Energy For Singing
Once a singer has identified the areas of tension holding back his or her success, it is important not only to eliminate those tension areas, but to also replace the energy initially provided by the tension with something else. But where do we get energy for singing?
Energy for singing comes from proper breath support. Most singers have heard that breathing is important for singing and that there is a right way to do it. It’s hard to spend any amount of time singing in a choir or pursuing vocal training without receiving some instruction on breathing technique. But many of the singers I’ve worked with, even some who have pursued degrees in vocal performance, are unsure of the best way to use breath and support to energize their voice. It is essential to our vocal health and growth to understand this technique and to confidently and consistently use it in our singing. So how does it work?
First, let’s take a look at how not to breathe.
Many singers begin their pursuit of singing with this type of breathing coordination. High breathing is a breath that is focused in the upper chest. It usually involves a heaving of the chest and a lift in the shoulders and is often very audible, projecting a loud gasp when the singer breathes in.
This kind of breathing actually causes tension in the voice as the chest, neck, and shoulders lift up. The amount of breath we gain using this coordination is minimal and insufficient, as much of the breath we take in is being forced and restricted into the upper chest cavity.
You can see if this is the type of breathing you use when you sing by simply watching in the mirror, or by placing a hand on your upper chest near your collarbone and taking a deep breath in and seeing if there is any lift to the chest or shoulders. If you see or feel any movement at all in the upper chest or shoulders, then it’s time to get to work on a new technique for breathing.
Developing a New Technique for Breathing
Low breathing is a technique for breathing that uses the diaphragm and intercostal muscles to create space for the lungs to fully expand with air. Here’s how it works. As we breathe in, the muscles in between our ribs, called the intercostals, lift the rib cage and expand it outward to the sides. At the same time the diaphragm, a large, dome-shaped muscle that sits under the lungs, flexes and flattens out, creating space under the lungs as it pushes against the viscera (fancy term for “sack of guts”). It’s accurate to think of the diaphragm as the bulldozer muscle, since it serves to push the soft, squishy, movable stuff of the viscera (large and small intestines, liver, kidneys) out of the way.
As the diaphragm does it’s work creating space under the lungs, the abdominal muscles must relax and expand out. If the singer’s gut doesn’t expand out, this breathing technique doesn’t work! If the abdomen stays tight and pulled in, there is nowhere for the viscera to go, and the diaphragm will be unable to create enough space for the lungs to fully expand. This is often the most difficult aspect of this breathing technique, because most singers don’t want to stick their gut out, especially on a stage with hundreds or even thousands of eyeballs watching them. Get over it! You’ll be the one that notices the most, and unless you’re wearing spandex while you lead worship (which I wouldn’t recommend for a variety of reasons) the expansion will go unnoticed by anyone in attendance.
Should I Breathe Through My Nose or Through My Mouth?
Breathing through your nose provides some nice benefits in that it warms the air by the time it reaches your throat, and doesn’t dry your throat out as much as in haling through your mouth. However, when you inhale through your nose it takes around three to five seconds to completely fill the lungs. Rarely, if ever, do we have that much time available to us in the middle of a song—the band isn’t going to vamp for an extra measure while we take a breath! So it’s, best to practice breathing through your mouth, since that’s what you’re going to need to do in performance.
What I’ve described so far is the process of breathing, which involves acquiring as much air as possible and “filling the tank.” This is critical, but the most important part of the process is what I refer to as support, which involves translating the air we get when we breathe into energy for our singing. Here’s how this works.
Let’s quickly review the process of inhalation. The rib cage expands out, the diaphragm pushes down, and the abdomen expands, right? Now we’re ready to allow that air out and sing. What we do not want to do is to simply allow all of the air to escape out as if we were a balloon with a giant leak. We need to efficiently use the breath we have to provide energy and support for our singing. How do we do that?
The key component in support is the strength and coordination of the diaphragm. Once the diaphragm has flexed and forced the viscera down and out, creating space for the lungs to expand, we want the diaphragm to remain engaged as we exhale and sing out, pushing down and out against the tightening of the abdominal muscles.
What does that feel like? For those of you ladies who have experienced childbirth (on the giving end—we’ve all been on the receiving end), the internal muscles you used to push life out into the world, that’s exactly the pushing- down coordination we are looking for. For the rest of us, our reference point will be the feeling of engaging our, eh, hum, bathroom muscles: an internal bearing down as we are singing out (a gentle one, don’t get carried away with it, especially on stage!). That feeling will keep the diaphragm engaged, pushing down and out against the constriction of the abdominal muscles tightening and pulling in as the breath is released. The antagonism between those muscles is what provides energy for the voice.
Energy for Your Voice
Developing the breathing technique presented in this article is essential to building freedom, and strength in your voice. Increasing range, eliminating tension, increasing endurance, and avoiding vocal fatigue and damage are all dependent on our ability to bring energy to our voice through this breathing technique.
All God’s best to you and your ministry as you develop the full potential of the talents the Creator has given you!
For a limited time, the Vocal Artistry Training Series (a collection of training CDs and a DVD) is available through Creator at an exclusive discounted price at http://cmag.ws/jd.