Becoming aware of our breathing patterns means coming into the present moment and sensing what is happening in the body. Beginning to observe, without judging or changing what we find, what we are doing when we breathe is a very useful activity for singers.
As singers we tend to be more aware of breathing than the average person, but so many singers who come into my studio 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.
Our bodies have the capability of breathing in a myriad of ways. The ultimate goal in any work I do is to create a system that is adaptable and responsive. I want your body and breath to respond well to the task it is asked to do – that means working well for the style of singing you are engaging in.
Before we get to a system that is responsive and adaptive, we need to know what we are actually doing.
Breath Motion Awareness
Try this both lying down in constructive rest (lie on your back, knees bent, feet flat on the floor), and also sitting in a chair.
- Begin by lying in Constructive Rest or sitting in a chair for a few minutes, allowing the body to settle and transition from whatever you were just doing.
- Breathe through your nose if you can. For several cycles of breath, just feel the cool air entering your nose.
- Place your hands on your lower ribcage and notice if there is any motion happening here. Stay for several cycles of breath
- Leave one hand on your ribcage and place one hand on your belly. Notice if there is any motion in the belly. Does the belly move out or in on inhale? Is it happening before or after rib motion? Is the motion in the belly greater or less than in the ribs?
- Leave one hand on the lower ribs and place one hand on the upper chest. Do you feel any motion under your hand in the upper chest? Is it greater or less than the lower ribs?
- If you are doing this sitting in a chair, place one hand on the lower back ribs and leave on on the front. Notice if there is any front to back motion in the ribcage when you breathe.
Breath Quality Awareness
Do this exercise both lying in constructive rest and while sitting in a chair.
- Place your hands down by your side and just be for a few moments allowing you to transition into this exploration.
- Turn your attention to the tip of your nose and feel the cool air entering your body on the inhale.
- With your mind’s eye follow the path of the breath through the nose, into the throat and down into the lungs.
- Are yourself these questions:
- Is my breath smooth on inhale and exhale, or are there hitches?
- Do I tend to rush through the inhale or exhale?
- Am I holding the breath at any point?
- Am I filling my lungs to maximum capacity?
- Am I inhaling longer than exhaling or vice versa, or are they equal in length?
- Am I aware of anything else in my body while I breathe?
Common Erroneous Breathing Patterns
I absolutely adhere to the ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it adage’ when it comes to anything to do with the body, breathing included. However there are a few patterns that frequently get in the way of the voice being easily produced.
The problematic breathing patterns that I see regularly in my studio include: reverse breathing, clavicular breathing, over inhaling, breath holding and over breathing.
Reverse Breathing: on an inhale, the belly area moves in, and the rib cage expands. The belly then relaxes out on exhale. I see this often in newer and younger singers. It can be hard to manage pressure at the level of the vocal folds when we breathe this way
Clavicular Breathing: in this state, the lower ribs aren’t flaring out when you inhale. Instead, your breath is high and shallow and often happening at a relatively rapid rate. 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 as you move through everyday or while you are singing. Please note, there is going to be some motion in the upper chest when we breathe! Your lung tissue runs all the way up to your collarbones.
Over Inhaling: in this state, your inhale is longer than your exhale. When this happens you end up with a sub optimal balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide. This pattern can also contribute to your stress level being raised. This is common in singers who suffer from asthma, something that in my studio has been on the rise over the years.
Breath Holding: in this state, you take air in, but you hold it before beginning to exhale. 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 time and awareness, but I was able to change my pattern in time.
Over Breathing: This is a habit where we take in more oxygen than we need for whatever task we are seeking to accomplish. Our lungs have a capacity of around 4.5-6 liters, but not many of our tasks (even singing!) really require us using that much oxygen. I see over breathing often going hand in hand with clavicular breathing and breath holding.
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? Reach out for a Singer Synergy Assessment if you would like some help with your breathing!