Breath Holding

Have you ever wondered if you or one of your singers is a breath holder? It is more common than you might think and can be one of the factors contributing to vocal fatigue, tension and increased effort in producing the voice. While there may be pathology on the cords that contributes to these issues too, many singers will get a clear strobe showing vocal cords that look and seem to function perfectly well, yet they are experiencing issues.

Breath holding can be a long term habit or it can arise as a result of a particularly stressful experience or a change in breathing resulting from an upper respiratory infection. (I write this as someone who was a breath holder as a result of a very stressful time in my life – I was literally holding my breath waiting for the next bad thing to happen, but I resolved it with time, awareness and practice.) How it came to be is almost beside the point, if it is happening we need some strategies to resolve it.

Physiologically, when we hold the breath back, there is a change in the way to vocal cords function, such that they are restricting the airflow. In the people I have worked with I have found there is also a change in the function of the musculature of the upper body that restricts motion of the parts that need to be moving (muscles of respiration, abdominal musculature, joints, tissue of the lungs etc.) – often their ribcage is lacking motion in at least 1 plane. I was also someone who carried a fair amount of constant engagement in my abdominals and needed to find ways to release those so I could turn on my reflexive core.

How do you identify breath holding in a singer? For one, you can watch the ribcage and abdomen while they breathe – always ask yourself is there movement and what is the quality of it? Do this for both the inhale and the exhale. I like to assess breath while the person is just breathing, while they are speaking and while they are singing. What you may hear (you probably won’t hear all of this in one voice, but you might hear a combination of these things) is an audible intake of air, a glottal at the beginning of a word, a quality of pushing to the voice, a phrase ending with lots of vocal fry and sometimes that little puff of air coming out after they’ve finished the phrase. The person might report that their throat is sore, it feels tight and the voice just feels plain effortful. I was that person with the extra effort going on, especially at a tessitura that put me near the passaggio, D5-G5.

The solution comes from a whole body approach that uncovers stress response patterns and creates an exhalation that is free. Using awareness practices we can ask students to begin to notice their breath in stressful situations. We can all relate to watching something like a down-to-the-wire sporting event moment where we hold our breath in response, or watching a movie where a character is about to meet his untimely end and we know it is coming but he doesn’t. What do we do in those situations? We hold our breath. If they are breath holding in response to stress, simply raising their awareness and remembering to keep breathing is a huge step in the right direction.

We can begin with breathing practices to give us some information about our breathing patterns. These practices are particularly valuable when taking time to explore and assess your habits. Breath Ratio is a great place to start. Then move into extending the inhale and exhale to both be long and smooth – always staying in your pure range – where there is no pain, strain or compensation. When the body fights the extension of either, that’s your edge and you want to work within that range rather than trying to push past it. I’ve written about these here and here

However, I haven’t encountered too many pieces of music where you can get 2 or 3 solid measures of rests in between each phrase AND we need to be able to phonate while we exhale, not just exhale. So we have to be able to incorporate breathing and singing.

Using a 10 minute practice that combines breath and physical motion, targeting the muscles of the torso can do wonders in liberating the breath prior to singing. Then, moving into singing phrases out of context to implement the new breathing patterns and slowly decreasing the length of time you are taking to inhale between phrases until the body can do so in a liberated way has been a solid approach for the voices I’ve dealt with.

If you are interested in exploring your breath more, schedule a 1-on-1 Singer Synergy Assessment and let’s dive in!

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, except in cases of paralysis. It is just a matter of how efficiently it works. When you are a singer you need it to be very efficient. How the body is positioned, our breathing and movement habits along with our history of trauma and current stress level all impact the way the diaphragm moves and influence 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 practice slowing down your exhale with ideas in this post, Extending the Exhale). 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 constructive rest. If your ribs pop up or your chin is pointed towards the ceiling, place a small pillow behind the head. 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.


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 movement 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

If you tried the explorations in the breathing awareness post 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 – think about the need to fall asleep after you get home from a performance that ended at 11pm because you need to be up early to get to work the next day.  We often also need to be able to extend our exhale to sing longer phrases in some pieces of music*.

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.

We want to move gently through these explorations and not seek to force the body into a place it isn’t ready to go.

Before you begin, I recommend you move your body a bit – it could be as simple as setting a time for 2 minutes and shaking your body gently. Often we do well to burn off a little extra energy before settling in to focus on the breath. This is especially important if you are someone who finds focusing on your breath makes you agitated or anxious.

Get a Baseline- for all of these explorations you can either sit in a chair or lie in constructive rest.

  1. Bring your attention to the tip of your nose and feel the coolness of the air coming in through your nostrils.
  2. For a few cycles of breathing count the length your inhalation and exhalation – it doesn’t matter how fast or slow you count, just be consistent in your pace. Let’s say your ratio is 6 inhale, 3 exhale. Our first goal would be to extend your exhale by one count to 6 inhale, 4 exhale. Our second goal is to work to equal inhale and exhale 6:6. Then you can begin to extend the exhale 1 count at  a time to be longer than your inhale 6:7, 6:8, etc.

Strategies – try each for a minimum of 5 cycles of breath. Don’t try all of these at once, just do one at a time over a series of days to see which works best for you.

  1. Try first just thinking about slowing down your exhale to see if awareness is enough to bring about change.
  2. Use pursed lip exhalation: Inhale normally, and then purse your lips and exhale. Changing the shape of your aperture (opening) changes the rate at which you exhale, slowing it down.
  3. Straw breathing: inhale normally through the nose and then breathe out through a straw.
  4. Bee Breathing: inhale through the nose and then exhale on a gentle hum. There should be little effort in your hum and the jaw should be soft. You can experiment with having the tongue resting between your lower teeth and having the tip on the alveolar ridge (bumpy ridge behind the upper teeth and the rest of the tongue resting on the hard palate. Humming helps to extend your exhale, aides in air oscillating, increasing the exchanges of air between sinuses and the nose. It also helps boost the amount of NO, Nitric Oxide (not to be confused with N20, Nitrous Oxide, which is laughing gas!). Nitric Oxide is the third gas of breathing and it helps us find calm, fight on viruses and makes breathing easier.

As always, explore these options with a curious mind and share in the comments what you find!

  • Being able to sing through long phrases is also impacted by how your ribcage is positioned in the body – when we have ribs that habitually press forward we don’t get optimal movement especially in the back body when we breathe and sing.

Breath Ratio

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.

Awareness and Breathing Patterns

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.

  1. 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.
  2. Breathe through your nose if you can. For several cycles of breath, just feel the cool air entering your nose.
  3. Place your hands on your lower ribcage and notice if there is any motion happening here. Stay for several cycles of breath
  4. 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?
  5. 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?
  6. 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.

  1. Place your hands down by your side and just be for a few moments allowing you to transition into this exploration.
  2. Turn your attention to the tip of your nose and feel the cool air entering your body on the inhale.
  3. With your mind’s eye follow the path of the breath through the nose, into the throat and down into the lungs.
  4. Are yourself these questions:
    1. Is my breath smooth on inhale and exhale, or are there hitches?
    2. Do I tend to rush through the inhale or exhale?
    3. Am I holding the breath at any point?
    4. Am I filling my lungs to maximum capacity?
    5. Am I inhaling longer than exhaling or vice versa, or are they equal in length?
    6. 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!