When you get right down to it, breathing is pretty simple. Air goes in, air goes out, repeat forever.
It's also incredibly complex. The process of air moving from outside your body to inside your body, and then passed from the lungs to the bloodstream to be sent all around the body....whew! It's a lot. We won't get through all of the process today. That would be a semester long class in graduate school! But let's dig into some of the different ways we can breathe, and how we can make some strategies to use the different types of breath for singing.
It's fairly obvious that we breathe in different ways for different activities. We're not going to breath in the same way for running fast as we do for leisurely strolling through the park. The pace of breathing, the depth of the breaths you take, and the amount of engagement in your body differs greatly from one activity to another. Makes total sense that our breathing would adapt to each circumstance.
But let's think back to our beginning voice lessons. How many ways were you taught to breathe for singing? For most of us, we were taught one way, if we were taught about how to breathe at all. In the classical world, most often appoggio is the breathing concept we most often hear about. In pop and musical theater, there are some known methods for breathing, such as Accent Method and directives that focus on anatomy. Yet, I can think of very, very few songs in any genre that you're going to use the same method of breathing through the entire thing. But do we really teach all the ways we breathe? I think we have an opportunity to do better here!
Let's first take a step outside of the singing world into the speech science world and examine a few of the different types of breathing that we use in everyday life. This won't be an exhaustive list, but hopefully will be enough to get us started thinking in an expansive way about breath.
Eupnea, or Tidal Breathing
Tidal breathing is the most common form of breathing we do. It's controlled by the brain stem and therefore is automatic. We don't have to think about how to control this type of breathing because it is reflexive. In fact, you're likely using tidal breathing as you read this right now. The main purpose of this type of breathing is to keep us alive and keep our oxygen levels in the body regulated. It takes no special effort and uses minimal muscular resources to accomplish.
There are plenty of times we use tidal breathing in singing, and there's not much we need to do to control or change it. After all, since this is automatic breathing, it's going to happen any time we're not specifically thinking about our breath. Think of how many times during a song you are not thinking at all about your breath, and notice that you're still breathing through all of those times. In those moments your brain stem has taken over and your conscious thoughts are focused on other things, as they should be.
We don't really need to do anything to change tidal breathing or to teach it better, but it's important to recognize that it happens as a regular part of our singing. If nothing else, it's evidence of the great versatility our bodies engage in while singing. It's also helpful just to recognize that different types of breathing are required to sing. That said, tidal breathing isn't always perfect. Emotions and some mental health disorders can effect tidal breathing by making it faster, more shallow, or erratic. If those types of breathing changes are making breath difficult, it's time to seek out help from a medical professional.
Breathing During "Extended Steady Utterances"
"Extended steady utterances" is a fancy way of saying you're holding out a sound for a long-ish time compared to most speech sounds. This can include singing a note, though I don't think it really encompasses all singing. In this type of breathing, a person takes the deepest inhalation possible and then exhales until the air supply runs out. This is also largely the kind of breathing we tend to talk about in the classically-based voice studio, though in reality this type of "extended utterance" happens pretty rarely. Even in singing we don't tend to breathe in as deeply as possible every time and sing until the breath is gone. Still, it's good to know about this end of the breathing spectrum.
In this type of breathing, both the abdominal support muscles, including the diaphragm, and the thoracic support muscles are highly engaged in the inhalation, and then both muscular pressure and relaxation pressure allow for the extended utterance, or long speech/singing sound, to occur. Muscular pressure during the exhalation happens when the muscles in the rib cage contract to bring the ribs down and in, and that forces the air from the lungs. Happening at the same time, the muscles that were engaged during the inhalation start to relax, and that allows the lungs to get smaller as the muscles move back to their rest position. The movement back to rest position is the "relaxation pressure" that pushes air out of the lungs.
While the air is moving out of the lungs, we engage our vocal cords and make sound over the long exhale. I do think it is rare that we use the full capacity of the lungs as the definition of this type of breathing suggests, but I think we use it in degrees while working on phrasing, breath management, and other techniques that need a long, steady stream of air.
