The Deal with the Diaphragm, Pt. 2

The Deal with the Diaphragm, Pt 2

In the first post we looked at the diaphragm and its role in inhalation – It is the primary muscle involved in the lifting of the ribs and the expansion of the abdomen upon inhalation. To be extra clear, it is always involved in breathing – there is no such thing as a non-diaphragmatic breath. It is just a matter of how efficiently it works. When you are a singer you need it to be very efficient, and how the body is positioned influences the way we use the other muscles of inhalation and exhalation all of which allows the diaphragm to function efficiently.

When we sing we need to slow down the rate at which air is expelled so it matches the needed amount to set the vocal folds in motion at the appropriate pitch and gives you the ability to sing through a phrase. We can’t do that with the diaphragm because we have no direct control over it.

We accomplish this by engaging the accessory muscles of exhalation. (When you aren’t singing you can slow the breath down by pursing the lips on exhale, hissing, or by using an ujjayi breath). The abdominal muscle that has the most direct relationship to the diaphragm is the transverse abdominus, the deepest layer of belly muscle, because it attaches to the body at many of the same points that the diaphragm does. We often refer to muscles in pairs as antagonists (think bicep and tricep in your arm). The transverse abdominus is the antagonist of the diaphragm. The other accessory muscles and their antagonists include the obliques (belly) and the costals (ribs), but we’re looking most closely at the transverse abdominus here.

Transverse Abdominus in deep red above.

If the diaphragm returns to its resting position quickly, you get a big burst of air that will either make your sound breathy, out of tune or more difficult to create than it should be. So, when we slow its return down by engaging the other muscles of the abdomen and back, especially the transverse abdominus, you create what is often referred to as ‘support’.

So, how do you know you are engaging the transverse abdominus muscle?

Try This:

Lie down in a well aligned manner. Place your hand just above your pubic bone on your low belly.

Exhale through pursed lips or on a hiss, continuing until you feel as though you are out of air. Like, really, really out of air.

While exhaling pay attention to where you feel muscle engagement – hopefully you feel it beneath your hand in the lowest part of your belly, almost as low as where the pubic bone is. It is a subtle in-and-up motion. That muscle engagement is the transverse abdominus muscle which wraps around the torso like a corset. If you aren’t sure if you engage it when you sing, try vocalizing on the sounds v, m, n, or the ng sound from the word sing with your fingers pressed into your softened belly. Those sounds are good triggers to engage the muscle and you’ll feel it press against your fingers when you vocalize.

Enjoy!

The Deal with the Diaphragm, Pt. 1

The Deal with the Diaphragm, Pt 1

“What do you know about breathing for singing?”

This is one of the questions asked of students in my voice studio at their first lesson. My least favorite, yet most common response is, “well, I know you breathe from the diaphragm,” uttered as they hold their hand vaguely over their abdominal area.

If that is their answer we go no further.

The diaphragm, for those of you who don’t know, is an involuntary muscle. That means we have no direct control over it. We cannot make it do anything. At all. When not engaged it rests at the bottom of the rib cage. When activated it contracts and pulls and aides with inhalation.

Because it is an involuntary muscle, we do not ‘breathe from the diaphragm’ anymore than we breathe from our stomach. We breathe through our mouth or nose, down the trachea and into the lungs. Breathing occurs through an interplay of muscles, including the diaphragm, that pull on lung tissue, create negative pressure and allow air to rush in (a very boiled down explanation with apologies to those who do anatomical things for a living and would give a more complex, in depth explanation).

What we want is a diaphragm that is free to descend to its maximum position, allowing the bottom portion of our lungs, where the bulk of our lung tissue lives, to fill with air, giving us the best shot at singing long phrases.

What we need is a set of abdominal muscles flexible enough to allow the contents of the abdominal area (stomach, liver, spleen etc) to move forward when the diaphragm encounters them. Because the diaphragm inserts on itself in a central tendon,  its flexibility is also partly dependent on the flexibility of the hips and spine. (Working on flexibility while building strength is one of the many reasons why yoga can be helpful for singers.)

When teachers and conductors and the like tell students “Breathe from your diaphragm!” what they mean is release your abdominal muscles and get the ribcage in an optimal position so the diaphragm is free to descend on inhalation.  We ‘feel a low breath’ because there is expansion in the belly as things move around.

The way the diaphragm is involved with exhalation and how it is paired with its antagonist muscles in the abdomen to provide the foundation for a supported sound is for another post.

Go forth and sing, but know that you aren’t controlling your diaphragm as much as you might think you are!

Bee Breath

Bee Breath

In this post we’re going to add to your tool belt of ways to manage and soothe performance anxiety. If you’ve read other breathing posts, you are starting to get a feel for the power of your breath.  Being aware of your breath helps you to be aware of your state of mind: shallow breath = stress/anxiety, deep, full breath = relaxed, calm.

This breath practice is a way to move to a non-anxious state by using sound to help extend your exhale. It is something you can practice back stage before performing, or while riding on the subway, in your car or while simply walking down the street.

Bee Breath:

To begin this practice, sit in a comfortable cross legged position or in a chair with your feet flat on the ground, spine tall.

Inhale through your nose and exhale through your nose while softly and gently humming on an /m/ sound and comfortable, mid-range pitch.

There should be little effort in your hum and the jaw should be soft, the tongue resting between your lower teeth. As you continue your neck, shoulders and jaw will continue to release tension.

The bee breath calms the anxious, spinning mind and helps to lengthen the exhalation without additional effort – forcing the breath beyond your capacity will have the opposite effect.

