Breathing for singing is an extremely important topic, and there are many subtleties to learn about it. So we are going to work on it step by step. However, once we have worked through the various ideas, I hope that it will have become clear that, in essence, breathing for singing is very simple and efficient, and can become virtually automatic. Less experienced singers make breathing unnecessarily complicated for themselves by not having the right information, and getting in the way of the efficient functioning of the body.
Before we look at the special way that singers have to breathe, it’s useful to understand how normal, everyday breathing works. Then we can look at what we have to adapt, in order to breathe for singing. Each time, I’ll give the detail first, and then a summary. If you want to build a quick overview before you go for the detail, just read the summaries (indented in green).
Everyday breathing in
To breathe in well, we must align well. ‘Unpack the back’ by gently by
- extending the base of the spine downwards
- widening the back – opening up the shoulder blades
- letting the front of the chest stay open
- lengthening the back of neck, increasing the gap between the top of the back and the back of the head.
As the back opens up vertically and horizontally, this helps expand the rib frame, and the lungs inside it. As a result, air is pulled into the lungs.
Drawing air into the lungs can be enhanced by not only unpacking the back, but also by simultaneously widening the lower ribs on the left and right of the body. You’ll also find that the front of the chest wall will move slightly up and forwards.
The diaphragm, a dome of muscle below the lungs, and above the guts, is attached to 1) the middle of the back, 2) the lower ribs, and 3) the front of the body just below the lowest ribs meet in the middle. When these three attachment points open up, the diaphragm is pulled downwards, becoming flatter. We can’t feel the diaphragm, and we can’t see it. But we can be confident that it has moved downwards when we open the back and ribs. And it stays down and braced as long as we keep the rib frame open. The diaphragm does not move in and out. The diaphragm moves down and up, either contracting downwards, or relaxing upwards.
Breathing in (summary): It’s not that the chest, ribs and back open up because the lungs fill with air. Quite the opposite. The lungs fill with air because we actively open up the back and lower ribs. Unpack the back, and expand the rib frame, especially lower ribs, all the way round; this pulls the diaphragm downwards, and expands the lungs. Basically, just gently open back and ribs, and air comes in.
Everyday breathing out
In everyday (non-singer’s) breathing, to breathe out, we simple let the rib frame go. As it closes, the diaphragm, no longer contracting downwards, or being braced downwards, simply lets go, and slackens upwards to its passive position, the more dome-like shape. The air escapes really quickly. We cannot ‘push’ upwards with the diaphragm. That is impossible, since it can only do muscular work in one direction – downwards. So, we should ignore advice to ‘push’ or ‘support’ with the diaphragm – it’s a nonsensical instruction to do something that would defy the natural laws of human anatomy. Without the diaphragm, we couldn’t breathe, let alone sing. We all use our diaphragm for every single breath, whether or not we are vocalizing.
Everyday breathing out (summary): The diaphragm can only exert a downward force – it cannot push in, out or up, and cannot ‘support’ anything. The ribs let go, relaxing inwards, so the diaphragm lets go, returning rapidly to its passive, higher position. As a result, air leaves the lungs.
Singers breathing in
As long as they breathe in well – opening the back and lower ribs -, singers can breathe in the same way they would do for everyday life. There is no need to try and take in extra or large amounts of air. In fact, that is counter-productive. When singers try to take a ‘big breath’, they tend to tighten their shoulders. They also tend to tighten neck and throat muscles, even holding the air in by shutting and gripping the vocal folds. As a result, the vocal folds are tight just when we need them to be free, and the resonating space above the larynx (‘voice box’) becomes shorter and narrower and less resonant.
Taking a ‘big breath’ is not a good idea. It may give us a sense of fullness, and momentary sense of strength and security, but it creates too much unhelpful tension in the mechanisms that we need for vocalizing. Also, under such circumstances, there is more carbon dioxide backed up for the body to get rid off; and because singers have to release air slowly, the body undergoes severe stress with so much carbon dioxide stuck inside it for so long. So the solution is not to gulp in extra air, but just breathe in normally, albeit efficiently, as described earlier.
When practicing breathing, singers sometimes get into the habit of closing their mouth and breathing through their nose. This is not a good idea.
- Air enters much more quickly through the mouth than through the nose; when singing, there simply isn’t time to breathe in through the nose.
- Nose breathing usually leads to tighter jaw and facial muscles, which reduce openness and flexibility of resonators, as well as freedom of the larynx.
- With nose breathing, the tongue and soft palate are unprepared for the first syllable after the in-breath, so the first vocal sound is as not good quality as it could be.
When we open the ribs, and the diaphragm descends, it squashes the contents of our abdomen (the viscera). As a result, they passively move outwards, so that we see our belly bulge. We mustn’t force our belly outwards – that creates unhelpful lower torso tension, and actually pulls the lower ribs in. (And inward movement of ribs prevents us, as we now know, from getting the diaphragm down and drawing air properly into the lungs.) We must also not prevent this rapid bulge happening – singers cannot afford to be vain! In her book on singing technique, Janice Chapman  uses a concept she calls SPLAT, short for ‘Singers Please Loosen Abdominal Tension’. This is critical for rapid and effective breathing in when singing. The abdomen will be freer if we also relax muscles in the groin and buttocks. Remember, air will enter deeply, easily and quickly if we align well, open the back and ribs, and loosen abdominal tension.