Breathing for "Running Speech"
Running speech is basically carrying on a conversation, or reciting a dialogue, or something similar. For this type of speech activity, Running speech can be incredibly varied in how it sounds and how we produce it, with changes in speed, loudness, emphasis, length of phrases, and the like. And because there are so many variances in how we make this kind of speech, our bodies need to be flexible in how we breath to accomplish our speech needs.
For this type of speech, the breath volume tends to be greater than what we use in eupnea or tidal breathing, but less than for extended utterances. You might need more if you are reciting dialogue and have a particularly long sentence to get out, and less if you are in a back and forth conversation with a buddy. You are still using the same kinds of muscular involvement during inhalation as in extended utterances, though maybe with more clavicular involvement, and the same kinds of muscular and relaxation pressures on the exhale, albeit all of those are less intense than for extended utterances. You'll use more exhalation pressure for words and phrases that need emphasis, and less for normal or unaccented speech.
I think we use this level of breathing quite a lot when we're singing, especially in more conversational styles of singing like CCM or even recitatives in opera. We adapt what breath we need for whatever phrase we're singing at the time, rather than tanking up all the way for each phrase. And for that reason, I think teaching adaptive breathing from the get-go is wise in every style of singing.
Our bodies are very good at adapting to our everyday breathing needs, particularly in speech, and we can learn to be great at adapting during singing, too. Not only do we need to adapt breath to whatever phrase we're singing at the time, we may need to adjust on the fly based on what's happening that day. If I've got a bit of a cold, I might not be able to handle longer phrases as well as days that I'm pretty healthy, so I need to be able to choose effective breath strategies that account for what's different in my body or environment at any given time. Some clients who have asthma or other respiratory differences might need totally different breath strategies than someone without those challenges.
Now, I can hear you saying, "Sure! I do this all the time when I'm singing." And I know you do! My challenge to you is to consider how you teach these different kinds of breath strategies on purpose in your studio. Think about how early you start to introduce the idea of adaptive breathing to your clients. Most teachers I know start with one basic type of breath pedagogy, and then when a student gets advanced enough, that's when the alternate breath strategies come into lessons. Perhaps by starting that conversation earlier, we can empower students to make all kinds of breathing choices from the very beginning of their time with you. There's a school of thought that students should master the "optimal" technique first before getting into variations, and I can definitely understand that thought. I tend to think students of all ages are smarter than that, and we can avoid the problem of students thinking there is only one perfect way to breathe if we give them lots of options from the get-go.
The next challenge is to take a song your client knows well, and change up how they breathe through it to intentionally practice employing different breathing choices in a safe space. What would they do if they needed to take more breaths with shorter phrases? How would they adapt? Help them think through all the different kinds of breathing they could do in a song so they can practice being flexible before they get into a performance situation. So often when we're standing on stage, we have to change based on what's happening that day, and if we haven't intentionally practiced that beforehand, it can increase anxiety, which can effect breath even more. By practicing adaptability ahead of time, clients can have the confidence that they know what to do because they've done it before!
Breathing With Intention
Singing is a continuous string of choices that we make to accomplish our goals and communicate to our audiences. Most of the time, the audience is completely unaware of all the running decisions singers are making in the moment, as it should be. Our job as voice teachers is to help our singers know how to make the right choices in whatever situation they find themselves in, and we start that in the studio in each lesson. Try adding in some intentional adaptive breathing into your lessons this week and see what happens! If you try it out, let me know how it goes. And if you need more help and ideas, I'm here for you! You can book a session to have me drop into a lesson with one of your clients, or we can meet together to talk through your own unique situations. Click the button below to book a Teacher Consult. I can't wait to hear how this goes in your own studio!
Hixon, T. J., Weismer, G., and Hoit, J. (2014). Preclinical Speech Science: Anatomy, Physiology, Acoustics, Perception, Second Edition. Plural Publishing.