Few things are as important to singing as breath. Like the brush strokes of an artist, each breath makes a statement. The pitches and words we sing are as obvious as looking at a painting of a tree. Beneath the surface, though, lies a subtle message. What makes an artist’s rendition of a tree appear strong and majestic or weak and timid is the manner in which the paint was applied. The same is true for the breaths chosen to sing a song. When, where and how much you breathe become the details which invite a listener in.
With so much importance placed on breath control, it’s ironic that few things are as simple as a breath of air. Effortlessly, the diaphragm contracts and draws air into the lungs and then relaxes back to its neutral position. Most of us maintain this activity unconsciously; an average of 720 life-sustaining breaths without a single thought. And then we wake up. During the day, our breathing reacts to everything we do and think. Bolt up a flight of stairs and, if you’re out of shape, your breathing will become heavy. If you think you hear a stranger in your house your breathing will be suspended. Lift something heavy and the air inside your lungs is compressed. None of these changes require forethought. This ability to adjust to any physical demand or concern is both good and bad for singing. On the upside, it means that breathing is reflexive, no need to think about it when you sing. On the downside, it means that your physical condition and mind-set can easily interfere.
Since singing is low on the totem pole of physical necessities, all higher ranking bodily functions must be satisfied before your vocal needs can be addressed. If something triggers an increase in your heart rate, like running late to an audition, for instance, the stress will automatically shallow your breathing. The compromise to singing is immediate. Poor posture also hinders reflexive breathing. When we slouch, weight is placed on the ribs, forcing the body to work harder to fill the lungs. The result is a perception that your lungs are full when they’re not, which means less power for your voice.
Unconsciously, we often use our breath as a clock-of-life. Can’t remember something important? Your lungs will freeze in place in an attempt to stop time until it’s recalled. Any time we’re put on the spot when speaking or singing, the muscles which control the lungs will hesitate. Even if the words or pitches eventually come, the sound will still be unsure due to the lack of air flow. Another common circumstance which compromises breathing is perceived effort. Imagine a pitch is difficult to sing and your body will lock in anticipation. Creating a rigid torso is necessary for heavy lifting but devastating to vocal control. The abundance of air pressure will tighten your throat every time.
With so many factors dominating every waking breath, you might wonder how anything can be sung with finesse. The answer is that breathing is a two way street. Just as emotions and physical strength can negatively influence breathing, a change in your breathing can positively influence your mind and body. For instance, the best way to reduce anxiety is to consciously slow your breathing. The reduction of oxygen slows the heart which, in turn, calms the mind. Remember that next time you’re late to an audition. A focus on breathing is also beneficial when working out in the gym. Releasing your breath on the exertion of an exercise will deliver more challenge to your target area. Notice, though, the goal is always to return breathing to a relaxed state, which is where singing thrives.