The Singer’s Breath
Control of the breath is the foundation of all good singing. Often, careful attention to breath solves other issues. In this post I hope to provide some tips for the singer’s breath.
Exercises to help keep the ribcage elevated
If you have trouble maintaining the slightly elevated ribcage, you are not alone! Because so many of us slouch, very often the muscles in the front of the chest are tight, or even foreshortened. Here are a few ways to gently stretch the chest muscles to help maintain the Noble Posture.
- Stretching exercise to raise awareness and open up the muscles in the chest: stand in a corner, facing the corner. Bring your forearms to rest against the wall, making a right angle at the elbows, fingers pointing up. Lean your body into the wall and hold the stretch for 15 seconds. If you are not getting a stretch across the front of the chest, move the feet a little further from the wall and repeat.
- If you have trouble maintaining the slightly elevated ribcage, try singing with arms raised up in the air, in the plane of the body. In this position the ribs are usually raised. Observe your breathing, and see if the action is below the ribcage. Then you have to learn to maintain the ribcage position while gradually lowering the arms.
- Another way to maintain the expansion of the ribcage is to clasp the hands behind the back. Observe your breathing, and see if the action is below the ribcage. Gradually you will become accustomed to this position in the ribcage.
Take time. Carefully observe each inhalation and exhalation while singing. How can you observe this?
Tools for Observation
- Mirror – Place a mirror so the singer can see the action of the abdominals and upper body when they sing. Very often the visual feedback helps. Most important is that the upper chest and shoulders do not move on inhalation or exhalation.
- Music stand—in the studio, students are often standing behind a music stand. I use the constant height of the stand as a reference point to see if the chest is rising and falling during singing, egg. I observe a necklace, collar, chest pocket, or logo on a shirt. The student can also use this method while looking in the mirror.
- If you feel that these do not help, rely on the wall posture until your body learns the sensation.
- Onset: Listen carefully; the tone should be clear, not breathy or pressed. Is the first note louder than all the others? The singer is probably over-filling with breath. Try breathing to only 2/3 capacity and attempt to improve control of the airstream throughout the phrase. Very few phrases require your biggest breath!
- End of phrase: Is the last note breathy or weak? The singer needs to carry through with breath energy to the end of the phrase. Many of us let down before the phrase is ended, as we turn our attention to what is next. Stay in the moment with breath.
- One hand on chest, one on belly. Lower hand moves for both inhalation and exhalation, but upper hand does not.
- Hands in air, not forward of body, but in the body plane, chest doesn’t move on inhalation or exhalation. Or, raise the hands and move them back as the phrase progresses, stretching the chest open (sort of like the Olympic gymnasts).
Again, take time and be sure to observe and listen. This type of muscular activity, a very particular kind of coordination, is like any sport and requires many repetitions. If it isn’t a good breath, take time to try it again.
In the practice room, it’s always worth the time to take a good breath. While many will practice this way on their vocalises, it is also recommended to practice phrase-by-phrase singing of repertoire, being sure each breath is the best you can do. Prepare the breath carefully for each phrase and sing it several times in a row. In this way you “teach” your body what a good breath feels like on each phrase. Then you must practice the piece in tempo and be sure to take an adequate breath in the time allotted.