We’ve all seen the old period piece movies where the burly, sweaty, hairy-chested blacksmith (why are they always so dang shaggy?) is cranking up the coals in the forge by heaving up and down on a huge bellows. Sparks fly and coals glow and metal gets all malleable and he manages to pound it into an Excalibur or something similar. He controls the temperature by how often and how much he heaves. Simple physics, even simple enough for me.
Of course, his bellows is a uni-tasker. It pulls in the air and whooshes it back out. The only adjustment is how much. You, on the other hand, have an excellent multi-tasking bellows. It has two places to both pull in and whoosh out and a long list of cool stuff in between those two events. Let’s take a paragraph or two to explore a little further than “stop lifting your shoulders when you inhale”.
Just like in the aforementioned forge, the thoracic diaphragm contracts (that would be the part that the hairy, sweaty guy did) to pull air into your lungs (that would be the big accordion thingy full of air) and relaxes along with some help from the surrounding muscles to move the air back out (that would be the hairy, sweaty guy again). In science-land, that second part “involves the internal intercostal muscles used in conjunction with the abdominal muscles, which act as an antagonist paired with the diaphragm’s contraction”. Which means they all work together to push the air out. (There are quite a few other things that the diaphragm assists in pushing out but most are quite icky and none apply to singing…move along, nothing to see here).
The breathing that works the best for precise control is known as deep breathing (simple and to the point) or Diaphragmatic breathing (too many syllables) or abdominal breathing (less syllables but still too many) or belly breathing (conjures up a picture of a fat redneck with a beer). Regardless of what you call it, it refers to the expansion of the abdomen rather than the chest. Note that the lungs are wide at the bottom and skinny at the top. There you go. Besides just making your lungs as full as you can, there are some other purposes for deep breathing. First, it’s good for you. Taking a half dozen slow, deep breaths (count to ten on the way in) and slow, complete exhales (count to ten on the way out) is invigorating and refreshing. It’s a proven stress reliever and it’s not a surprise that the practice of yoga and similar disciplines have deep, controlled breathing as their foundation. According to the University of Texas Counseling and Mental Health Center, “Diaphragmatic breathing allows one to take normal breaths while maximizing the amount of oxygen that goes into the bloodstream. It is a way of interrupting the ‘Fight or Flight’ response and triggering the body’s normal relaxation response.” Which means, of course, that if that tenor line looks really scary you should take a deep breath instead of running out into the marsh.
So what exactly do we mean by “breath control”? It means many things to many activities, but all of them still find their way back to singing.
- In sports that involve short bursts of energy like hockey or football or sprinting, the better your deep breathing technique when you stop, the quicker you recover to go back at it at your best. As a singer, the same is true in between pieces of music, particularly in a concert setting. While you’re flipping to the next song, get some air in you, especially if you just finished one that took a lot of work. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty gassed after an energetic gospel piece and totally exhausted after the “Hallelujah Chorus”.
- Skilled SCUBA divers learn breath control at multiple levels. For small changes in depth, rather than fiddling with their gear they “sip” the air, using their diaphragm to regulate the volume of air in their lungs and, in turn, their buoyancy. Long, slow, deep sips and long, slow, deep exhales become a skillfully used tool. Gentle sips can make minute depth adjustments. As a singer, you often have chances for a nice long pull of air instead of a quick gulp during measure-long rests. Use it!
- Rock climbers (especially the psychotic free climbing ones) can burn through a lot of energy in a hurry and when the body needs oxygen, things can start to quiver a bit. I suspect that when you’re suspended in the air holding on with a pinkie and a toenail, quivering is a really bad idea. As in many (most?) stressful situations, stopping for a few slow, deep breaths can keep our adventurer from turning “this is exhilarating” into “this is really gonna hurt when I land”. The same technique is just the thing to calm those jitters on concert night, especially in those moments on the risers just before that first note. Just a few deep, slow breaths will calm you and center you and put you in the right frame of mind (and body) to get the show on the road.
So how do you figure out if you’re doing it right? It’s a two-step process. First, lay down flat on the floor (not at rehearsal, that would look really strange) with something soft under your head so that you can stay there for a while. A towel is better than a pillow because you don’t want your neck bent forward. Put something on your belly, right on your navel, that will stay in place. A book or magazine works well. I use my cat and if you’d like to try that you can borrow him for as long as you want. Seriously. Take him. Please.
Take a long deep breath concentrating on two things. First, that your shoulders don’t move. You’ll feel them slide along the floor if they do. Second, lift that magazine (or cat; he’s still available) as high as you can and then exhale as much air as you can to settle it (or him) down as low as possible. The only way to accomplish these two things is to use your diaphragm.
Now that you’ve got the hang of that, stand up and try to duplicate that whole operation (minus the cat, he’d just be hanging from your stomach by his nails). Put one hand on your belly and the other on your back and take a deep breath. As before, concentrate on not moving your shoulders and moving that hand on your belly straight out. You may also feel some expansion on your back, which is a good thing.
If this is all feels a little odd, take some time to practice each day, just for a few minutes. Not only will it make you a better singer, it will also be a moment of calming refreshment that you’ll find you enjoy. And chances are you won’t plummet to your doom, too. No need to thank me, I’m just here to help.