Sunday, October 09, 2011

Breathing for singers: it’s not what you’ve got, it’s how you use it

As they say: size doesn’t matter, it’s what you do with it that counts.

lung capacity

Measuring lung capacity with a spirometer The University of Iowa ca. 1920

The size of your lungs isn’t important in singing, it’s how you use the breath in them.

Many of us think that professional singers must have much larger lungs than the average person, but research has shown that “there seems to be no difference between experienced and non-experienced singers as regards lung capacity”.

The research goes on to say that “experienced singers seem to achieve more efficient use of pressure and air flow”. It’s how you use the air that is important, not how much you have in your lungs.

running out of breath

When you first start singing, you often have difficulty sustaining notes for long phrases. You seem to run out of breath very quickly.

When a long phrase is approaching you take an enormous breath, your shoulders rise and your body become tense. Even though you think you’ve filled up to capacity, you still don’t have enough breath for the whole phrase.

Yet, when you tell your friend about an amazing piece of news, you easily sustain really long sentences without pausing for breath. Your enthusiasm and focus on sharing your news helps you keep going. And when you do need a breath, you fill your lungs quickly and effectively. You don’t have to think about your breath at all. You take as much as is needed and fill up again when necessary.

But as soon as you are in ‘singing’ mode, something changes. Natural breathing seems to go out the window and you feel you have to do special ‘singing breathing’.

Try this: breathe in naturally (relaxed shoulders, no tension in the body) – slow and easy. Now sing a long, sustained note at a comfortable pitch. When you feel that you’ve run out of breath, bend forward and go ‘ha!’. You will usually find that there is a surprising amount of air still left in your lungs.

breathe easy

Here’s an idea: stand in a relaxed manner without locking your knees (loose shoulders, arms hanging by your side, head gently perched on top of your spine). Now imagine an unexpected, delightful surprise like a long-lost friend appearing or a huge birthday present. This surprise produces a surprised, silent intake of breath through your open mouth. Your body is still relaxed, your shoulders down and not tensed. You will find that you’ve filled up with air quickly and easily.

Next time a long phrase in a song is approaching, remember that you can take this ‘surprise breath’ quickly and effectively. No need for a long intake of breath and tension in your shoulders.

If you find this exercise hard and tension still creeps into your body, you can do it lying on your back on the floor with your knees raised so that the soles of your feet are flat on the floor. It’s hard for your shoulders to raise up in this position, and also the floor is supporting your body comfortably. You will find that you will breathe easily and deeply. Note your stomach rising and falling as you breathe in and out.

An easy exercise to experiment with using all the air in your lungs is to build up long phrases by counting. Use the ‘surprise breath’ to take air in and sing ‘1’ on a fairly low, comfortable note. Take another breath and sing ‘1 2’. Then another breath and sing ‘1 2 3’ and so on.

Experiment over time and you will find that you are able to sing longer and longer phrases. You will also learn how much breath to take in each time and how to use the entire breath on the phrase.

If you don’t use all the air in your lungs each time, eventually you will become light-headed. So be careful! Only take in as much as you need and use it all up.

Do let me know if you find any of this helpful, or if you have any other useful exercises to help with breathing. Leave a comment and share your thoughts.


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