The Great Breathing Debate (Singing Teachers)Posted by Eliza Fyfe on August 30, 2015 at 11:50 am
The topic I’ve been waiting for!
1. Yes, more so now as I realised that some of my students didn’t know how to do it properly and they were breathing too much or too little and expelling breath on the on/offset. Some just need a recap if they’ve slipped into bad habits (over-breathing in particular – I spotted this after a teacher spotted ME doing it when having singing lessons!) Some don’t need to learn it because they have a controlled, steady, even sound!
2. I aim to get the student to understand that it’s exactly the same as every day breathing and intake of breath before speaking. I get them to be able to easily activate the breathing that’s completely automatic in our bodies! Physically, it’s to help them relax and engage with the diaphragm. Sonically, they can hopefully hear a clear, steady sound and also feel the resonance within their mouth/chest, without an exasperated, breathy result, or any leftover breath/breathlessness. Finally, psychologically it helps them realise that the sound is NOT bigger than them, therefore they don’t need to tense up in apprehension because their bodies are stronger, more capable and has more capacity than they realise!
3. I only teach 45 minute lessons, so I cover this in lesson one and expect them to engage their breathing before they arrive for lesson. If they seem particularly tense after a stressful day at work/school, I get them to do stretches and relax their shoulders and neck muscles etc. Normally only takes a couple of minutes. If they seem unable to engage in a few minutes, then repetition of breathing exercises is something they need to do every day in their own time and keep me posted if there’s any issues!
Over and out…
MemberAugust 30, 2015 at 11:54 am
I love the idea of doing stretches if the student has had a stressful day. This is something I’d love to do more.
I see you use the word engage a lot, like “engage with the diaphragm”. I haven’t seen this terminology before. Obviously we always use the diaphragm no matter how we breathe – we use it in our sleep! Could you explain what you mean by engage? Are you just talking about a low breath rather than a more “clavicular” one?
We’ve talked about this on the facebook so I decided it was time to make it happen. These are some things I’d be interested to hear about from you guys, but feel free to wax lyrical and tangentialise where necessary :).
1. Do you choose to teach breathing yes/no? Do you teach it for all students or only some?
2. If/when you do teach breathing, what are your aims? And what is the perceived result in the student when these aims are achieved (physically, sonically, psychologically etc.)?
3. How much time do you typically spend on breathing (per lesson or per student)? Do you see it as a pillar of technique that must be worked at repeatedly, or is it more “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”?
Engaging with the diaphragm means connecting and getting the abdominal muscles working and getting your breathing in place, e.g. the natural diaphragm recoil when warming up and being aware of it in general singing.
So you’re saying it’s a lot to do with awareness right? Just being aware of what the body does naturally to control and accommodate air. Because I 100% agree with you that it should be the same breathing as speaking. Natural, automatic etc.
Pretty much. I went from not teaching breathing (apart from quickly demonstrating not raising shoulders, making sure your stomach inflates! Again, same as every day breathing) to going into more detail recently with diaphragm recoil, as that’s what MY singing teacher has been doing with me and it’s really helped. I over-exert when I sing and subsequently run out of breath a lot.
MemberAugust 30, 2015 at 11:55 am
I don’t have set excersizes for breathing but try and teach them to breathe from their diaphragm while they are actually singing. I have found that it gives their voices more support especially while trying to hit those long high notes. I have also found that breathing properly gives students more confidence and belief in their abilities.
It’s different for every student though and it’s also difficult because naturally while walking or running or doing any sport we don’t breathe from our diaphragms. I found out the only sport where you do breathe from your diaphragm is swimming
@Wes, I agree that deep breathing gives people confidence. On the rare occasion I do address someone’s breath, it’s often to get them into the mental state of being confident and prepared. Although I note that often when this takes place, a change has also occurred in the students’ posture. I believe that posture and breathing style are so intertwined that sometimes if you address one, the other just comes along with it. And a nice “nobel” posture, as it’s often called, also works wonders for the psyche.
@Eliza, it’s interesting that you feel like focusing on deep breathing helps to stop over-exertion. Do you feel that this is partly psychological as well as physical, as mentioned above?
I’d like to add a caveat as well, that whatever breath you push through the throat from the lungs has to be accommodated by a corrosponding strength in the throat to resist that air pressure, or else you won’t end up with more “support”. Try filling up your lungs with the perfect deep breath and then sighing it out. Not very supported right? But if you do the same on a nice loud ahh in a strong chest voice it feels the exact opposite! Super supported! I’d like to quietly suggest that the idea of support is not purely breathing dependent but in fact comes from the air, source and filter all working in tandem (or the lungs, vocal folds and vocal tract/vowel). If you give a singer who is already too breathy a breathing exercise, feeling as though she just needs more support, you may in fact be encouraging her to compress and expel MORE air, which will then overload the already weak adductor muscles of the throat.
