Breathing. Can we talk?
I heard recently that there is a new technique for singers that involves breathing in against resistance. Apparently this trains you as a singer.
WHAT? ARE YOU NUTS?
OK, and breathe.
It seems to me that there’s a fundamental misunderstanding about breathing and singing, and what the purpose of breath is. So let’s start by talking about breathing in general.
Are you all able to breathe in and out? Yes, otherwise you’d have difficulty reading this. Because you’d be dead.
Breathing in brings oxygen into the lungs to help conversion into energy. Breathing out removes the waste products of that conversion. We need it to live.
Unconscious or resting breathing is under the control of the autonomic system. If we had to think about it all the time, we’d forget and die. In fact we’d die in our sleep.
In resting breathing (also called tidal breathing) the in and out breath timing is roughly the same. There may be slight variations, you may have a slight pause at the top of the inbreath or the bottom of the outbreath, but in general the pattern is even.
Breathing for speaking
Any form of noise making including speaking interrupts that pattern. So when we speak, the inbreath becomes shorter and quicker, and the outbreath becomes longer and slower. Unvoiced consonants use partial or full obstructions to get in the way of the outbreath. For example, an “f” sound uses top teeth and bottom lip to partially interrupt the airflow.
A vowel sound (ee) uses clapping of the vocal folds. In a voiced sound the vocal folds open and close against the airstream, chopping the breath into little pieces. A voiced consonant uses both the vocal folds AND partial or full obstructions (“v” uses vocal folds and top teeth/bottom lip). Fact of life.
Breathing for singing
When we sing, the pattern tends to be even more extreme – very quick inbreath and very long outbreath. Remember that in singing the rhythm is usually set by the composer beforehand, and there is often a very short amount of time to breathe in (a beat or the end of a phrase going into the next phrase).
Music genres that use a more conversational style (pop, R&B, rock, folk, contemporary musical theatre etc) will have a pattern closer to speaking, but classical or opera (particularly Handel, Rossini or Verdi) will have very long or powerful phrases that stretch the pattern to its extreme.
Why all this detail? Because the pattern of speaking or singing is quick inbreath, extended outbreath.
So breathing in against resistance will not improve your singing in any way. Why? Because you don’t sing on an inbreath (unless you’re a beatboxer or an extreme contemporary classical singer). The vocal folds don’t like being vibrated against a downward airflow long-term, otherwise we’d all be speaking on inbreaths all the time.
If the task in singing is to shorten the time taken when breathing in, why would you concentrate on slowing it down against resistance? Isn’t it better to remove any airstream interruptions (the resistance that you’re adding) and just breathe in? In fact, isn’t it better to breathe out first and use the autonomic system to take in what you need?
Your breathing system and pressure
So let’s give the “method” the benefit of the doubt and posit that it’s about increasing your lung capacity so you can get as much in as possible. Just one question…
To start with you will be massively overpressurising the system, which is only really designed to do that when you need extreme oxygen intake (the gasping you do recovering from high intensity running for example).
And when you’ve taken all that air in, because of the overpressurising you’re going to have to use a lot of energy to control it, otherwise it’ll all spurt out.
Do you think it’ll help you with long phrases? It might, but you’ll be physically tired from controlling the excess. Let’s take a Handel aria with some long phrases. If you’re worried you’re going to run out and people are going to critique you, notice three things:
- You believe that the breathing laws for this aria were laid down in 1743 and must NEVER be broken. (There are always places to breathe in every phrase that you can make work musically and dramatically)
- You’re not focusing on the sound quality (this is the place you need to control leaking air or pushed tone)
- Many of the arias were written for castrati. That’s men with full adult male lung capacity and resonating space BUT female-sized (often small, high soprano) vocal folds that require less air pressure to move them – a physiological combination we no longer have in the 21st century so there’s not a lot of point in trying to emulate them.
