Breathing for Singers
Proper breathing technique is one of the biggest goals every singer has. And for good reason – breath is involved in projection, sound quality, and the very movement of the vocal folds.
So basically, breath is involved in everything to do with singing. No pressure.
The problem is, when you start focusing on breathing “the right way,” it can sometimes make things worse – your body tenses, your throat tightens, you start to feel dizzy either from too much oxygen or not enough…
So if you’re hoping to learn breathing control techniques for the first time or just checking to make sure you’re actually doing it the right way, then read on! Feel free to skip around to different topics.
Table of Contents
Breathing Technique for Singing
In many (not necessarily all) circumstances, we need more air and/or need more conscious control of our airflow for singing.
Breathing for singing should be steady, consistent, and tension-free.
Imagine you’re holding a hose. If the water is flowing consistently, you know exactly how to control the hose. In fact, you barely have to think about it.
Now, imagine someone turns the water pressure to full-force without you knowing. Then turns it off. Then full-force. Then normal. Then full-force. With each of these extreme changes, your body jolts into action in order to keep hold of the hose.
Similarly, if your airflow is consistent, your voice can work easily and effortlessly, just as holding a garden hose with a consistent amount of water flowing through it.
If your airflow is inconsistent, the muscles in your throat near your vocal folds may react negatively. When that happens, you may find your voice is difficult to control or that you’re getting vocally tired very quickly.
So, how do you ensure that you’re using breath to your advantage?
"Breathe from the Diaphragm"
I’m almost certain you’ve heard this phrase before. Most choir teachers & vocal coaches say it, but very few people know even what the diaphragm is, let alone how to actually breathe from it.
The diaphragm is a dome-shaped muscle at the bottom of the rib cage that controls breathing.
You see, the lungs can’t inhale and exhale by themselves. Instead, the diaphragm lowers, expanding the lungs and allowing air to fill them. Then, the diaphragm relaxes and returns to its dome shape, which shrinks the lungs and allows air out – the exhale.
Here’s the thing: you breathe using your diaphragm whether you’re singing or not.
So why is singing breathing different then? Read on.
Normal Breaths vs. Singing Breaths
Your usual, subconscious, day-to-day breathing (called “tidal breathing” or “natural breathing”) is controlled only by the diaphragm.
Once you breathe deeply (like you would for singing) a new set of muscles gets added to the process – the intercostal muscles.
The intercostal muscles live between your ribs. When you take a deep breath, one set of these muscles expands the rib cage and pulls it upward. This allows your lungs to expand more than they would during tidal breathing.
Then, on the exhale, another set of intercostal muscles contracts the rib cage and pulls it back down to its normal location.
These muscles are why breathing deeply can be so challenging. If you rarely use these muscles, have poor posture, or carry a lot of tension in your back & shoulders, it can be really difficult to even activate these muscles, let alone use them to breathe deeply and then control them while exhaling/singing in a song.
So What About "Breathe from the Diaphragm" Then?
Yeah it’s complicated now, right? Realistically, saying “breathe with your diaphragm muscles” is like saying “blink with your eyelids.” We’re always using our diaphragm to breathe.
Well, the IDEA of diaphragmatic breathing (or “belly breathing” or “breathing from the diaphragm”) is still helpful.
Again, your diaphragm is at the bottom of your rib cage. So it helps to feel the inhale at that location – low into your abdominal cavity.
This diaphragmatic breathing technique helps you:
- get a bigger, deeper, longer-lasting breath.
- disengage the “wrong” muscles in the throat, allowing for relaxed airflow through the throat.
- relax the upper body, allowing your vocal cords to move more freely when singing.
So even though using “diaphragmatic breathing” as a term is a little complicated, it’s still a very helpful idea to think about while singing. So, we’ll keep using it.
Proper Posture: Stop Over-Correcting
In order to really channel that diaphragmatic feeling, our entire body needs to be relaxed and aligned.
A lot of times, when we think about correct singing posture, we “over-correct” and go into “soldier mode” – we pull our shoulders back too far, push out our chest too much, and arch our spine backward to combat our usual poor posture.
This over-correction actually makes breathing harder! Remember, our diaphragm and intercostal muscles are low in our abdomen. Consequently, by stiffening and arching our torso, we limit our lungs’ ability to expand. When we stiffen, our collarbone takes over, and we start “breathing from our shoulders” which leads to less control… and more tension.
