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?
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.