"The foundation of all vocal study lies in control of the breath" - Giovanni Battista Lamperti
Isn't it one of life's miracles that the same biological function that renews our blood's supply of oxygen also allows us to renew the lifeblood of our souls through singing?
We breathe deeply and naturally when we are infants. Perhaps that's why babies can reach such startling decibels of sound! As we age, bad posture, self-consciousness, stress and rigidity take over, and we often forget how wonderful it feels to release the abs and take a real, low breath, fully in and out.
Singing helps us remember this. Every time you sing, you breathe. Like the wind rustling through the leaves of a tree, breath is the invisible power behind every vocal sound. It's the foundation on which you build beautiful tone, expressiveness and legato.
We're all professionals at performing this task - that is, we breathe in and out about 20,000 times a day - but breathing for singing is a special process. Instead of three stages (inhale, exhale, rest), there are actually four (inhale, SUSPEND, exhale, rest), and they are each slightly modified in order to accommodate singing.
...deeply, as if breathing in a wonderful scent or drinking in the air,
...quietly (a noisy inhalation is sign of a constricted throat)
...through both nose and mouth
BELLY: Place a hand over your belly button. Inhale into your hand, feeling the expansion of the belly like a balloon. Exhale through rounded lips.
BACK: Sit down while slouching forward. Feel the expansion of your lower back as you inhale.
RIB CAGE: Put one hand over your belly and one on the side of your rib cage (as in drawing). Practice inhaling until you feel both your belly and rib cage expand. Practice in front of a mirror to make sure shoulders and chest stay in place throughout the entire exercise.
This is the stage that readies you for singing. The breathing-in and breathing-out muscles in the rib cage (called the "intercostals") actually start working against each other, and the right balance between them supports a smooth, sustained sound.
Inhale as before, feeling the belly, ribs and back expand. Once you are comfortable full of air, pause for a count of 5. Your throat should remain relaxed and open, as if you were still taking in air. Exhale on a hissing sound, "sss."
In singing we want our exhalation to be as smooth and consistent as possible, without any gripping or jerking. To accomplish this, we use the breathing-in and breathing-out muscles we just engaged to try to slow the ascent of the diaphragm. That way, the air doesn't rush out all at once.
Inhale as before, with one hand over your belly button and the other on the side of the rib cage. Pause ("suspend") briefly to feel this expansion. Exhale on "sss", but as you do so, keep the expansion around your middle for as long as possible. The lower abdomen should be the first to come in, like a tube of toothpaste being squeezed from the bottom up.
Muscles always perform better when they get moments of rest (however short those moments may be!). Remember and cultivate what it feels like to be totally at rest, while keeping good posture, and always find specific points in the music where you can remind yourself to rest your breathing muscles.
With your chest comfortably up, lower abdomen comfortably in, and upper abdomen free to move (think to yourself "comfortably up", "comfortably in", "free to move"), practice the four stages of breathing:
Inhale 3 counts
Suspend 3 counts
Exhale 3 counts
Rest 3 counts
Breathing is a wonderful part of the study of singing because you can practice it anytime, anywhere: on the train, driving, or when you're bored in class or a meeting. Our relationship toward breathing determines our relationship toward singing, so spend time with these exercises, enjoy them, and above all trust the breath to guide and power your sound.