If thinking about “proper posture” makes you tense up, perhaps think “proper alignment” instead!
Just the term “alignment” sounds like what we want from our body – “a line.” Your ears should be in line with your shoulders, your shoulders in line with your hips, your hips in line with your feet.
To get into proper alignment, follow these steps:
- Stand shoulder-width apart with a bend in your knees and your hands at your sides.
- Check-in with your lower back: you should have a slight curve in your lower back, but make sure your rear end isn’t tucked too far in or pushed out too far.
- Look straight ahead at a particular point on the wall. Now, raise your head a TINY bit higher, as if you’re slightly looking down at that same point rather than straight at it. (Please don’t go overboard here!)
- Rotate your palms upward. Notice that when you do this, your shoulders open up. Return your palms to normal and see if you can maintain this openness. If your shoulders roll back forward, just keep your palms up when practicing this for the time being.
- Repeat steps 1-4 and make sure nothing changed while you were focused on a different step. Old habits die hard!!! You’ve sat and stood a certain way consistently for years upon years now. Changing it permanently will take a lot of time and a lot of conscious effort.
If posture is something you struggle with, try to reset throughout the day. Maybe set a reminder on your phone/computer, or tie a particular action with your posture. For example, maybe every time you get water or go to the bathroom, take a moment to reset your posture. The more regularly you do this, the more quickly it will become habit!
What About Sitting?
Honestly, sitting helps me with breathing more than standing. But that’s not true for most people. And in general, standing is still the best position for singing.
If you’d like to try sitting, continue with the same upper body guidelines – palms upward, straight ahead and slightly up, back neutral.
Ensure your feet are flat on the floor (no crossed legs!) and you’re sitting on your sit bones.
Breath Control & Breath Support
A lot of people think this idea of belly breathing only applies to the inhale.
But it also applies to the exhale.
You should keep an inhale-like feeling of expansion in your abdomen as you exhale.
Read that again.
And again. Seriously. It’s that important.
This idea of a down & outward expansion while exhaling is a really difficult concept to grasp, but SUPER important for optimal breath management and good breath support while singing.
Here’s the thing: Your lungs DO get smaller as air leaves you. That’s literally what an exhale is.
But in order to keep released and consistent in our singing, we must fight the body’s natural tendency to exhale quickly and return to neutral.
Feeling this inhale-like expansion while exhaling ensures that:
- you don’t run out of breath from your lungs shrinking too quickly, AND
- you don’t have an inconsistent, strained, or tired voice from either compensating with incorrect muscles or inconsistent airflow (see hose analogy from earlier).
This expansion on the exhale is how you control your breath which then supports your pitch, volume, tone, etc. Hence the terms breath control and breath support.
This inhale-like exhale can be really difficult to apply. Later in the article, I’ll share a few breathing exercises for singing that should help!
I’d argue that breathing for singing involves the following:
- Inhale = relaxed throat & upper body, expansion in the rib cage, stomach, & back
- Exhale = relaxed throat & upper body, expansion in the rib cage, stomach, & back
Hmm, methinks I see a pattern.
Even though this pattern looks simple enough, it’s HARD for a lot of people.
So, in order to troubleshoot, go to a mirror, or bring a mirror to you. We’re going to make sure you’re breathing right.
Inhale deeply. Did you experience any of the following bad breathing habits?
- My collarbone and shoulders went up when I inhaled.
- Why it’s a problem: This will not allow you to take a deep enough breath (see posture section above). This also adds to tension in your upper body which will negatively affect your voice.
- Solution: Go back to the posture section above and make sure you’re in comfortable alignment. Then, go to Breathing Exercise #1 below to alleviate tension. Then, move on to the rest of the breathing exercises that will help you activate the right muscles for deeper breathing!
- I heard sound when I inhaled.
- Why it’s a problem: This means you’re using the wrong muscles to “help” the air into your lungs. But you’re actually not helping because these muscles are closing off the trachea (aka windpipe), making it harder to inhale, not easier! (Think about it, you’re literally squeezing off the tube that you’re trying to get lots of air through…) Additionally, you’ll probably maintain this constriction on the exhale, making it harder to sing.
- Solution: Focus on Breathing Exercise #1 below to alleviate tension. Then move on to Breathing Exercises #2-5!
- I felt dizzy and/or tense when I inhaled.
