“First, take a breath.” – Singing My Life Principle #1
Before we get in too deep, I invite you to TAKE A BREATH! This is the first Singing My Life Principle, the basis of life and the foundation of our singing. In all things, we must BREATHE! And the simple act of pausing to take an intentional breath before we do anything in life can change the way we do everything in life. Yet, oddly – it is a thing that we sometimes forget to do both in life and in our singing practice.
When I was younger, I used to hold my breath a lot. It was not something I was doing on purpose – it was a habit that I had developed subconsciously. There were three reasons that I did this and the first was anxiety and nervousness. I was nervous about EVERYTHING. I was nervous that people would not like me, that I would make mistakes in front of others, say the wrong thing (which I frequently did!), move the wrong way, or (God forbid) be seen breathing. This was the second reason that I would hold my breath – I didn’t want to be seen breathing! It seems hilarious to me now but my young self believed that only people who were fat and out of shape would be seen breathing. And I was definitely fat, and I didn’t want to be perceived as being out of shape. So I held my breath, and hoped that no one would see me.
Along those lines, the third reason I held my breath was appearance. In general, I was always trying to shrink my larger body by holding things in – especially my stomach! Perhaps this resonates with you too. We are taught from a young age to hold in our stomachs to make them look flatter, and I find myself coaching singers out of this frequently now – especially with women and gay men.
Ironically, the thing that I was doing to deal with my nervousness and anxiety – holding my breath – was the exact opposite of what would ultimately help me to release nervousness and anxiety – Breathing intentionally!
I remember an entire session where my voice teacher made me stop after every phrase and breathe – releasing the old breath and taking a new breath. Somehow I had even taught myself to sing without breathing regularly and was managing my entire voice in this way. After that session, I started to put more attention to my breathing both in and out of my voice lessons. I would observe myself breathing or not breathing in certain situations and I always noticed that the moments when I was breathing were the moments when I felt most free. This is not unusual. Studies have shown time and time again that intentional deep breathing specifically increases relaxation, reduces anxiety, and lowers our stress response. Most of you reading this blog already understand the importance of breathing in the process of singing, but how much thought are we giving to the true freedom that deep breath and body connection truly afford in our artistic expression?
Interestingly, as a voice teacher I have observed that breathing is a piece of the vocal puzzle that many singers have trouble connecting for a variety of reasons. The biggest reason I think is that people lack connection with the body as a whole. On another day, we can get into some great breath techniques to use while singing. Today, I want to share with you a quick practice that will help you deepen your connection with your breath and body. I strongly recommend adding this breathing exercise before you practice or perform. You will be surprised at the calming effect that it has, as well as the energy and connection that you will create in your singing.
Here is my own pre-practice breath exercise:
- Place your hands at the bottom of your rib cage, where your diaphragm is located. This should be the smallest area of your waistline, not the low belly part of your body.
- Bring your attention to your inner body – try as much as possible to be attuned to what is happening INSIDE of your skin and deep in the muscles, organs and inner layers of your body.
- Breathe deeply for 2 counts and feel the breath push the diaphragm gently out of the way as it enters and fills your lungs, while you use your lower abdominal muscles to increase that pull in the diaphragm.
- Immediately breathe out on “s” for 2 counts, expunging all of the air that you took in. This is important – don’t hold your breath between the inhale and the exhale. Breathe out immediately and expunge all of the air.
- Repeat the process four times then increase the exhale to 4 counts.
- Repeat the process four times then increase the exhale to 6 counts, 8 counts, 10 counts, etc.
- When you have taken the exercise as far as you want to, take a moment to breathe normally before you start to move or do any singing. Observe your level of connection with your breath and body and enjoy the moment!
Here are a few important tips on doing this exercise:
- During this exercise, try not to control your breath – simply observe your body’s actions and reactions – especially the inner body. Pay attention to your muscle movements, where you are holding tension and where your body is relaxed. This is instructive to how you should manage your breath while singing. More on that later!
- You may be a little lightheaded when you first start doing this exercise. Take your time! Don’t push yourself so hard that you faint. Relax and go as far as you can with the exercise. You will build up to longer exhales.
- Be careful not to tighten your jaw to formulate your “s” sound. Doing that would cause you to reiterate the tight jaw during your singing and we don’t want that! Keep your jaw loose and try not to let your upper and lower molars touch.
- Be sure to soften your tongue and keep it out of the airway – another habit that will support you in your singing process.
- Use the upper teeth to sound the s, rather than the lower. Your s should be concentrated though not whistling, and not diffused; and there should be no “sh”/ʃ sound, and no spit when you are “essing”, as I like to call it.
- Keep challenging yourself to breathe out for as many counts as you can. Lately, I have gotten as high as 28. How far can you go??
- If you want to maintain consistency, try adding a metronome to this practice. I like to set mine at 72.
This simple exercise can help you to release nervousness before auditions, rehearsals, performances and even before lessons if that is a place that you tend to hold anxiety. You might try it also in the mornings as a way of clearing your mind and energizing for the day before you get started with other activities. Doing this daily will remind you to BREATHE in important moments. An added bonus is that it will strengthen your respiratory muscles so that they are more active, flexible and accessible to you in your singing.
Ok, that’s it for today! I will leave you with one final thought. In those important moments when you need something to draw on, remember that you have the most important tool inside of you at all times – so first, take a breath!
Love in Song,
By the way, did you try the exercise? Please share your experience in the comments section.