Vocal Masterclass: This Is The Air I Breathe

Posted by Faye Streek on 5 July 2016

Let everything that has breath praise the Lord! Praise the Lord! - Psalm 150:6 ESV

In the last installment, we had a look at warming up and how breathing is an important aspect of this, but allow me to go into more detail.

Ok. Breathing. Kind of obvious, right? We all do it without thinking and, hey, if it ain’t broke…? Well to a certain extent, yes, but let’s just double check.
Now, the reason we singing tutors harp on about this so much is that it really is a cornerstone of singing and certain bad habits can lead to all sorts of consequences - inconsistency in note production, tuning issues, cracking, overstraining and more…plus, it can also just make things sound less pleasant! But don’t panic – as that definitely doesn’t help with breathing!

When I teach masterclasses, one of my first instructions is “Take a big deep breath” – try it now. Did your shoulders and chest rise up? Did your stomach suck in? This isn’t the ideal technique for well-supported singing.
Instead, you should employ diaphragmatic breathing whereby, firstly, your stomach protrudes followed by your ribcage expanding sideways.
Imagine a baby sleeping, or watch one if you have one. See how their bellies gently rise and fall? They are using their full lung capacity completely naturally. We all tend to get a bit lazy over the years and this can result in using quite a shallow breath, often utilising only the top half of our lungs. This shallow breath can also lead to a lot of unnecessary tension in your upper back, shoulders and throat. Quite often, people will say, “Sing (or breathe) from the diaphragm”, but what the heck does this mean?

A little science:

The diaphragm is a parachute shaped structure of involuntary skeletal muscle, which sits underneath your lungs and separates your thorax (chest) from your abdomen. When you fully inhale, the diaphragm flattens out which in turn displaces (momentarily!) the stomach and intestines – hence the need for the abdomen to expand. This is known as diaphragmatic or belly breathing and will ensure that you have the beginnings of a solid support system for your singing.

This is the vocalist’s version of “building your house on a rock”. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diaphragmatic_breathing#/media/File:Diaphragmatic_breathing.gif

Ok, so that’s what we should do but we may not have done this for 10, 20 or even 60 years so let’s figure out how.
Bear in mind, we are forming new habits here so it’s ok not to achieve this straight away – be patient, one day you will find yourself doing it naturally again!

1) One great way of re-engaging with breathing into your abdomen and identifying your diaphragm is to lie down with your stomach flat on the floor and your legs stretched out behind you. Rest your forehead on folded arms but keep your upper chest off the floor. This position is used in yoga, sometimes known as the ‘crocodile pose’. This will automatically cause your body to breathe low, diaphragmatic breaths – cool huh?

2) Another method is to lie on your back with the soles of your feet on the floor and your knees bent. Placing a hand on your belly button, try to focus the centre of your breath to your belly and away from the chest. This may take some concentration but stick with it.
Trying this for a few minutes in bed every night will help this become natural as well as being a great tool for relaxation and sleep.
Now all that is left is to do the same thing standing up – place your hand on your belly button again and aim that centre of breath nice and low.
Let me add that good posture is also very important and I am a huge advocate of chiropractic treatment to ensure this is covered, whatever your physical state.

So now we are breathing from the right place, we can work on controlling the breath for singing. Allowing too much air to flow out will make your vocal tone overly breathy whilst not enough can create too much air pressure which will put the vocal folds under strain and may result in cracking.

Here’s an exercise I use with students. Take a deep breath in and, as you feel comfortably full, begin your release on a middle C, singing each number from one to ten as quickly and as many times as possible, e.g. (in-breath) 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10, 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10, 1 2 3…until you run out of breath. As well as helping you engage with your breath support, this also enables you to track the progress and increase of your breath capacity, e.g. the above would equal 23.

Increasing your breath capacity and stamina will in turn ensure that you can feel confident about long notes and the reliability of your support system – ever tried to sing ‘When I Survey’ without enough air? “Love so aMAAA… (Oh pants! No air left, quick, BREATHE!) …ZING, so (usually another breath here) divine…” – sound familiar?

One important aspect of this whole technique is that by building solid foundations for your voice, you will further ensure that the bigger muscles (your abdominals – especially the epigastrium – your intercostal as well as many of your back muscles etc.) are doing the work so the little ones in your larynx can stay relaxed. Your vocal fold muscles work hard enough. After all, just sustaining a middle C requires your vocal folds to collide over 260 times a second!

I could, and regularly do, go on but my final thought is that of emotion.
There are a lot of scientific studies that make it clear that changes in emotion, especially negative emotion, result in changes in breathing patterns. Anxiety, stress and anger especially, initiate our bodies’ fight or flight responses and convince us that we need more oxygen so we react by breathing rapidly.
But it is not just one-way; we can also affect our emotions by altering our breathing.Stage anxiety is quite common but as worshippers and leaders, we generally prefer to be secure and confident in our voices as well as alert in our minds so use your new-found, low-centred, diaphragmatic breathing techniques to keep your house on the rock, and your feet on the ground.

Thanks so much for reading – please like, tweet, share if you have found this helpful and don’t hesitate to comment below with any questions, comments etc. See you next time for my thoughts on your range and the registers within your voice.

Big love,


For more information, master-class bookings and availability, please visit https://www.facebook.com/fayestreek and leave a comment or send a message!

Faye Streek is a professional session singer, performer and international vocal lecturer, currently lecturing at BIMM Brighton. Faye is also part of the worship leadership team at Kings Church, Eastbourne.


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