- Why it’s a problem: You’re probably over-inhaling. Over-inhaling adds to tension in your upper body (and sometimes leads to over-correcting posture) which will negatively affect your voice. This will also make your exhale/singing less controlled. (Imagine a pitcher full of water. If it’s too full, you’re more likely to make a mess when beginning to pour it out. If it’s only mostly full, you get a lot of water AND more control over the pour.)
- Solution: Breathing Exercise #2 is great to help you breathe properly by channeling the correct muscles without over-inhaling!
To sum up, for good breathing technique on an inhale, you should…
- …see a relaxed jaw, neck, and body.
- …feel a downward expansion into your abdomen – aim for your belly button or even lower.
- …feel an outward expansion in the lower part of your rib cage.
- …feel an outward expansion in the lower part of your rib cage near your back.
- …hear silence.
And that’s just the inhale! Dang, for something we do automatically 6,000 times a day, focusing on it sure takes a lot of work!
Now, take a deep breath and diagnose your exhale by singing an “ah” on any note as long as you can. Did you experience any of the following issues?
- My volume and/or pitch were inconsistent.
- Why it’s a problem: This means you don’t have as much control over the exhale as you need to for consistency and ease in singing.
- Solution: Breathing Exercises 2-5! Start by ensuring you’re getting the proper inhale, and then focus on keeping that inhale-like feeling on the exhale.
- I felt tension/tightness in my throat.
- Why it’s a problem: This means you’re using wrong muscles in your throat to control the air, rather than using your intercostal muscles. A lot of people feel the need to “hold on” to notes in their throat. Unfortunately, these throat muscles are closing off the trachea (aka windpipe), making it harder to sing, not easier! (Think about it, you’re squeezing off the tube that you’re trying to get air & sound through…)
- Solution: Start with Breathing Exercise #1 – not just on the inhale, but also on the exhale! Then, of course, continue with Breathing Exercises #2-5 to make sure you learn to activate the proper breathing muscles to “hold on” to the note!
- My shoulders, collarbone, and/or chest stayed upward as I sang.
- Why it’s a problem: Tension is bad, especially tension near the throat and vocal fold area. Using these areas to try to “control” the sound will take much more work and lead to more inconsistency in your breath and sound.
- Solution: Breathing Exercises #$2-5 will help you re-route the “control” to the correct muscles!
Realistically, a good exhale is really about experiencing all the inhale things listed… but while you’re exhaling. (If you haven’t read the Breath Control & Breath Support section earlier, please go back to it! It’s super important!)
So before you focus on your breath management, make sure your inhale is solid.
If your inhale is good to go, here are a few things to know about the exhale:
- Make sure ONLY the lower part of your rib cage & abdomen is activated. If you’re feeling tension in other areas of your body – your throat, your shoulders, your back – you’re using the wrong muscles!
- There will come a point when you can’t keep that expansion feeling and your abdominal cavity will need to get smaller. (Again, your lungs are technically always getting smaller as you exhale… we’re just trying to control it and make it slower and more consistent.) So feel that expansion as long as you can. When it’s no longer possible, THEN allow your body to slowly return back to normal.
- In the following breathing exercises, I’ll use “hissing” for your exhale. The “hiss” is created because air is flowing through a small space between your tongue and your teeth. This should be relaxed and not effortful. If your mouth is wide or if you feel tension in any way, relax! Also, the “hiss” should be consistent – try to avoid a loud hiss at the beginning that ends in a desperate, quiet hiss.
I recommend keeping that mirror nearby for these breathing exercises. Also, as you go through these, be sure to check in with yourself using the guidelines in the “Proper Breathing” section above – are you seeing/feeling/hearing the correct things? Be sure to maintain proper posture/alignment through it all, too!
Most importantly, focus and be patient with yourself. Focus on slow breaths for now. Deep breathing may come very easy to you, or it may feel very uncomfortable and difficult to grasp for a long time. It may take a while to see/feel/hear the right things, longer to do so consistently, and even longer to do so in a song without thinking. Keep working at it, keep self-correcting, and know that it will happen!
Exercise #1: O-Shaped Mouth to Reduce Tension
To inhale without tension, simply make an “O” shape with your mouth and purse your lips, almost as if sipping through a very large straw.
You can maintain this shaping on the exhale as well, to get used to allowing air out rather than trying to force or squeeze it out.
