Over Breathing and The Singing Body

We would be foolish to think that there is one ‘correct’ way to breathe for singing. There never is, not even within a genre – every single body is different. My goal in working with singers is to create a system (a body) that is flexible enough to respond to the demands of the singing they are going to do.

That means:

  • exploring tension imbalances throughout the body and creating a better balance of engagement
  • understanding breathing habits within and outside of singing time
  • applying what we learn to the singing voice – often challenging the thinking that the solution to every problem is just MORE AIR.

When I meet a singer for the first time I’m always observing how they are managing their breath, not just when they sing, but when they speak and when they move.

Over breathing is one of the most common habits I see in singers in their every-day breath and in their breathing for singing.

It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation: 

Are we over breathing because singing is fundamentally an over breathing activity – high volumes of air, through the mouth, dictated by phrasing requirements?

OR

Are we over breathing in singing because in nearly every hour outside of singing we are over breathing as well?

We may never know the answer to this, but what I have seen is when you address over breathing within and outside of singing time, there are positive benefits to the singing body and changes in vocal production.

Let’s dive into what over breathing is, how it shows up in life and in singing, and what we can do about it!

What is Over Breathing?

There are several ways we can characterize over breathing in an every-day breath:

  1. Taking in more air than is needed for the task you are doing – this refers to the volume of air you are exchanging.
  1. Breathing more frequently than 8-12 times per minute – this refers to the frequency your breath is occurring. 
  1. Breathing through the mouth – either in and out through the mouth, or in through the nose, out through the mouth can create over breathing.

Another way to define over breathing is chronic low-level hyperventilation. Most of us know what extreme hyperventilation looks like – heaving shoulders, lots of fast, shallow breaths in and out, and in a short period of time the person might feel faint until they breathe in and out of a paper bag.

With over breathing we can become so accustomed to breathing too much, too often that we don’t even notice the subtle ways our body tells us we are out of balance.

Many times when we are over breathing we are doing relatively passive tasks, like reading a book, scrolling on social media or watching tv, where the amount of air we need is relatively small. However, we can also over breathe when we are physically active if we don’t utilize nasal breathing.

Signs of over breathing as a chronic habit in the body:

  • Frequent yawning, sighing or holding of the breath
  • Holding excess tension in the neck and upper trapezius (shoulders)
  • Inhalation leads to the belly pushing forward excessively
  • The ribs swing forward and up on inhale.
  • Blowing off extra air at the end of a spoken or sung phrase
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Swollen nasal passages (they feel narrowed when you breathe in) 
  • Constant high levels of stress or anxiety – this is a chicken and egg situation
  • Asthma, Exercise Induced Asthma, Exercise Induced Bronchoconstriction, Sleep Apnea

Over Breathing in Singing

The way we breathe for singing is unlike any other breathing we do.  The body’s top priority is to establish good gas exchange (O2 and CO2). Other factors in our singing breath include the state of our nervous system, and finally the challenges of the phrases we must sing. I also believe the way we breathe for all the rest of our hours, awake and asleep, will impact what our system does when we sing.

Singing is fundamentally an over-breathing activity.

  1. We utilize the mouth for inhales and phonation
  2. The timing of our breath is driven by the musical phrasing and that can lead to breathing more frequently than 8-12x per minute.
  3. We can also take in more air than is needed to sing a phrase

Singing calls for a very different use of the body than just sitting passively and focusing on breathing, or even than how we would breathe to run a race. We are shaping phrases, communicating emotion and story-telling.  And, we have to use our mouth to do that.

We  have another important element in our breathing for singing, and that is the feature of prediction. Before we breathe or open our mouths to sing our brain is doing a lot of work behind the scenes. Along with the basic gas exchange needs, It is taking the state of our nervous system into account and making some predictions based on the phrases we are about to sing – all before we even breathe in and phonate!

Over breathing in singing involves taking in more air than is needed to sing a given phrase. When we take in too much air, we will not only generate excessive sub glottal pressure, challenging the voice to function well, but we can also over pressurize the deep core musculature.

