 4 counts
- Step 10 – Inhale 1 count; exhale 8 counts
- Step 11 – Inhale 1 count; exhale 12 counts
- Step 12 – Inhale 1 count; exhale 16 counts
Caution: Make sure to take a deep breath in between the steps to ensure you don’t become lightheaded from the exercise. It’s also vital to stand up straight and keep your body relaxed, to release tension.
3. Bouncy Hissing Sounds for a More Flexible Diaphragm
Breathing becomes more difficult as a singer reaches faster-paced or more advanced sections of a song. The bouncy hiss sound is an exercise to help you conquer your sound without straining. It’s excellent for creating trailing crescendos and alternating between pitches.
Start in proper singing posture, either sitting or standing. You can also lay flat for this exercise. Like the previous hissing technique, you’ll create high and low pitches “sss” sounds. Instead of remaining constant, however, break up the sound with intermittent bumps. You create the sound by clenching the throat, blocking air from rising. Quicken the bounces as you exhale.
4. Practicing Slow Breaths for Deeper Breaths
Slow breathing requires the diaphragm, while the chest produces short and shallow breaths. Breathing from the chest only takes more effort, tires your voice faster, and makes you run out of air too fast. Channel your deeper, slow breaths to engage the right muscles and produce the right sounds through your vocal folds.
Stand with your legs slightly apart. Use your finger to close your right nostril, inhaling and exhaling using the only open nostril. Breathe a few times and switch sides. Draw air in with force and slow the sound to a low sound upon the exhale.
Blocking one of the nostrils forces the body to engage the diaphragm. The exercise should feel more natural the more your practice.
5. Correct Singing Posture and Vocal Endurance
The correct singing posture is vital for any exercise, but especially in training your vocal endurance. Maintaining proper posture suppresses the upper body. It can feel physically demanding, yet the posture helps you tame the tendency to breathe with the upper body faster.
Stand upright and spread the arms out. Take a slow breath, keeping the arms parallel to the shoulders. Breathe in and out, noticing how you are unable to lift your chest and arms.
You can make the exercise a tad more difficult by lifting two items, like light chairs, as you raise your arms. Remain upright with a straight back and slowly practice correct breathing.
6. Lay Flat
Another useful way to practice your breathing is to lay flat on your back while singing, which forces the body to breathe using the diaphragm only. This exercise is useful if you’re new to singing or have trouble pulling the breath from your diaphragm each time.
Try lying on your back with your hands resting on your stomach. Sing a piece in this position, and notice your stomach expand with every inhale.
7. Yoga Breathing
The first technique you learn in yoga, yoga breathing focuses on the diaphragm. It’s also helpful in singing, and you can stand or sit on the floor to complete the exercise.
Close your eyes to help yourself focus on your breathing alone. Inhale slowly through the nose until your lungs are 25% full and hold the breath for around 6 to 12 seconds. Inhale once more through the nose to reach 50% lung capacity, and hold this level for another 6-12 seconds. Don’t exhale. Bring in another slow inhale to add more air to the lungs until you reach 75% capacity and hold. Complete another inhale to fill the lungs, hold, and finally exhale slowly from the mouth.
Then, open your eyes. Take a few normal breaths and repeat the process.
8. Snatched Breaths
Another popular exercise, snatched breaths make you focus on releasing tension in the throat as you sing.
Gradually breathe in, filling the lungs in small fractions like yoga breathing. Count as you breathe, filling the lungs at the 4-count, and slowly releasing the breath from count 5-12. Then, start again on a count of 1 and attempt to hold the breath a count longer than before.
9. Breathing Control Techniques
Once you bring air into your lungs, you must learn to control it using two muscles: the diaphragm and abdomen.
Using the Diaphragm
Your diaphragm is located below your lungs, under your ribcage. It’s crucial for filling and emptying the lungs with air.
As you exhale, you should feel the diaphragm push against your lungs. The abdominal wall should push in and the ribs and diaphragm themselves push up. With a strong diaphragm, you’ll notice plenty of power to control your singing. You’ll be able to jump to new pitches, reach fast licks, or control quiet singing.
Abdomen Should Remain Tight
Keep the abdomen tight at all times. The throat should feel relaxed to allow air to flow freely. Use more air to reach top notes rather than the neck muscles. Push the air out of your body using the abdomen.
10. Breathing Exercise for Inhalation
This simple breathing exercise involves taking in a quick, full breath to match your voice to an instrument. It allows you to focus on your intake of oxygen. Inhale quietly and remain relaxed.
Draw the air in and feel the weight fall near your belly button. Visualize the heavy air enter your body and quickly fall. Rapidly fill your lungs, like in yoga breathing. You may need to fight off the yawns from this exercise, but it’s natural. Don’t worry. Just try to breathe faster.
11. Breathing Exercise for Exhalation
For proper exhalation in singing, you need to remain smooth and consistent. The process allows you to reach high notes and slow phrases during a song with ease. Perhaps the best way to practice is to blow a feather around the room.
Begin the exercise by blowing a feather upward. You’ll need a long and steady stream of airflow to keep the feather in the air. Practice keeping the feather midair as long as you can, making sure to notice your abdominal muscles and diaphragm.
Determine what parts of your body move and when. The abdomen should return to normal as you exhale while the chest remains steady in position. Take a deep, normal breath before repeating the exercise.
12. Yawning Exercises
Yawning exercises aren’t as boring as they sound. They can help you learn proper breathing, improve your singing voice, and help your vocal muscles relax simultaneously. Adding yawns into your breathing exercises also help strengthen the diaphragm and throat.
Stand tall, but in a relaxed position for airflow. Breath in and out slowly, focusing on the entire process. Feel the abs and ribs expand. Yawn. The muscles around your face and mouth should stretch. Try to keep your chin level, and don’t move the head, neck, or shoulders as much as possible. A mirror may help.
You may also lay flat on the floor to this exercise. Make the process more advanced by placing a book on your abdomen to watch how your breathing moves the object. Try not to move
13. The Straw Exercise
The straw exercise, also known as the straw technique or straw phonation, is done by humming through a straw. It’s an excellent breathing exercise, as you learn how to feel your breath concentrate in the straw while focusing on your breathing and keeping your face and body completely still.
Start with the same basic format as the exhale and hiss exercise, only hum the song you’re currently working on while exhaling through the straw. Pros typically begin at the bottom of their range and reach higher notes slowly first, then attempt to hum the entire song this way. To inhale, breathe through the straw as well or outside of the straw if you begin to feel lightheaded.
For a fun twist, try practicing this exercise with the straw in a half-full glass of water. As you hum, you’ll blow controlled bubbles in the cup. It adds a layer of fun for singers of any age.
Breathing exercises are vital to your overall singing performance, but so is protecting your voice by avoiding speech altogether on the day of the show. Professional Broadway singers even sign contracts saying they won’t utter a single word until the performance is over. If you want to become a successful pro, apply proper breathing techniques, focus on the lyrics, shut up, and then let your singing voice fly!
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