Every breath you take is a gift. From the moment your doctor held you by the ankles and spanked your behind, the gift of life has allowed air to flow in and out of your lungs without thought. Physical and emotional demands govern the frequency of each breath. Exert yourself or become excited and your breathing becomes heavy. Lay still or sink into a depression and your lungs barely inflate. You would think this unconscious activity would integrate smoothly into singing. It does for some. The rest of us interfere with the flow and suffer the consequences. Ironically, we have to train to learn to breathe naturally.
Every breath you take should be in proportion to need. Many singers overcompensate in this area. It is not necessary to completely fill the lungs for every phrase. The vocal folds are small membranes which do not require much force — even at loud volumes. The exact amount of pressure needed is determined by the pitch, volume, quality and vowel you are singing. As these factors change, the air pressure should change as well. This means split second adjustments are required by the diaphragm, rib and abdominal muscles in order to maintain just the right stream of air at all times. It sounds complicated, and it is, but no more so than the way our feet and legs adjust to maintain balance. If the air pressure is too great, muscles around the larynx will tense. When the neck, jaw and tongue lock up, abdominal muscles answer the resistance with even more force. A cycle begins that’s difficult to break; the harder the abdominal muscles push the more rigid your throat becomes. There are many tricks and techniques for singing through this mess but none better then sending up the right amount of pressure in the first place.
Every breath you take should release the body. Just as a rest in written music provides a moment to breathe, a breath provides a moment to rest. Place your hand over your navel and inhale. The area under your palm should move out slightly. This motion is caused by the diaphragm descending and shifting the organs below (remember, your diaphragm is way up inside your rib cage). Diaphragmatic breathing is not as simple as sticking your tummy out — the movement must come from within. Releasing your abs during an inhale helps flush away tension. Your neck, jaw and tongue cannot let go if your abdominal muscles are tensed up like a crunch. Generally, people who drive their abs when singing keep them engaged all the time. This forces the chest to heave upwards for a breath, reducing the intake and tensing the neck. It tires the body to work so hard.
The next time you’re at a show, keep your fist clenched tightly for the entire length of each song. After fifteen minutes or so, your hand will become weak and your arm will ache. Then try relaxing your grip every time the singer breathes. Notice that releasing, for just a moment, allows circulation to reach stressed muscles and revives the strength of your grip. Regardless of how much tension you summon when performing, release your body when inhaling. Think of each breath as pushing a reset button.
Every breath you take makes a statement about you. We all breathe pretty much the same when asleep. When awake, our personalities take control. Extroverts and optimists take big breaths while introverts and pessimists hardly breathe at all. It’s true loud personalities make for natural singers, but lots of artistic people are introverts. If you constantly struggle to project your voice, it may be that you are not inhaling enough. After all, the voice is a wind instrument and, like a trumpet, doesn’t care about your outlook on life. You don’t have to change your personality, but you do have to provide enough energy to play the instrument.
To gain the momentum of a bigger bag of wind, you must first empty your lungs. Blow out all your air until your body is squeezing hard. Then release all the muscles which where used to push. Notice that air comes rushing back in as you relax. That’s because your squeezed body is no different then a vacuum-packed jar of pickles; open it and air rushes in. To incorporate this when singing, always remember to release your body after every phrase. Let the air rush in first and then continue to inhale. Make sure you feel this as a two step process. After some practice, your inhale will automatically be deep — regardless of your personality. Do this every day and your voice will start to sound more substantial. So remember, whether you are seeking more sound or less fatigue, an opportunity for change awaits in every breath you take.