No, I don’t expect you to do this face while you’re performing or auditioning. But if tension is an issue for you, you can and should practice with this a lot, or at least warm-up like this. This exaggerated fish-looking inhale will “shock” your body into relaxing the throat so hopefully when you go back to looking normal, those relaxed habits will remain.
Exercises #2-5: Breathing Exercises to Use the Correct Muscles
These breathing exercises activate & strengthen the correct breathing muscles. This type of breathing can also be called “breathing from the diaphragm,” “diaphragmatic breathing,” or “belly breathing.”
These breathing exercises are in order for a reason. Exercises 2 & 3 are the best breathing exercises to help you engage the intercostals. Exercises 4 & 5 have more room for error, but are closer to what you’d experience when actually performing or singing.
Be sure you take a few normal breaths in-between your breath exercises. You don’t want to get lightheaded!
I recommend using the “O”-shaped inhale above on all of these breathing exercises, just to ensure throat tightness isn’t the issue.
I also recommend focusing on one goal at a time. For example, if your shoulders tend to go up as you inhale, just focus on activating the intercostals or “breathing from the diaphragm” right now. Don’t worry about how big your inhale is or how long your exhale is.
If you can inhale and exhale using these muscles, then work on taking progressively bigger breaths (but don’t over-inhale!) and controlling the exhale longer.
Breathing Exercise #2: Bending
- Bend at the waist, and make sure your torso is hanging in a relaxed state free of unnecessary tension.
- Inhale slowly. You should feel your torso move away from your legs as you inhale.
- This triggers the appropriate muscles and stops you from using muscles in your collarbone, shoulders, or chest to breathe.
- Troubleshoot! Did YOU move your torso away from your legs or did the strength of your breath do it? We want the breath to be doing the work!
- If you’re really used to controlling the breath with the wrong muscles, you may not even realize that you moved your torso to breathe. If your spine is straight during the inhale, you probably moved your torso. If your spine is still rounded during the inhale, you probably did it right.
If this inhale worked properly, move on to the exhale. If not, skip to the next breath exercise or repeat steps 1-3, trying to channel the appropriate muscles.
Next: Slowly exhale using a consistent “hissing” sound. Try to keep your torso in the same place it was when you inhaled. In other words, don’t allow your chest to get closer to your legs until the very end of your breath when it absolutely needs to!
Breathing Exercise #3: The Book
- Lie on the floor with your knees bent, and keep your body relaxed.
- Put a book on your lower abdomen near your belly button.
- Inhale slowly and watch the book go up!
- Troubleshoot! Make sure you weren’t moving your lower back to make the book move. The book moving should be the work of your intercostals & diaphragm only.
If this inhale worked properly, keep going. If not, try Breathing Exercise #4 or repeat steps 1-3, trying to channel the appropriate muscles.
Next: Slowly exhale using a consistent “hissing” sound. Try to keep the book up (in the same place it was when you inhaled.) In other words, don’t allow the book to fall downward until the very end of your breath when it absolutely needs to!
Breathing Exercise #4: Two Fingers
- Look in a mirror.
- Be sure you’re standing in proper alignment. (See posture section above.)
- Gently place your middle fingers together (don’t push them together!) and place them over your belly button.
- Inhale slowly. The fingers should separate.
- Troubleshoot! Make sure you’re not arching your back to make the fingers separate. If you are, try Exercises 1 & 2 again!
If this inhale worked properly, keep going. If not, go back through the above breathing exercises a few more times, and maybe revisit the earlier parts of the article about what to focus on when breathing.
Next: Slowly exhale using a consistent “hissing” sound. Try to keep the fingers separated (in the same place they were when you inhaled.) In other words, don’t allow the fingers to come together until the very end of your breath when it absolutely needs to!
Breathing Exercise #5: Hands on Ribs
- Look in a mirror. (Oh, that’s new. #sarcasm)
- Put your hands on your sides at the bottom of your ribs.
- Inhale slowly. Your hands should move away from each other.
- Troubleshoot! Make sure you’re not bending your back to force movement. If you are, try Exercises 1-3 again!
If this inhale worked properly, keep going. If not, go back through the above four exercises a few more times, and maybe revisit the earlier parts of the article about what to focus on when breathing.
Next: Exhale slowly using a consistent “hissing” sound. Try to keep the fingers separated (in the same place they were when you inhaled.) In other words, don’t allow the fingers to come together until the very end of your breath when it absolutely needs to!
