What is proper breathing?
Breathing must be swift (sometimes a piece doesn’t allow much time to take breath) and quiet (the sound of a singer gasping for air is distracting for the audience). In addition, breathing must involve minimum disturbance of a balanced, relaxed posture.
The mechanism of breathing
To induce air to enter the lungs, the air pressure inside them must be reduced. This is done by expanding the lungs themselves, which are elastic and attached to the inside of the ribcage and to the diaphragm at its base. Any expansion of the space within the ribcage causes an increase in the space within the lungs: lifting the sternum, expanding the ribs or lowering the diaphragm all expand the lungs, and therefore decrease the air pressure within them, causing an inflow of air.
Breathing for singing
Good posture for singing already includes a lifted sternum and expanded ribcage, therefore for singing purposes the diaphragm is the chief muscle of inhalation. The diaphragm is a dome-shaped horizontal muscle attached to the spine, the ribs and the sternum. When it contracts it descends, decreasing pressure in the lungs and causing air to flow in. Due to displacement of the liver, stomach, etc. by the descending diaphragm, the abdominal wall tends to protrude forward slightly, and maximum descent of the diaphragm is accomplished by allowing it to do so, leaving the abdominal muscles relaxed. This is called “diaphragmatic breathing”, and you can satisfy yourself as to the naturalness of this way of breathing by lying on your back and simply observing how the breathing mechanism behaves when you are completely relaxed.
Exhalation can be accomplished by elasticity alone. All of the body parts described have a natural tendency to return to their original position, including the lungs themselves. However, singing demands greater levels of air pressure, and greater control of those levels than speech. The internal intercostal muscles, in combination with the oblique abdominal muscles, are able to contract progressively and, with practice, provide this fine control of air pressure in the lungs. This control of air pressure is called ‘Support‘.
How do I teach proper breathing?
New students in my studio are sometimes startled, after a few lessons, by being requested to lie down on the floor. In this position, the natural breathing mechanism of the body at rest can be observed. Getting that same mechanism functioning in an upright position can take minutes, or weeks, depending upon the student. I use a number of exercises to help those in difficulty, including yoga-type breath-counting exercises, breath suspension without closing the glottis, and the support of a convenient wall as an intermediate step. Good posture is a prerequisite, as is the ability to relax the abdominal muscles (sometimes a problem for dancers).
A good reference work for the anatomy of the mechanisms of breathing, support and phonation is Richard Miller’s “The Structure of Singing”. (10)
Please read my note regarding the different approaches to posture and breathing taken by the various national schools of vocal pedagogy, in the Posture section.