Updated: Apr 11
In the movies, it’s always the same. An inexperienced singer comes to an audition. They come up to the stage, the lights hit them, and they freeze. The piano starts and they manage to squeak out a little sound. It’s breathy. Their voice cracks, but for some unknown reason, the director decides that it would be better to let them continue to embarrass themselves rather than mercifully yelling, “Thank you!” After a couple of musical phrases, the singer gets his or her confidence and suddenly a beautiful voice comes out and rings throughout the theatre. The director smiles and the scene changes. It’s opening night and the singer is the lead.
Yeah, it doesn’t happen that way. Trust me, the director already yelled, “Thank you!”
If you want to be a great singer, you are going to have to know what you’re doing before you get on that stage or in front of an audience. And if you don’t want to get stage fright, then you have to keep singing on stage – a lot. But that’s another post. I’m going to teach you the basic tools for singing so when you get on stage, you will look like a professional.
The first thing you should know is that singing is a full-body exercise. Stand in front of your mirror and take a look at yourself. Plant your feet firmly on the floor about hip distance apart. I like to imagine that my feet have grown roots to keep me steady. Later on you can try movement during your song, but for now keep your body still.
Make sure your knees are not locked. You’re going to be doing some seriously deep breathing, so you don’t want to pass out and go down like a felled tree. Make sure you’re not leaning forward or backward.
Now, raise your arms above your head. Notice where your rib cage is. Look in the mirror. VERY slowly, lower your arms and shoulders but NOT your rib cage. When you get your arms back to your sides, make sure that you are not still lifting your shoulders. To check, roll them gently forward and back, leaving them in a relaxed state slightly back of your center. There should be no tension in your shoulders AT ALL. Some people have shoulder tension so often that they don’t even realize that they are not relaxing them.
The reason you have left your rib cage lifted is that you have to have room to breathe long, even breaths. You have a muscle underneath your lungs called the diaphragm. This muscle is the key for not running out of breath when you sing. When you master the use of this muscle, you will be able to sing complete phrases of sustained notes without stopping for a breath at all.
Look in the mirror and take a big breath. Did your shoulders lift? If so, you are doing it WRONG. You are not using your diaphragm. When you use your diaphragm to inflate your lungs, it will feel as if you are expanding your rib cage in all directions, kind of like you are inflating a doughnut around your body. Here’s a way to test it: Take your right hand and flatten it, fingers together, and rest your palm across the front of your body just below your rib cage. Take your left hand and do exactly the same thing on your backside. (On your back, the top of your hand, rather than your palm, will be flat against your body.) Your hands should be exactly opposite each other on your front and back. Now take your breath. If you are breathing correctly, you should feel your body push your hands away from each other on the inhale. It’s harder to feel the motion in your back hand, so keep breathing in and out slowly, adjusting until you can feel that back motion as well as the front.
Okay, so now you can feel it. Your rib cage is lifted, your shoulders are staying still, you’re expanding on all sides, and you are really glad that you didn’t lock your knees. Now take one more deep breath and let out a “ss” sound. Use your diaphragm to let out that “ss” as slow as you can. You should be trying to hiss evenly as you let air out (no sputtering). As you exhale, you will feel your center deflate and your hands come closer together. When you’ve run out of breath, inhale again, pushing your hands away from each other once again. Exhale on “ss” again. Do this a few times. Keep looking in the mirror to make sure that your rib cage is lifted, your shoulders are steady, you are still pushing your hands out with the inhale, and slowly deflating on the exhale.
Now look at your stopwatch and time your exhales. Your goal is to hiss longer and longer on each breath out. I usually have hissing contests with my students. Who in the room can hiss the longest without having to take another breath? You can compete with yourself. Each time you breathe out, try to keep that “ss” sound even for the whole exhale. You should be able to hiss longer as you practice. These are the same techniques that woodwind players or even swimmers use to make their breaths efficient.
So now you know what a “singer’s breath” is. Practice a little each day. It is absolutely ESSENTIAL that you master this. Without knowing how to breathe properly, you won’t have any power behind your voice and not only will you be completely dependent on a microphone, but you will not be able to seamlessly flow over phrases of music. Your voice will also get tired very quickly. Your singer’s breath is the key to stamina and power.
Tune in next time when we will get into the specifics of tongue and throat placement and how to shoot your sound all the way to the back of the audience.
This is day one when I get a new student. And it gets revisited at almost every lesson. How have you learned or taught proper breathing? You can discuss this on the forum post for this article. The forum is for members, but you can join for free if you're not already one.
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