How To Breath For Singing


Breathing is probably the most basic aspect of singing, as it provides the energy for singing.  Breathing incorrectly can cause tension in the voice box and be a factor in poor tone quality.


All agree that we should use diaphragmatic breathing (expanding at the gut) rather than costal breathing (lifting the chest when inhaling).  IN NO CASE SHOULD THE SHOULDER BE RAISED AS YOU INHALE - a very common fault. When we tell ourselves to take a big breath, we think our chest should expand.  Not so!  Instead we should expand at the diaphragm which is just below the rib cage.   In costal breathing we move our rib cage which gives very little space or expansion for breathing.  But a very significant reason that diaphragmatic breathing is better, is that it keeps unwanted tension away from the voice box - tension which contributes to poor tone production.  Also raising the chest and/or shoulder bones is wasted physical effort.  Understand that expanding at the diaphragm is the way you breath when relaxed though then the expansion is quite small compared to what we need when singing.


Obviously we should not be slumped over at the shoulders but they should be naturally back and our upper torso should be upright. 


Put one hand on your chest and one centered on the “inverted V’ just below all your ribs.  Take a normal big breath as you would before singing a long phrase and note where you expand.  The movement should NOT be at your chest and especially you should not raise your shoulders when inhaling.   Instead the movement should be at your gut. 


When relaxed or resting we

normally move only about a pint

of air.  With a big breath we can

add about 3 pints.  Also from our

relaxed state we can probably

expel and additional 3 pints.  See

the diagram.  The diagram shows

that we can expel a good deal

more air than we think.  When

singing this means that we can

probably hold a phrase or note a

solid amount longer than we think, as we use the “EXPIRATORY Reserve”.  To get the feel of the “EXPIRATORY Reserve” area of your lungs,  start with relaxed breathing and then exhale letting it out as fast as possible but be sure you are expanding the right way - at the diaphragm..

Understand that this information is not as important as WHERE the expansion takes place as we mentioned above.  If you are not using diaphragmatic breathing then that’s what needs to be corrected.


To correct this, again put one hand on your chest and one on your gut.  Do normal relaxed breathing and note where the expansion is.  If you are relaxed the movement will be below the rib cage at the diaphragm.  So now breath the same way but a bit more deeply.  Then even more fully.  That’s the way it should be when singing.  Be sure the rib cage bones are not moving.  Practice with a fast inhale and a slow exhale as that is the way we usually need it when singing.  That’s usually when we revert back to costal breathing.  But don’t!  Practice this diaphragmatic breathing until it becomes the normal way you breath.

A good time to work on this is in bed just before you go to sleep every night.  Lay on your back and put one hand on your chest and the other at the inverted V just below the rib cage bones.  Relax and breath naturally.  You will notice that that’s where the expansion is.  Then take bigger breaths being sure only the “diaphragm hand” moves and that the “chest hand” does not. 

Now try breathing by lifting the rib cage to get the contrast.  Then also do it again with the a full breath with the rib cage lift, followed by adding diaphragm breathing to it and you’ll note that you can add a solid amount of air.  Now do it again with  a full diaphragm breath and try to add a rib cage lift.  You’ll find that you can add very little more.


Here is an exercise to develop diaphragmatic breathing.  Do it with a STRONG “wh” with all the movement at the gut.  Keep the long tone sustained and pulse the “oo’s”.


Here is another exercise in 4 parts for practicing breathing.  Be sure the expansion is at the diaphragm and not at the chest.


To change costal (chest) breathing to diaphragmatic (gut) breathing will take a good deal of concentrated work as breathing is usually a semi-conscious activity.  You will need to make it conscious for quite a while (probably years) and even after you feel you have the habit changed, you should check it out frequently as it’s very easy to revert back to old habits.  Changing your breathing process is a challenge but essential.



We breath primarily to get oxygen into our blood stream so we can live.   That’s what the lungs do.  The oxygen content in your lungs can vary.  You can have too much oxygen (called “hyperventilation”) and in contrast you can to be “starving for air” when your lungs are actually full of air - but  “full of stale air”.  In other words the oxygen has been basically used up.  It is possible to be full of air but be dying inside.  We find this particularly in oboe playing where it takes very little air so we frequently have to exhale the stale air before inhaling between phrases.  Conversely, flautists have to deal with hyperventilation as the flute requires more air than we usually need for living.  ( I taught woodwind instruments as a solid portion of my teaching career).  If you want to know how it feels to be “full of stale air”, fill yourself up and hold it.  Don’t exhale but as you feel the need sip a bit more air to keep full.   Eventually you will have to exhale and you will need to puff away to restore your oxygen equilibrium.  If you want to know how it feels to be “hyperventilated”,  fill your lungs quickly and immediately exhale it.  Keep doing this immediately and quickly until finally you will feel light headed because of too much oxygen.  By the way, you yawn to bring your oxygen content back to what your body needs when you have a low oxygen content, caused by shallow breathing.

There are two areas where this concept of “oxygen content” has interest for singers.  The first is “shallow breathing”.  If we are anxious such as immediately before a performance, we tend to be “ short of breath”.  We need to compensate for this by taking several deep breaths to bring our system back into equilibrium. 

The second is that after holding a extremely long phrase, singers oxygen content can be low and they need to take several deep breaths, again, to bring their system back into equilibrium. 

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