In chapter 2, I talked about this “tension” that many people build before they sing a note. Breathing is usually the culprit. Because, well, every note starts with breathing in. And instead of “allowing” the air in, people “force” it in and then hang onto it for dear life. (Which also means they get more tense as the note goes on, as they run out of breath!)
Singing can be done on very little breath. You should be able to hold a note for at least ten seconds, comfortably. If you notice you’re running out of breath, you should feel your abs tightening, nothing else.
That’s why breath is called support. Good support will lead to a strong note. Bad support can completely ruin otherwise fine vocal technique.
The ideal breath
What’s our goal?
- When breathing in, completely relax. Especially your abdominal muscles. Don’t “force” air in.
- When breathing out, tighten your abs. Use them to control the flow of air.
Your shoulders or upper body shouldn’t move when breathing. Your abs shouldn’t be tight while breathing in.
How does this work? Many people don’t know this, but our longs aren’t like a vacuum cleaner. They don’t actively “suck” the air in.
Instead, air automatically fills the space it is given. All your lungs need to do, is expand and compress. When they expand, the air suddenly has more room and travels into your body.
To where do they expand? Your abdominal area! That is why your abs control your breathing, not your upper body. In the perfect world, anyway.
This has an obvious consequence: if your belly does not expand when breathing in … air isn’t reaching that far. You’re not using your full lung capacity. You are “locking” the air inside your throat.
This is a very common issue which can ruin everything. It did for me.
The first time somebody explained this, I had a rough few days afterwards. Because I discovered I was aggressively tucking in my belly. I was constantly holding my breath, being tense, compressing my abs like I’m always exhaling. It took a few weeks of conscious effort to lose this habit. In those weeks, I felt weird, and … fat, because my belly suddenly was much larger.
But once I figured this out, my whole body relaxed. Because I was finally breathing properly. Relaxed, expanded belly when inhaling—compressed and controlled belly when exhaling.
This concept of “forcing” will return time and time again in this guide. It’s mostly a mental shift. Let the air in, let the air out. At first, it will feel odd, like you never have enough breath. But trust yourself and trust your body. Even when you feel relaxed, try to breath with even less effort. See it as “nonchalant breathing”.
Below are my exercises to train this breath support. In all cases, though, general physical fitness helps. Maintain a good posture and good stamina: it will do more for you than any “vocal exercise” could.
Very quickly breath in and out, like a panting dog. It’s a great, quick exercise in general. Within a few seconds, your body will realize “oh no I don’t have the breath for this!” and switch to more active breathing.
Do ensure, though, that you keep the right technique. Your belly should expand, contract, expand, contract rapidly with every breath.
Don’t let your shoulder, neck, throat, or whatever muscles come into play.
If this is too hard, slow down. Start this exercise like an … exhausted slow-panting dog. Then, over the course of weeks, pick up the pace.
Pick any sentence. Preferably something written down on paper, at a comfortable height. So you don’t have to make up something on the spot, nor look from a weird angle at a screen, or anything of the sort.
Speak the sentence on a single breath.
Once you can do short sentences, make them longer.
It’s okay if you feel your abs, especially by the end. As long as it’s just that and no other muscles. Also try to keep your diction and tone the same throughout. (Many people will start to speak faster, or higher, when they run out of air near the end.)
Bonus exercise: “halfway breaths”. Halfway a long sentence, very quickly replenish your breath. (Loosen your belly, let air in, then contract further)
Bonus exercise: “no breaths”. At the halfway point, completely stop your breath for a second, then continue with the sentence remainder. Finding this balance is a great challenge: you need just the right amount of tension to not inhale nor exhale.
Here you see why breath is called “support”. You can train breathing with any sound. You could sing a sentence of a song. You could make random sounds. As long as you focus on relaxing and contracting your abs, breathing from the abdomen.
Lift something heavy
I like to do some heavy physical exercise before singing. Like …
- Ten push-ups
- Running up and down the stairs
- Lifting some heavy thing from one end of the room to the other end
The important thing is that your breathing should speed up and that you use your abs.
This is general advice. Many people do push-ups and look like a banana, which actually trains you in the wrong way. Always keep your abs tight when doing such physical activities.
I do my best singing after doing a sport for 30–45 minutes. This exercise is just a “quickfire” way to achieve the same response from your body.
The book test
Not sure if you’re using your belly? Not sure if you’re using it enough? Do the book test.
- Lie on your back, make sure you’re comfortable.
- Put a book, or something moderately heavy, on your abdomen.
- Now try to move the book up and down with only your abdomen. Just by breathing, see if you can move the book significantly
Once it’s a habit to breath with your abdomen, you can go one step further: really controlling that breath. With regular words or vowels, the difference is hard to hear.
It becomes easier if you pretend you’re a leaky balloon.
- Create a simple sssssh sound.
- Vary the volume or intensity however you like.
- But stay consistent. If you start the sound at some volume, keep it the same until your air runs out.
This sound makes it easier for us to hear if we’re suddenly leaking more or less :p
Once this goes well, you can vary it on purpose. Start soft, grow louder and louder as you go. Or the reverse.
You should feel the air drop lower, even below your belly button. Visualizing the air to be heavy can sometimes help. The only tension should be in your abs, and even that should not be too extreme. Remember that singing is a relaxing activity, and adding good support should only add to that.
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