Singers breathing in (summary): Singers can and should breathe in basically the same way they would do for healthy, efficient, everyday breathing, and include the SPLAT – ‘Singers Please Loosen Abdominal Tension’. One key detail is that singers should always inhale through their mouth rather than their nose.
Singers breathing out – ribs and ‘B-B-B’
Vocal sound – and singing – is created using the air that we breathe out. The everyday method we use for breathing out (relaxing the ribs) helps the diaphragm rise rapidly, and the air escapes all at once, very quickly and efficiently. That’s perfect for our everyday needs – but it’s disastrous for a singer. If the air leaves our lungs that quickly, we have no real control over it. Some notes may not come out easily, and we may run short of air in longer phrases and melodies.
So singers have to breathe out in a special way. The air must leave the lungs much more slowly than in everyday exhalation. Singers must slow down the escape of the air so that they can use it skilfully for the many tasks of singing and interpretation.
If the singer is undisciplined with the rib frame, and lets it close down, the diaphragm rises far too quickly, and air arrives at the vocal folds in large quantities, all at once. As an unconscious reflex, the singer then partially jams the vocal folds together, to try and slow down the escape of air. You can see this in throat and neck tension; sometimes the jaw pushes forward and tightens, and facial muscles then also tighten. Singers shouldn’t use their vocal folds like this, to try and control or slow down the escaping air. It simply leads to stiffening the vocal folds; they make a tighter sound, and it’s harder to sing higher notes, longer phrases, quieter sounds, or a wide range of vocal colour.
Singers must discipline the rib frame when breathing out. The ribs must be encouraged to stay open, expanding outwards even when the singer is making sound on the out-breath. But the question is, if the singer keeps the ribs open, and the diaphragm is therefore kept flatter and braced downwards, surely there’s nothing to make the air leave the lungs?
This is where a certain abdominal muscle becomes important. While we expand ribs, bracing the diaphragm downwards, from below, we can squeeze inwards a band of muscle that is like a cummerbund or corset (called the transversus abdominis, abbreviated to ‘TA’). This compresses the contents of the abdomen so that they push up on the braced diaphragm. The upwards pressure from the TA squeeze is stronger than the downward force of the braced diaphragm, so the diaphragm rises slowly, in a carefully managed way. And air leaves the lungs to arrive at the vocal folds at the speed we consciously choose.
As far as possible, singers should use only the TA for this abdominal squeeze. Avoid a general, non-specific scrunching inwards of all the abdominal muscles. Don’t try to squeeze in from the sides below the ribs (activating internal and external oblique muscles). While these muscles do help squeeze the abdomen and help with breathing out, over-activating obliques makes the air leave too quickly for singing, although this can be useful for the higher pressure needed in loud singing. The other muscle to underplay is the rectus abdominis, commonly known as the ‘six pack’ or sometimes non-specifically as the ‘abs’ (for fun other names, see footnote ). Working the rectus abdominis actually pulls the lower ribs in, which stops us from being able to brace the diaphragm. So aim to keep the six pack looser, while squeezing with the transversus abdominis. In the next article, we’ll be looking in detail how to access and use this muscle. For the time being, think of beginning the squeeze from Below the Belly Button – or ‘B-B-B’.
The release of air is a subtle, understated process. To discover the appropriate physical effort and amount of air needed, imagine blowing gently and evenly on to a pair of spectacles without them misting over.
If we fail to squeeze ‘B-B-B’ when trying to sing, then because our vocal folds need air from the lungs, we automatically, unconsciously squeeze the ribs. And … as a consequence, the diaphragm relaxes, flipping quickly upwards – airflow then is out of control, and the throat and vocal folds react by gripping and strangling the sound.
Some singers catch on to the idea of trying to keep the ribs open. But they don’t learn how to organize the behavior of the TA and squeeze B-B-B. Conversely, some singers learn to squeeze from B-B-B, but still let the ribs close or collapse. Either way, their breathing process doesn’t serve their singing well. The success of singing depends on the collaboration between the constantly expansive ribs, and the alternating SPLAT and B-B-B squeeze of the TA.
Singers breathing out (summary): Singers must, at all costs, aim to continue aligning well, simultaneously expanding the ribs and back, and squeezing from B-B-B – Below the Belly Button. The muscle action needed is roughly the same as when we blow onto spectacles without letting them mist over.
Exercises for learning to take charge of the ribs and ‘B-B-B’
We have now looked at the basic theory of how breathing works, and the specialised way that singers must use their breathing apparatus for the job of singing. The next task is to learn some basic exercises that will help us train the rib muscles and the TA muscle to do what we need. That will be the subject of the next article.
 Chapman, Janice (2011) Singing and Teaching Singing: A Holistic Approach to Classical Voice, Plural Publishing
 Waschbrettbauch (German ‘washboard belly’); addominali a tartaruga (Italian ‘turtle abdominals’); tableta de chocolate (Spanish ‘chocolate bar’); kaloryfer (Polish ‘radiator’)