What you are doing is humming softly. There are many articles out there about the health benefits of humming. Including one from the New York Times that presents multiple studies on the effect of humming to help sinus infections, a short one from mindbodygreen on the health benefits of humming and one from relaxation lounge on the instant benefits of humming daily.

Give it a whirl and see how you feel after!

Extending the Exhale

Extending the Exhale.

If you completed the breath ratio exercise and discovered that your inhale is longer than your exhale, or it is equal and you’d like to extend your exhale, here are a few tips on how to do that.

As a reminder, an extended exhale helps to trigger the relaxation response, shutting off the flow of stress hormones (think about the need to fall asleep after you get home from a performance that ended at 11pm…). If you are a singer who struggles to sing longer phrases of music this exercise can help you as well – as will exercises that improve the efficiency of your vocal cord closure, but that’s another post for another day!

***Nota Bene: If you are an asthmatic, please don’t try to attempt to extend your exhale when you are symptomatic, you are likely to trigger an asthma attack. Please wait until your breathing feels calm to try this. You may do even better to begin by thinking about shortening your inhale rather than stressing your system with extending your exhale.

1. Lie on your back in constructive rest and allow the body to completely relax into the ground.

2. Place your hands on your belly and take a moment to tune into breathing that involves the motion of the belly out on inhale and in on exhale.

3. Do a few cycles of counting your inhalation and exhalation. Let’s say your ratio is 6 inhale, 3 exhale.

4. Now try these three options to extend your exhale 1 count at a time:

  • Try first just thinking about slowing down your exhale to see if awareness is enough to bring about change.
  •  Inhale normally, purse your lips and exhale like you are blowing bubbles. Changing the shape of your aperture (opening) changes the rate at which you exhale, slowing it down.
  • Inhale normally, and exhale creating a whisper sound in the back of the throat called Ujjayi breathing – Please, please, please don’t make yourself sound like Darth Vader. This should be a noise that is only perceptible to your own ears.

If it feels easy to extend your count by 1, you can work more quickly toward doubling your exhale length, putting your count at 6 and 12.

Once you’ve mastered things lying down, move on to trying them sitting up and then standing.

As always, just explore without judgement and enjoy!

Breath Ratio

Breath Ratio

The next topic for Breathing 101 is that of the breath ratio. In the first post we covered the basics of breathing and a few common breathing pattern problems. In the second post we looked in depth at breath awareness.

Your breath ratio is important because it tells you something about the state of your body. There are three possible ratios –

* Inhale and Exhale equal in length
* Inhale is longer than Exhale
* Exhale is longer than Inhale

Try This:
Lie on the floor in constructive rest.

Close your eyes and take a moment to settle in.

Take a few breaths before turning your attention to your inhale. Count the length of your inhale over 4 or 5 cycles of breath. Though the pace of your counting doesn’t matter, try to be consistent about it so you get an accurate count. File away the number you get most often when you count: this is the length of your inhale.

Now turn your attention to your exhale. Count the length of your exhale over 4 or 5 cycles of breath. Again, keep your pace consistent to get an accurate count. Compare this number to the length of your inhale and you know your breath ratio!

What your ratio means:
In every day life an equal ratio indicates balance and ease as you move through your daily activities.

A ratio of inhale longer than exhale means you are over inhaling. When your inhale is longer than your exhale, you will over oxygenate the body and contribute to your stress level. Over breathing sets your sympathetic nervous system in motion (this is the branch of your nervous system that oversees fight or flight mode.) While fight or flight mode is appropriate if you are running out of a burning building or away from a charging elephant, being in this mode as a chronic state will create a loop of stress and anxiety. You may over inhale out of habit, or if you are an asthmatic, it may be part cause, part effect of your asthma.

A ratio of exhale longer than inhale means you are relaxing and also able to sing through longer phrases of your music! This process triggers the parasympathetic nervous system which governs relaxation. In this state you are able to be present to your surroundings, calm on stage and connected to your breath and body.

In our next post we’ll look at some exercises to do to help lengthen your exhale and shorten your inhale.

Breath Awareness

Breath Awareness

Stop what you are doing right now and lie on the floor. Well, maybe read through this first, but then lie down on the floor!

In the last Breathing post we looked at some of the common problematic breath patterns. Here’s the first step to understanding your pattern(s):

Breath Awareness:
 
1. Lie on your back with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor. Allow your eyes to fall closed, turning your attention inward. 

2. Rest your hands on rest on your the lower part of your rib cage. 


3. Breathe through your nose and notice the motion in your ribcage as you inhale and exhale. Notice the expansion of the ribcage on your inhale. Can you feel it move side to side, up and down and even front to back? The ribcage is where we want to move first and most when we breathe.

If your ribcage isn’t moving when you breathe think about softening and allowing expansion without increasing either the volume of air or effort you are putting into breathing.

4. Now move your hands to your belly. Feel your belly rise and fall on inhale and exhale.


If your belly isn’t moving, can you think about softening it – try softening your jaw first and see if that helps. It can take time for the belly to soften, we hold A LOT of tension in our belly area. Try letting go of tension as you exhale, imagining your body melting into the floor.

5. Place the hands back on the floor. Continue to breathe through your nose and notice how ribcage and then belly expand on inhale and return to resting on exhale.

6. Turn your attention to the quality of your breath. Is it smooth or are their hitches? Do you rush through the inhale or exhale? Do you hold the breath at any point? Get curious about what you do.

After trying this on the floor you can take it with you and do it at your desk, while sitting at the piano, driving in your car, eating dinner etc. Just commit to observing without judgement and see what you find out.

Enjoy and let me know what you discover!

Breathing Patterns

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.

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: 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. 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. 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.

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 an assessment if you would like some help with your breathing!