The Elusive Breath

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You’ve heard it a million times – To sing your best you have to breathe. Well yes we all breathe don’t we so we are breathing. So what we really need to figure out is the best way or rather how to breathe effectively. And there are lots of tricks to make sure you are breathing your very best to support your singing and lots of practise required to solidify them and variations on methods within this- but I thought I’d throw in some of my favourite breathing tips that help me.

1. Place your breath. Before you even get to breathing you need to have a place for it to go. Make sure you have good posture (lifting through the back of the neck and spine, shoulders slightly back and relaxed down, hips not rotated or tipped back or too far under, knees bent and feet at hip width) and mostly make sure your body (and neck and jaw) isn’t tight. All these things go haywire when you get nervous and make breathing harder. When you breathe in, while you are not “breathing into your stomach” your chest should not lift and you should feel like the breath is going down and outwards. This is because your diaphragm depresses downward to allow your lungs to fill. You should also feel your lungs inflating outward and backward like you are inflating a tire around your body. If the air is reaching all those little corners you know you are getting in a good breath. The reason we don’t want our “chest to lift” is that this means you are only employing the very top part of your lungs and usually tightening your muscles at the same time. Think about breathing in the word “awe” for a big breath rather than “ah” or “ee” which are more useful for smaller breaths or sip breaths respectively.

2. Choreograph your breathing. What’s that – you want me to decide when and how to breathe and do it the same every time and it be part of the plan of the song? Yes, yes and yes! When you sing a song you should have made a lot of decisions already like the feeling in the song, where you are doing certain dynamics and part of this is your phrasing. All these things should be decided and rehearsed for a song to be properly prepared. And believe me – knowing these things are rehearsed will put your mind at ease considerably. Breathing is no exception – in fact it should be one of the first things you address.

Those little breath markers you place between phrases are not a vague suggestion – they should be a decision.

Now where those breaths go is up to you and depends on what you can and want to achieve. But you need to have thought about them and written them into your score. And there is no reason (much like an acting decision) that those cannot change as you develop the piece. But they need to be decided upon – and once you are in that final stretch before a performance those decisions need to be made final and rehearsed so they are second nature on the day. It will help your muscle memory kick in and you will be glad for it. It might even help you remember the words!

3. Know what breath to take. I mentioned briefly that there are different types of breaths. There is a lovely deep breath which can sustain you for a long time (Think about that deep “awe” inhalation). There is a medium sized breath that can fit into spaces between most phrases that gives you a fairly decent run (like breathing in an “ah”). Then there is the teeny weeny breath for topping you up in the middle of a phrase or in a very wordy or fast segment of music (a sip breath much like a little “ee”). These are all useful breaths if used properly (and again you should have choreographed them into your song) but obviously the bigger breaths will support you for longer. Find where you can take those big breaths (where there is say a bar rest before a phrase) and make sure you employ enough time to get the air in (breathe in over a few beats). Find where you can take a little top up breath if you need it. Most of your breathing will probably be somewhere in that middle range where you only have a beat between the next phrase – but always use that breathing in time effectively. And you don’t want to be trying to get through on just tiny breaths which will be your immediate default when you start getting stressed.

4. Keep it quiet. If your breath is making a lot of sound coming in that is because it is trying to push through your throat and past your cords to get into your lungs. Not only does this take longer (because it is being restricted) but it can be a sign of fatigue or can further traumatise your vocal cords. You may be nervous and tight which will cause a restriction but being aware can help open you up. Practise breathing as silently as possible while still breathing deeply. Practise doing all your types of breaths as silently as possible. On the performance day they will be almost second nature and the fear factor shouldn’t play as much havoc.

So those are my main ones! Relax, mark up your score, make smart decisions, and protect those vocal cords! The key being that like anything, good breathing is a matter of practise. 😀 Happy breathing!

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