It is easy to confuse the idea of a deep breath with volume rather than location and when someone says take a deep breath, we take a HUGE breath, rather than releasing the lower portion of our torso to allow for 3-D Expansion.

Signs of over breathing as a chronic habit in singing:

  • Excess tension in neck and upper trapezius
  • Excess expansion in belly area on inhale – creates a challenge of connecting with transverse abdominus and/or internal oblique muscles
  • Ribs swinging forward, like a bell, on inhale
  • Harder to manage air due to excess subglottal pressure – the voice sounds like it is working too hard
  • Vocal Fatigue and lessened stamina
  • Trouble memorizing music

How do we address over breathing?

While we cannot shift away from using the mouth in singing, there are some specific steps we can take to address our over-breathing tendencies.

  1. Develop skills to assess and address the state of our nervous system and find ways to return to a regulated state.
  2. Improve torso mobility – have motion over all 3 planes front to back, side to side and up and down –  in the ribcage and belly/back.
  3. Challenge the ingrained notion that we need a big breath to sing phrases well: the idea of a deep breath needs to be separated from a BIG breath. 
  4. Address over breathing in the rest of our life: in other words, shut your mouth and breathe through your nose outside of singing, when you are doing anything but talking (and even then, can you challenge yourself to inhale through your nose?).

Doing nervous system work first is important because so many of our bodies’ responses are driven by the nervous system. We are meant to experience a stressful event, have a response that produces physical changes in the body – things like increased heart rate, shallower, faster breath, laser focus – and then return to a regulated state. For many of us, our lives put us in a chronic state of stress and our nervous systems have lost flexibility. Work here benefits all aspects of our lives from breath, to singing, to overall well being.

The torso is designed to expand in all directions. Some places, like the belly, can move more than others, but that doesn’t mean they always should. Modern living is rife with sedentarism. That isn’t a judgment, it is a reality. I’m a movement teacher and I’m still pretty sedentary. Working mindfully to address suppleness in the torso via the spine, ribcage and deep core, helps us have more options to breathe in all areas in our lives.

Now, the BIG breath for singing. Somehow we all heard ‘take a deep breath’ and our body translated that to, I’m going to take in the maximum possible amount of air. The result? We over burden both ends of the torso – pelvic floor/deep core AND the glottis with regulating air. Finding ways to work through phrases and addressing our brain’s default prediction of the ‘big breath’ are critical in this process.

When we aren’t singing, we need to be conscious of breathing through our nose. We need this when we are doing passive things like watching tv. We need nasal breathing when we go for a walk. We need nasal breathing when we read aloud to children. We need nasal breathing when we are in yoga class (yep, I said it and I stand by it), and we need nasal breathing when we work out at the gym.

What are the benefits of moving away from over breathing and into a more functional pattern?

When we move away from our over-breathing habits there are all kinds of changes we can notice.

  • Improvement of circulation (e.g. hands and feet aren’t cold all the time!)
  • Dilation of upper airway and lower airway – less constriction in the nose and lungs
  • Improved vagal tone and parasympathetic balance – meaning we are more stress resilient
  • Increased heart rate variability (HRV) – the time between beats, meaning we are recovering from activity better.
  • Increased respiratory sinus arrhythmia – this is HRV combined with our breath and means we see the heart rate increase when we breathe in, and decrease when we breathe out – another sign our nervous system is in balance.
  • Improved sleep and ability to concentrate and stay calm
  • Improved posture, spinal stabilization, and movement, leading to injury risk reduction
  • Less work to manage the voice
  • Ease of tension in the neck and shoulders
  • Better ability to get through phrases with sufficient air

Conclusion

It can feel daunting to address our long ingrained habits when it comes to breathing. But the benefits make it worth it. Better movement, better frame of mind, more ease in the singing voice (less effortful production) are all huge wins for singers. To get started on your path to less over breathing, join us for the Over Breathing and the Singing Body Workshop on May 17th or catch the replay through a membership in in the Aligned and Aware Membership Library.

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