Back to overpressurising
We’re going to assume that you want to sing a long note and keep the sound the same throughout. Notice this isn’t a goal for most contemporary music styles, only really for classical genres. If you want to keep the sound the same, you need to create the vocal set (the shape you hold inside) then feed a stream of air at the same pressure throughout the note. By taking in a large amount of air you are overpressurising the system so you’ll have to hold back almost all of the air to feed an appropriate amount to the vocal folds.
However, as the note continues, the amount of air inside your lungs drops (since you’re using it to flow past the vocal folds and make them vibrate). So the air pressure drops too. At some point during the note you’ll reach a pressure equilibrium inside your lungs so you don’t have to work to hold the air back any more. But you still want to extend the note…
Now in order to keep the pressure of the flow past your vocal folds the same, you’ll have to work to feed the air. But the system is now underpressurised. You’re going to have to reduce the size of your lungs and ribcage as that’s the only way physiologically you can keep the pressure flow the same. Therefore you need to change your breathing “position” from one of holding out to one of squeezing in. If you continue to hold your ribs out in their maximal position (which is one of the goals of breathing in against resistance), you’re going to be singing on negative pressure. The vocal folds start to fight because they don’t have enough airflow and the sound gets tighter and more gripped. But hey, congratulations! You sang a long phrase!
The much simpler alternative is to stay flexible. The focus of singing is on the outbreath (since that’s what we sing on). On very long notes (where you want to keep the same sound and volume throughout), make sure that you feed air to the vocal folds in a stream that remains at the same flow rate from start to finish. That will automatically stop you from holding your ribs out throughout the phrase. Remember the overpressure/equilibrium/underpressure pattern and be aware that the goal is to keep air flowing to the vocal folds, wherever you are in that pattern.
What else can you do to save air?
Let’s focus on the sound quality.
- Notice if you can improve any leakage of air in the sound. If you’re using a breathy sound, or you hear/feel a fuzziness around the core of the sound, you’re wasting air.
- Use resonance strategies to project rather than breath power. It isn’t the power of your breath that makes the sound more audible to the distant listener, it’s the timbre. Adding more “cut” to the sound will project your voice further AND enable you to back off the airflow and vocal fold mass.
- Find places to breathe in the phrase (and make sure you use them). Set yourself an exercise to sing the phrase repeatedly and breathe after a different note every time. Then make it work dramatically or musically. You’d be surprised how many places there are to breathe in a long phrase.
- Check you haven’t missed a place to breathe. This is one of the most important points and the simplest to correct. If you have a long phrase to sing, check that you’ve used the breath places in the previous three phrases to “top up” and reset your stamina. When I coach people singing long phrases or complex songs, so often it’s not the “problem phrase” that’s the problem. It’s the fact that the singer thinks they don’t need to take all the possible breaths in the page before, so when they arrive at the tricky phrase they are already “oxygen-starved”. Look back to the previous page and take EVERY breath opportunity whether you think you need it or not. Then find a few more! And if the trickiest phrase is at the beginning of the piece, slow your breathing down before the music starts so that you are already in the breathing pattern when the introduction begins.
And finally… what about contemporary singing?
So if all of the above is relevant to classical arias, is it relevant to pop, jazz, rock and all the commercial music genres?
In a word…
As a generalisation, classical singing uses a slightly thinner vocal fold and more resonance strategies to boost the sound. But almost every contemporary genre does not use this setup. It would be the equivalent of street dance using only ballet techniques and positions – it would be odd!
In the more vernacular styles the vocal fold use is more flexible (usually thicker or looser) and fewer resonance strategies for projection are used. After all, they got mikes.
Not only that, phrases are shorter and often more “conversation” patterned.
Jazz singers and pop singers often use a lot of breath leakage so there’s no need to “store” it.
And if a singer has to belt a long note? It’s often a single note within shorter phrases, and although the subglottal pressure will be higher, the vocal folds are thicker with a longer closed phase so less air is let out. And you can breathe before the note if you want to (the Phrase Police are away investigating classical singers).
So is breathing in the most important thing to practise for singers? No.
Can you improve your singing by breathing in against resistance? Unlikely.
There’s more about solving breathing problems in our Troubleshooting Breathing online training resource here
Rant over. Give me your thoughts!