By Molly McLinden
Anyone who sings, whether as a soloist or chorister, knows that proper breathing is a major component to a reliable and healthy sound. If you don’t get a good breath, you may find yourself running out of air, straining, or having a weaker sound.
There is a lot of information out there about breathing for singers. Perhaps one of the most circulated pieces of advice is to “breathe from the diaphragm.” Although teachers and choral directors who say this certainly mean well, the truth is that you can’t do anything to that diaphragm muscle – it is going to rise and fall on its own as you inhale and exhale.
What these well-meaning professionals intend to convey to their singers is that the breath for singing must be low.
Here are some very simple breathing exercises you can do with your choral group to emphasize this very point! Each and every breathing exercise outlined uses techniques that ensure the lower support muscles are being strengthened, so that your singers will have consistent low breathing.
This is perhaps the most straightforward, “tried and true” method to practice a good singer’s breath! This method of breathing has actually been taught for many years, and will hopefully be taught for many, many more.
When practicing the “straw breath,” singers should sit or stand nice and straight, with head balanced, feet firmly on the floor, and shoulders square. Next, they should simply inhale as if sipping through a straw, and then exhale right away. It’s important to NOT hold onto the breath, but let this movement of inhale and exhale be fluid. This goes for any breathing exercise.
To really get the hang of straw phonation, you may actually want to pass out drinking straws to your choir and have them try it with an actual straw.
Spinal Cord Breathing
This exercise sounds more abstract than it actually is, and it takes some visualization from the singers. Like in any other breathing exercise, singers should prepare their bodies first.
This means going through a simple checklist: feet flat on floor, no rigid joints, no slouching, and head and shoulders should be balanced. Also, make sure the face feels fairly relaxed. Tension in the jaw is a big issue for singers, so have your singers imagine their face relaxing as well.
Now that they’re prepared, here’s how to practice spinal cord breathing: When you inhale, imagine that your breath is starting at the base of your tailbone, and that it moves upward on your spine, up to the crown of your head.
Then simply exhale, and repeat the process in sets of three so that your singers know how to get a really deep and complete breath.
This exercise is very simple and effective. As in previous exercises, have singers check their posture and balance first.
Next, they are going to take in several very short breaths. Have them imagine they’re being surprised and gasping very low. These inhalations should be very, very short, almost a split second. Prominent vocal teacher Melissa Cross refers to this as the “by the way” breath.
Remember that although this inhalation may be short, it’s also low. It’s not a matter of how much air; it’s a matter of where the air comes from. If you feel necessary, tell your singers to imagine their tailbone, as in the last breathing exercise.
Try staccato breathing with your choir using sets of four. Four staccato breaths in, then four short staccato breaths out. The staccato exhales will be like little puffs, also coming from the same low place on the singer’s body.
This exercise also emphasizes one of the most important things a singer can know about breathing: it must always be low, and never shallow.
Have your singers take a nice deep inhale, asking them to imagine sipping through a straw as outlined previously. For the exhale, have them do a nice long hiss, mimicking a snake. Have them hiss/exhale for as long as they can.
Singers will get the most out of this particular breathing exercise when they really exaggerate, meaning they should take a long time inhaling/sipping, and then a long time hissing/exhaling.
By exaggerating these movements, your singers will really feel the support muscles kick in, which is key to reliable singing. You can see this exercise demonstrated in this video with breathing exercises for singers.
Breathing for singers should never be complicated, although several professionals have unfortunately made it seem that way. It’s not like you’re learning something new; you’re born breathing and don’t have to really think about it.
In breathing for singing, encourage your singers to look at it as simply making an adjustment. There is a more awareness in the process, but it’s something anyone can and will master quickly with the right exercises!
This article was contributed by Molly McLinden of TakeLessons Live, a platform for online singing lessons. Molly is a choir, opera, and classical singing teacher. She’s been an instructor since 2002 and enjoys working with students of all ages and backgrounds.