Breathe Baby Breathe!
The connection between breathing and singing may be obvious – but the way to improve them may not be. If you struggle with this issue it may be hard to believe, but developing a better voice/breath relationship can be as simple as asking for a better result when you sing. That’s because your breath will automatically adjust to your singing . . . if you let it.
The words, “if you let it,” are pivotal. Posture and breathing are naturally responsive to communication but only if we are completely unrestricted physically and emotionally. That’s rare. Over time, slight physical and emotional inhibitions are introduced into our behavior and become normalized. An accumulation of these inhibitions is what makes expressive singing (and speaking) feel unnatural. You can thank your inner cynic if your body feels imprisoned, but don’t surrender without a fight. Just remember; inhibitions influence breathing but breathing can influence inhibitions. Every relationship is a two way street.
Emotional permission and a healthy physical condition are the first areas to address for vocal improvement because they allow your breath and body to respond freely when you sing. The foundation of your voice (neuron connections in your brain) is another key area because that’s where inhibition lives. It’s your inhibitions that create a pathway (or rut would be a better description) for your voice. Vocalizing (singing exercises) will unlock negative neuron connections because they have fewer emotional triggers. The irony here is that all your efforts to create a balance between the physical forces and emotions involved with singing will bring you right back to the first breath of your life.
Here’s the deal. For most of us, the best damn breathing we ever did was on the day we were born. That’s right, you and I were brand-spanking-new breathing machines. At one day old your breathing adjusted perfectly to support all your needs. Pressure was created to cry out, breath-flow was stopped to swallow or burp and big yawns were created to clean the lungs of carbon dioxide. It was nothing short of a miracle. Unfortunately, since that day we’ve been messing with it.
Flash forward a couple of decades and what we now think of as normal breathing isn’t always very natural. Emotions, physical conditions and personality traits have taken over. As an extension of this, your voice will sound weak and shaky if your breathing has become shallow or restricted over the years. Or your voice may be blaring loud and blow out often if you’re the kind of person that takes huge breathes and then drives your voice every time you speak. Balance is the key to controlling any physical event. And with singing, that means balancing every sound with just the right amount of air.
To simplify what’s going on between your breathing and vocal muscles, you’ve got to simplify what’s going on in your mind. Phrases like, “sing from the diaphragm” and “support the tone” have been passed down from teacher to singer for centuries. These phrases make it seem like there is a single breathing behavior every singer must adopt when in reality those sayings were only referring to projecting the voice. How, then, should you breathe if you use a microphone and don’t want a classical sound? Again, the answer is, “like a baby!”
I often hear comments from beginners like, “Where should I breathe?” or, “I don’t know how to breathe,” which seem silly if taken literally. Of course you know how to breathe – or you wouldn’t be alive! The diaphragm and other breathing muscles are certainly involved when you sing, but they make so many tiny adjustments every split-second you can’t possibly guide them consciously. Thank goodness you don’t have to. Contemporary singing should flow like an animated conversation. If you attempt to direct your breathing rather then let it react, you’ll end up sounding contrived.
Just think of your legs and feet. All day long they “support” your body. Does that mean they are always tight? Locked up and rigid? Of course not. What they do is shift around a lot. Even when standing military straight, your feet are still making minute adjustments. Stand on one leg and you’ll really notice a lot of adjusting. So who’s telling your foot to make all those little moves in order to keep you upright? Well, you are. And all you have to do is give it a single command. That same kind of single thought is all that’s necessary when you sing – if you trust your reflexes.
Breathing and vocal muscles are neurologically connected to coordinate instantly to express how you feel. All you have to do is get out of the way. That’s the difference between those who sing easily and those who struggle. Unfortunately, freeing your breathing/vocal coordination via training requires that you focus on what should be an unconscious act. To avoid a potential Pandora’s Box of contradictions, think of breathing exercises as releasing your inhibitions rather then learning how to breathe.
If you feel tangled up in disagreeable behavior and constant chatter from your inner cynic, simple yoga breathing exercises are the best place to start. Don’t underestimate their value if you consider your vocal skills to be advanced. Illness or bad days can reduce anyone’s behaviors. The simple meditative focus of these exercises is a great way to introduce (or re-introduce) the trust necessary to return breathing to an unconscious activity.
When you’re breathing naturally, you’ll notice big breaths automatically precede loud phrases and small breaths occur before small passages – just like a baby. Making the transition from conscious back to unconscious breathing requires a leap of faith and lots of practice (depending on how restricted you are). I make the comparison to a baby’s breathing not to suggest that it’s easy – but that it’s the way you were born to breathe. So focus on the sound you want when vocalizing or singing rather then the behavior you think is necessary . . . and let yourself breathe, baby, breathe!