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How to sing from the diaphragm - Inhale to your belly... NOT!

Occasionally, my students bring me videos of a popular youtube vocal coach –one of those with fancy studio lights, changing camera angles, full TV make-up and hair – and want to discuss whether the information in the video is accurate. One particular student enjoys challenging me to scientifically disprove whatever claim from the video with which I disagree. I think it amuses him to see me nerd out on singing facts.

This particular student has me reflecting on the state of youtube singing instruction videos. Over the years, I have probably watched every one of them out there, and over and over again, I encounter tips concerning one of the most common singing myths – inhaling from the diaphragm or inhaling to the belly.

Here’s the thing: There is no such thing as “Inhaling to your diaphragm” or “Inhaling to your belly.” Let me repeat that, for those in shock from the first statement, the idea of inhaling to your belly is nonsense and this concept often hinders students’ progress. This idea is a myth because the air we inhale cannot go to our diaphragm or in to our belly. The concept of “breathing from diaphragm” is very misleading and a few facts about the diaphragmatic breath can help singers achieve the correct breathing easily.

Here is what I’d like every singer to know:

When we inhale, the air goes only to our lungs. The diaphragm is a very thin muscle that stretches horizontally across our ribcage dividing our chest cavity and abdominal space. When we inhale, the diaphragm moves down gently helping the other organs get out of the way and when we exhale it moves up helping the lungs empty. The diaphragm is attached to the bottom of the ribcage so it cannot move past the ribcage. So the air stays in our chest the whole time.

Diaphragmatic Breathing and The Path of Least Resistance:

Lungs are located right under our throat. This is higher than where most people imagine them to be. When we inhale the lungs need to expand and they have two general directions to go. They can either expand up and forward pushing the clavicle (aka collarbone) out or they can expand down towards the lower parts of our ribcage. When lungs begin to expand, they try both of these directions and they expand into the direction which has the least resistance.

On our clavicle there is a fixed amount of resistance that we cannot control. However, we can control the amount of resistance our abdominal muscles provide by either softening or tightening those muscles. When we inhale if our abdominal muscles are tense we will end up having a clavicular breath -the wrong one, and if our abdominal muscles are relaxed we will end up having a diaphragmatic breath, the good ol' low breath.

Let’s explore this a little further:

To try this out, please sit somewhat straight, and, using your right hand, find the bottom of your ribcage on your right side. This is the bottom end of your ribcage or chest cavity. Other than the the two permanent inhabitants of your chest cavity -your heart and your lungs-, most of your organs (liver, kidneys, stomach, pancreas, gallbladder and even a part of your intestines) are housed in your ribcage –above your hand. When you take a casual breath your abdominal muscles relax allowing all these organs to slide down out of your ribcage into your abdominal area – below your hand. Simultaneously, the lungs fill up the newly empty space in your chest. When you exhale, the abdominal muscles gently move the organs back into the ribcage. This shift functions as a massage which is crucial for the continuous function of these organs. Due to the wondrous ways our nerves work; all these organs move up and down 5 to 10 inches with every breath but we don’t feel a thing!!!

This shift into the abdominal space feels as if we are inhaling to the belly. When singers imagine that the air goes into the belly, they often create an unnatural tension in the abdominal muscles in order to accentuate the feeling of this shift by either by pushing out the belly, or contracting its muscles. This tension cripples the function of the diaphragm and therefore results in a clavicular breath, which is a shallow breath. Instead, singers should LET THE GRAVITY SHIFT THE ORGANS out of the way and just relax the abdominal muscles as they inhale, effortlessly, without any resistance at all.

Amongst many, I rely on two simple exercises to help my students understand this effortless breath.

In the first exercise, I ask them to stand in front of a mirror and observe their breathing. If the abdominal muscles are truly relaxed they shouldn’t be seeing any movement on the upper chest or shoulders while taking deep breaths.

In the second exercise I have them sit on the very edge of the sofa in my studio. I ask them to sit so forward that barely an inch of their bottoms are actually on the sofa. In this state where they are trying not to slide down, they often experience an extreme relaxation of the abdominal muscles and a true low breath.

A true diaphragmatic breath has to be effortless, as if you just took a breath to say something. After all, the breath goes out in the same way it went in; a relaxed inhale turns into relaxed singing.

Clavicular breath is one of the main causes for unwanted tension in the throat. I am planning to write about the throat tension caused by the unbalanced sub-glottal air pressure, on my next post. Stay tuned!


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