In a previous blog, I outlined the benefits of poor breathing. This affects the voice in the worst way and can lead to irreparable damage if not corrected in time. Below, we will discuss some of the effective exercises for strengthening the diaphragm and abdominal wall, creating a more powerful and controlled voice.
Why is breathing so important?
When training your voice, breathing is NOT the most exciting of exercises. Developing good breath support is, however, the most valuable skill a singer can learn. When a singer accomplishes a proper breathing technique, most of their obstacles melt away, allowing for better range and control. It is, without question, the first and most important technique a singer should master.
Think of a sports car. The performance is exceptional. The car operates at a level far beyond a common use vehicle. But no matter how much detail and precision have gone into the making of that car, if the car has no gas in it, it doesn’t operate at all. The voice is the same way. Without fuel behind the mechanism, it won’t operate. Whether you are a singer with innate talent or a beginner, good breath support is the key to high-performance singing.
For any muscle to grow, it must have resistance. If I want to build my biceps, I can’t expect to see results by lifting a light weight. The same is true for the diaphragm. One of the most practical exercises I use with my students is called the Breathing Trial.
If you have a metronome, set to 60 bpm. Stand, with your back straight and the abdominal wall flat. (Note: Do not let the stomach relax and fall out.) Pucker your lips and inhale in air on a count of 4, as if breathing through a straw. This will provide resistance for your diaphragm pulling in air. Make sure the air fills the stomach and causes it to expand. Immediately after the inhale on the count of 4, exhale through a hiss on a count of 8. This will provide resistance on the exhale. You should feel a burn just below the rib cage, much like the burn you feel during sit-ups. Try this until you can make the hissed air smooth and controlled. After that, inhale through puckered lips on a count of 4 and hiss out for 12 counts. Move to 16, 20, 24 and so on. Make sure the hissed air is controlled and not shaky. This will teach the diaphragm to provide perfect breath support.
An easy and helpful way to force these complex muscles to work together is singing through a straw. Singing through a straw, whether with exercises or a difficult line in a song, creates a concentrated stream of air by squeezing the exhale through a tiny space. The only way to sustain this pressure is to use all the muscles in abdomen. But make sure to memorize what the muscles are doing because you will need to repeat the engagement. Try singing a difficult line in a song through a straw. Memorize the muscle engagement and repeat while singing without the straw. You may have more power than you need. If you can back off the energy and still maintain a good sound, then you are on your way to using your breath efficiently.
Lip Trills are one of the best exercises you can do to develop proper breathing. In order for a lip trill to work, there must be little tension in the face and good air pressure provided by the diaphragm. This sets up a perfect environment for the vocal chords to warmup.
First, place your middle finger and thumb on either cheek. Slightly pull forward. Make sure you’re not pushing the cheeks in, just lightly pulling the skin forward. Relax the lips and blow air through them making a motorbike sound. The feeling should be free from tension. Try to hold the trill for 5 seconds. If you can successfully hold it, incorporate a vocal scale into it such as 123454321 or a Rossini scale. As you ascend, pull the sound towards the back of the throat, creating space. If the sound comes forward, tension will start. Try it with a line in a song and memorize the engagement from the diaphragm and abdominal wall. Afterward, re-create the feeling while singing the lyrics. You won’t believe the difference!
There are many different exercises that can be used to strengthen your airflow. I find these to be the most effective. The most important thing to remember is patience. Getting tension redirected to the correct parts of the body can take time. But once you master proper breathing, incredible vocal performance is quick to follow.
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