I guess my point is that breathing is important as a psychological device, as a posture-rectifier and often there-by as an auxiliary way of keeping the larynx stable, but the idea that “support comes from the diaphragm” is often too simplistic a model.
Wes – so true about swimming! I took swimming lessons a couple of years ago to learn how to swim underwater, breast stroke and front crawl, and it really improved my singing!
Kat – it’s not deep breathing that helps necessarily, it appears to be natural diaphragm recoil. This is what seems to have wowed me of late! A physical help yes.
I think that’s really interesting and true with the rest of what you said!! That’s why I’m changing my method. Teaching breathing means that focus can end up being too much on breathing, which inadvertently increases air in the student’s singing I’ve found! I tend to think, drawing on what you said about a chest sound feeling more supported, is that it’s the proportion of sound and air together… that’s the bottom line here… (at risk of stating the obvious?!) and the student just needs to find that balance!
Eliza- Rad! That’s good to know about it being more about recoil. Gives me something to research and ponder to see if it can help my teaching :).
And what you said 100% – it’s totally about balance!! This is a reason I spend so little time on breathing. Because often you can address the balance by changing things on the throat level first, and that’s just so effective (and the breathing gets better as a bi-product!). Using tools like vowel, pitch and volume to affect the intrinsic muscles of the larynx is really helpful for most in addressing that balance. Woohoo!
If it’s any help, I think the recoil bit is from the Vocal Process method which is what my vocal coach is trained in.
Woohoo, I am so glad we are on the same page. It’s a nightmare to explain. But yes, I have found lately that tonal changes with just things like mouth shape can be enough to affect the airflow naturally without actually trying to change foundation of breathing that we are born with. But as each student sings, I’m always saying “try this, now this, now a bit of this” till we get the thing that works! It’s just not black and white. Maybe they feel like I contradict them sometimes, but it’s just saying different things until the balance is right. I think I’m making sense. But it is 2am…
Awesome, will look into Vocal Process.
And yes, Eliza, I totally agree!!!
You DO have to adjust as you go to keep the student in balance – I think of it like a pendulum swing, the student will often do things towards one extreme at the start (too muscly or too breathy for example), and then as they learn new co-ordinations, may swing the other way! The key is to help them identify with the condition of balance (the right amount of airflow synching up with everything else) rather than the tool. When a student stays with the same tool for too long, it sometimes becomes a hindrance rather than a help as they drift toward another extreme. Totally on the same page :).
I’ve looked for information about natural diaphragm recoil, and I can’t find anything! I’ve learned about how the lungs have an elasticity to them and so when they’re stretched to take in air, they naturally let go of some air suddenly as a recoil (I think!?).
But I haven’t been able to find anything for singing specifically.
An chance I could get you to explain a bit more? Do you know of any videos out there that show this so you can see the effect? Or if you could even upload a vid, that would be super amazing. I’d love to write a blog post about breathing soon, so any info would help a heap🙂
Haha – well I just googled it, and I am pleased to present you the first hit on Google – Matt Pocock’s Voice Hacker!
He explains it a lot better than I do. Lip trills (or raspberries as he puts it!) are an excellent, easily accessible way to achieve this. Along with the “zz/vv” revving sounds.
MemberAugust 30, 2015 at 12:17 pm
Awesome! Matt should be here to help us out haha!
So I just read that, and I have to admit I don’t really understand? If it’s something the body does naturally isn’t this whole idea just about being aware of the outbreath and not focusing too much on the in-breath or making it laboured? This just seems like what happens naturally.
MemberAugust 30, 2015 at 12:17 pm
Hey there, I think the concept of ‘recoil breathing’ may be overcomplicating what in my understanding is actually very simple. Lungs expand / stretch during inhalation. So the way I see it, recoil is nothing other than the natural ease with which the lungs ‘rebound’ after we exhale, which in very simple terms means they go back to the same state we experienced previously at rest, before inhalation. The process repeats every time we inhale & exhale without us having to think or control it in any way.
With regards to breathing exercises in general, I always incorporate at least 1 or 2 into my lessons, as I’ve found conscious focus on ‘just breathing’ for a couple of mins has a number of benefits:
– It helps to alleviate tension
– It helps students to get into ‘training / singing’ frame of mind & switch off distractions
– It calms them down and makes them feel more relaxed & comfortable in a learning setting
– And it sets their breathing into a smoother, steadier, more consistent pattern, which paves a great start for vocal warm ups & subsequent singing
I use various breathing exercises and alternate them to keep it interesting for the students, e.g.