Going Further With These Exercises
At this point, you should be able to:
- Inhale deeply and low into your abdomen, using the intercostal muscles & the diaphragm.
- Inhale silently and with a relaxed jaw, neck, and body.
- Exhale slowly and consistently, while feeling an inhale-like expansion in your belly & rib cage.
Now, you have a few options to move on.
Make it Habit
Now that you have a plethora of proper breathing techniques to work on, make deep breathing your habit! Reminder yourself to take deep breaths throughout your day. The more frequently you do this, the easier it will be to implement when you sing!
Faster & Deeper Breaths
Okay all this is great when we have all the time in the world, but what about in a song when there’s barely time for me to catch my breath?
The O-shaped inhale (Exercise #1) is going to be your best friend. It ensures your airway will be as open as possible, so you really do get as much air as possible through.
Then, go back to your favorite breath exercises and try the following pattern:
- Inhale for 4 counts, exhale for 20.
- Inhale for 3 counts, exhale for 20.
- Inhale for 2 counts, exhale for 20.
- Inhale for 1 count, exhale for 20.
You can always increase your exhale and try the pattern again. Slowly working your way down from a 4-count inhale to a 1-count inhale will prevent your body from going into “panic mode” and inhaling all wrong when you’re rushing.
Singing with a Controlled Exhale
Hissing is a great tool to ensure good breath management: a consistent, long, tension-free exhale. Once you feel confident on your hiss, it’s time to add sound and make sure your exhale stays the same.
Go back to your favorite breath exercise and try the following challenges:
- Instead of a hiss, sing a “vvvv” on any comfortable note as long as you can. This is very similar to a hiss, so aim for the same consistency and freedom on your “vvv” as you did on your hiss. (Yes, your lips will probably feel buzzy and tickle.)
- Was the “vvv” less successful than your hiss? If so, you probably have a tendency to add tension in your throat when you start singing. Relax your jaw, make sure the tip of your tongue is at the back of your bottom teeth, and imagine the idea of the sound “hitching a ride” on the breath rather than taking over the breath.
- Sing an “oo” on any comfortable note as long as you can. Aim for no tension, consistent volume, and consistent pitch.
- Sing any other vowel on any comfortable note as long as you can. Aim for no tension, consistent volume, and consistent pitch.
- In general, the narrowness of the “oo” vowel should make your exhale longer and less tense. If a different vowel led to tension or running out of air more quickly, you may need to troubleshoot: Relax the jaw, make sure the tip of your tongue is released forward, narrow the shape of your mouth, and imagine the sound “hitching a ride” on the breath.
- Sing a 5-tone “ah” as many times in a row as you can with the same down & outward expansion and consistent volume.
Frequently Asked Questions
In general, nose breathing is better than mouth breathing. Mouth breathing dries your vocal folds quicker and can lead to more dust, allergens, etc. getting into your lungs. Your nose, on the other hand, moistens and filters the air before it passes your vocal cords and into your lungs.
HOWEVER, during a song, we rarely have time to take a nice long breath through the nose. So, when you do need to inhale through the mouth, be sure it’s relaxed and quiet.
Yes and no! When you’re learning to breathe using the correct muscles, you’ll need to go all-out, including pushing your belly out on the inhale and exhale. That said, once you’re used to channeling these muscles, you’ll learn how to use them more efficiently and less… obviously. 🙂
There are a few options here.
If you’re running out of breath in a song, then it may be a factor of cord closure and pressure behind your consonants. Narrow your mouth while singing, and really feel airflow through each consonant – similar to the “vvv” exercise listed above.
If you’re running out of breath in general, visit a doctor. It could be a chronic respiratory problem such as asthma, or it could be something skeletal that’s prohibiting your rib cage from expanding.
No. The idea of forcing in general is a bad one when it comes to singing. Forcing air out will make you louder for a few short moments, but it will result in more of a yell-like sound, will cause a lot of pressure in your larynx, and will make singing harder in the long run. Instead, focus on consistent airflow and work on creating a fuller, more resonant sound with shaping.
That depends on what you consider abdominal muscles. If you’re talking about the abdominal muscles that you’d work out doing crunches… no. If you consider abdominal muscles to be all muscles in the abdomen then yes, since the diaphragm and intercostals are considered abdominal muscles.