When is that last time you took a really deep breath? As singers we tend to be more aware of breathing than the average person, but so many singers who have come into my studio in the last decade have needed to cultivate a deeper awareness and understanding of their breathing to ensure it is really working to enhance their singing voice and not working against them.
Pranayama is the Sanskrit word for extension of the breath, or prana. Prana (breath) is the life force, or vital energy. At its best, the breath will help quiet a busy mind, revitalize a tired body and soothe a languishing spirit, not to mention what it does for the singing voice. If you have a breathing pattern that isn’t leading you down this path, it definitely isn’t helping your singing in any way.
There are several problematic breathing patterns that I see regularly in my studio: reverse breathing, clavicular breathing, over breathing and breath holding.
Reverse Breathing: in this state, the belly area moves in on inhale and the rib cage expands. The belly then moves out on exhale. I see this often in newer and younger singers. Though we are born belly breathers, we don’t often stay that way for long. When the belly isn’t soft enough to expand on inhale, your diaphragm isn’t allowed to descend and your lungs aren’t being optimally accessed.
Clavicular Breathing: in this state, the lower ribs aren’t flaring out when you inhale. Instead, your breath is high and shallow. Clavicular breathing contributes the stress response which is fine when you are running out of a burning building and want adrenaline coursing through your body to keep you alert, but it is not what you want when you are performing. With this type of breath you aren’t accessing the lowest lobes of the lungs which are a key part of triggering the relaxation response.
Over Inhaling: in this state, your inhale is longer than your exhale. This is common in singers who suffer from asthma, something that in my studio has been on the rise over the years. You can tell if you are over inhaling simply by counting the length of your inhale and the length of your exhale.
Breath Holding: in this state, you take air in, but you hold it before engaging in exhalation. What should be a split second transition between the muscles of inhalation and exhalation gets extended and the breath isn’t optimally used and therefore your sound isn’t optimal either. As a young singer, I had this pattern until a movement teacher at the Chautauqua Summer Voice Program pointed it out to me. It was a revelatory discovery for me to go for a run and notice that she was completely correct. I took breath in, but didn’t let it out. It took work, but I was able to change my pattern in time.
See what you notice about your own breathing over the course of the day. Do any of these patterns sound like something you are doing? Our next breathing 101 post will give you some pranayama exercises to work with your breath and keep it as free as possible.