Exercise 1 – Breathing out a consistent stream of air
Start by taking a deep breath, filling your lungs all the way down to the abdomen (not just the top half of your lungs). Then let it out very slowly in a constant stream. Imagine that you’re exhaling through a very thin straw and the air is going out so slowly that you don’t appear to be breathing at all. It may help to picture a candle out in front of you, and your breath is moving so slowly that the flame doesn’t flicker as you exhale.
Exercise 2 – Breathing out and sustaining a note
Pick a nice comfortable note and hold it through the entire breath. Don’t let it change in pitch or volume–make it seem like a key being held down on an organ. Be sure that each note is a comfortable pitch–somewhere in your normal speaking register. Low notes are good because they help the throat relax. Use a different pitch for each breath. Don’t try to belt out high notes. That strains the vocal chords.
For those who struggle with the concept of diaphragmatic breathing I advise to practise at home the following:
Lie on the floor on your back with your hands on your stomach. Breathe in (inhale) and your hands will rise. Now breathe out (exhale) and they will lower. In this position it is virtually impossible to breathe incorrectly. Try to breath in the same way when you speak or sing.
Hope this helps🙂
Well said Monika!
Yes the lying down and breathing is what helped me learn how to sing from the right place!
MemberAugust 30, 2015 at 12:18 pm
Nice one, Monika!
Yep, just as I thought; recoil isn’t so complicated after all. Phew!🙂
MemberAugust 30, 2015 at 12:18 pm
I just shared this with my students and I thought I would post it here too, as I found it to be very relevant!
“For those of you that don’t already know, Gareth Malone is my idol. Hopefully you saw the inspiring and tear-jerking Christmas Number 1 by the NHS Choir. (If you haven’t, Youtube it right now!)
But something he did just before that was help those with breathing difficulties to sing. He brought together a group of 18 Americans, some of whom suffer with respiratory problems having been directly affected by 9/11.
This is an amazing story and the reason I’m sharing it with you is because singing basically ALWAYS comes down to confidence, no matter what physical or emotional barriers you have. Watch and be inspired🙂
Full story here: http://www.philips.co.uk/a-w/innovationandyou/article/extended-story/breathless-choir.html?&origin=|mckv|slOnAh2BP_dc&pcrid=85954895814|plid|&trackid=”
MemberAugust 30, 2015 at 12:25 pm
Woah! Super inspiring🙂
MemberAugust 30, 2015 at 12:25 pm
@Eliza Woohoo! Guess my SEO must be working!😉
Let’s demystify the recoil breath. It helps to remember that the diaphragm only works ONE WAY. And that way is DOWN. Just like a bicep can only pull in one direction, the diaphragm can only flatten. This means that ‘singing from your diaphragm’ isn’t quite true, because the diaphragm isn’t active during singing.
@Monika – Great to have you here!🙂 The lungs do have some natural elasticity to them, but they don’t pull the air in when they rebound: just like a balloon doesn’t pull the air in after you deflate it. But 3 perfect exercises nonetheless.
The recoil breath comes down to one idea: wherever you place your attention, there will be tension. We’ve all seen this: students who, when you say ‘breathe’, inhale like a hoover doing screamo. Tons of visible neck tension, tons of audible ‘turbulence’ on the breath (which indicates laryngeal and FVF tension). Bad breathing.
This means that focusing on the in-breath is actually counter-productive. So recoil breathing focuses on the out-breath. In other words, you breathe out so your lungs completely deflate (on a ‘ff’ sound or any fricative), then allow the breath in. I replied to a post on reddit with a really helpful gif to describe it.
This actually comes from a practice called ‘Accent Method’ which Janice Chapman loves (but for which most of the books are out of print!), but ‘recoil breath’ was coined (I think!) by Jo Estill.
MemberAugust 30, 2015 at 12:26 pm
The diaphragm isn’t active during singing?! Oh my god. But that’s what I teach everyone, to feel the power from your belly… I can feel it right now as I sing!
The out-breath focus is brilliant and I’m now really into fricatives🙂 and yes I’ve seen this lovely gif already Matt, as I am now a bit of a Pocock Follower. What do you think you’ll name your fans?
MemberAugust 30, 2015 at 12:26 pm
@Matt, thanks for the AWESOME explanation. And I’ll look out for you now I know you’re on the singing reddit too! Although now I see it, you’ve said SLS is “rubbish”. Pretty huge call there. As someone who teaches what is basically SLS technique, I’d love to see your justification for that one!
Also, for clarification, if the diaphragm isn’t active during singing, then what would you say are the muscles used to create the slow controlled exhale used for singing? Or are you saying the resistance is all at the throat/mouth level?
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