We've all heard it. Heck, I just heard it from a high school student a week and a half ago. She wanted to learn how to better "breathe from her diaphragm" and thus be a better singer. While myths about the control of the diaphragm in singing persist, especially among amateur or novice singers, I think that old missive is finally making its way, albeit slowly, off into the sunset.
But bad information needs to be replaced with good info, so let's get to know our pal, the diaphragm!
The thoracic diaphragm is a large, flat muscle that sits between the thoracic and abdominal cavities in the body. Fun fact: there are multiple diaphragms in your body! You also have a pelvic diaphragm and a urogenital diaphragm. The Greek word for diaphragm means "partition," which refers to it's structure as a muscle that separates one part of the body from another.
While the diaphragm is characterized as a muscle, it isn't made up entirely of muscle fibers. There are also tendons and fibrous structures that help attach the diaphragm securely to surrounding structures. This secure attachment helps the diaphragm to stay in place through all the moving, shaking, and lifting your body does, and helps to keep organs in their proper place.
The diaphragm can be damaged and develop tears or holes, and stuff from the abdomen can poke through into the thoracic cavity, also known as a hernia. Hernias can be downright painful and troublesome, especially so for singers. Because the diaphragm is either very close to or attached to some really important structures, such as the heart, the location of the tear may make it difficult or impossible to safely repair. And if the hole is repaired, it is very important to follow the recommended recovery protocols to avoid reinjuring the area before the muscle is fully healed. For singers, that may mean avoiding strenuous singing and exercise for a while. If you have a singer recovering from hernia surgery, it might be a good idea for that singer to consult with a physical therapist, speech therapist, and/or singing voice specialist or vocologist during the healing window for guidance.
The diaphragm gets both motor and sensory innervation from the phrenic nerve, which also innervates a few other structures, like the gallbladder and the pericardium. A future post will look at this nerve specifically because it's pretty cool.
Most of the time we breathe without thinking about it, and the diaphragm just does its thing. We can exert some control over it, though, when we choose to hold our breath or choose to sigh. We use a combination of breathing muscles to control the exhalation while singing, though the diaphragm is in a state of increasing relaxation during the exhalation, which is why we don't "sing from the diaphragm," as it were, since the diaphragm is becoming less and less active as we sing through phrases.
There are some issues singing teachers should know about that can arise if the diaphragm becomes injured or weak. As I mentioned earlier, hernias can be a problem and may cause some pain for singers if they are extreme. A common side effect of hernias is acid reflux, which of course can be very problematic for singers, and may be difficult to remedy until the hernia is repaired. If a singer has a hernia, it would be good to regularly monitor for any reflux, especially for laryngopharyngeal reflux that may not exhibit obvious symptoms. Having a good relationship with a laryngologist who can monitor that as necessary is a very good idea.
Like any other nerve in the body, the phrenic nerve can become diseased or damaged, or simply lose some function through age. Some neurodegenerative diseases like ALS and breathing disorders like COPD can affect diaphragm function. Additionally, some types of chemotherapy and steroids can make diaphragm function weaker than normal. If you have a client that is experiencing changes in their breathing from any cause, reach out for help as soon as you can. Since singing is a specialized breathing activity, it may show up earlier in singing lessons than in everyday types of normal breathing. Earlier is better is better when it comes to seeking help.
Have you experienced any challenges in your studio related to the diaphragm? What have you learned about the diaphragm in your own singing? I'd love to know! You can reply below or send me a message. Today, take a deep breath, and thank your diaphragm for the help!
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