We’ve discussed alleviating tension in the voice, and we’ve discussed slowing down the process of singing to develop the correct mechanics, to allow us to achieve the results we desire. So let’s take a detour from the concepts and theory of correct singing, and focus on some of the practical and applicable details I alluded to earlier.

There are plenty of elements that should be addressed on the road to developing correct vocal technique, but NONE are more important than learning how to breathe efficiently, and learning how to “connect the breath” to bring out the freedom and the power of the voice.

“Connect the breath”? Sounds like vocal-ese techno-jargon, right? Don’t worry, it’ll make sense soon.


Not to sound repetitive, but in the grand scheme of alleviating tension in the body and supporting the voice to give it the power it needs, good breath support and breath connection are absolutely essential. Breathing efficiently is the most important and most necessary element to singing correctly, hands down. It’s the foundation of the house, so to speak; if the structural foundation is flawed, then everything you build on top of it will be flawed, shaky, vulnerable, and weak. That’s just the way it works.

That being said, lets get into some more specifics, and try a couple of things.

Take off your shirt and look at yourself in the mirror. Now, take a deep breath, and let it out. Do your chest and shoulders expand upwards when you breathe, and drop back down when you exhale? Do you hear an audible breath sound as you breathe in?

Now try this:  lie down on the floor, on your back. Put the back of your head on the floor, and rest your hands, folded together, on your chest. Bring your knees up, allowing the BOTTOMS of your feet to be flat on the floor, causing your back to also lie completely flat on the floor. Then, take a SLOW and QUIET breath in through both your mouth and nose simultaneously, and out. Don’t rush it! And make sure the breath is almost completely silent.

What do I mean by making sure the breath is silent? Well, try this: take the “H sound, like in the beginning of the word “house”, and exhale with that “H” sound (‘hhhhhh…’).  Now *INHALE*, using the same “H” sound. That audible inhalation is very typical…and it’s precisely what we want to avoid. You should breathe in quietly enough that you don’t hear that inverted “H” sound. You can inhale as slowly as you need to, to get it totally silent.

If you were playing hide and seek, and the person you were hiding from was standing right next to your hiding place…how would you breathe, to keep them from hearing you, to keep from getting caught? Slowly and silently, right? That’s the way you should be breathing with this exercise (and with most others as well).

The reason to avoid breathing audibly is simple:  if you can hear the breath going in, it’s because you are literally drying out the protective mucosal lining that shields the vocal folds from friction and keeps them limber. And conversely, if you can’t hear the air going in, then the vocal folds are not adversely affected in any way. So keep your breaths silent, and you’ll be in good shape!

Okay…so, back to work: you’re lying on the floor, on your back, knees bent, with the back of your head resting on the floor, and your hands resting, folded, on your chest. You’re breathing EXTRA slowly, and super QUIETLY, through your nose and mouth simultaneously, in…out…in…out….

What are you chest and shoulders doing? Are they still moving all over the place, or are they relatively stationary (hopefully, they are relatively stationary)?  Now…what is your BELLY doing? Does it seem to be filling with air on each inhalation, and emptying when you breathe out?

It’s pretty relaxing, isn’t it?

Now…as you breathe in and out, I want you to feel that the expansion is not ONLY happening in the front…it’s happening in the sides and back as well. In fact, you’ll begin to feel that the expansion in the sides and the back are PRIMARY…the expansion in the front is only a symptom of the sides / back expansion.

Congratulations! You’ve just begun to learn correct “diaphragmatic” breathing, the best and most efficient way to breathe while singing and speaking.

…eh?  What the heck is diaphragmatic breathing?

The DIAPHRAGM (pronounced “DIE-UH-FRAM”) is a muscle located in your midsection, attached to the base of the rib cage. It separates the respiratory system from the digestive system. It’s dome-shaped, and it actually goes through your whole torso.

Diaphragm ribcage parachute

Though it’s a solid muscle, it does have openings for the esophagus, the spine, and the vena cava & aorta (the “to” and “from” arteries to the heart).

When we breathe in, the diaphragm works in conjunction with a series of other muscles (the intercostals, which attach to the ribcage; the obliques, which attach to the stomach; the latissimus dorsi of the back) and travels downward, creating a vacuum that draws air from the lungs. As the diaphragm moves down, it pushes the stomach, the rectus abdomens (six-pack muscles) and vital organs aside on the front, the sides, and the back, creating the illusion that we’re filling our stomachs with air — really, the diaphragm is expanding downward and pushing the stomach and other organs out of the way.

Now, as far as the exercise we just learned (lying down on our backs, breathing super slowly and super quietly, expanding the diaphragm without moving the chest and shoulders, in/out/in/out…), you should do this EVERY day, at least *twice* a day, for a minimum of *5* minutes at a time.  Not a huge demand in time if you think about it, but doing it with that frequency and consistency is very important.

The body needs repetition to develop the sensational connection and muscle memory required to change old habits.  And believe you-me, the way we are used to breathing is a VERY ingrained habit (you’ve been breathing the other way for *how many years, now…??*), and it will take diligence to re-train yourself to do it differently.

So…why should we bother with learning to breathe diaphragmatically, anyway? What’s wrong with having our chest expand and our shoulders rise and drop when we breathe?

There are two primary reasons:

When the chest expands during inhalation, it pushes the upper part of the rib cage OUTWARD. Now, that part of the rib cage is not really designed to move in that way (it may not feel awkward to you is because you’ve been doing it for so long, you’ve gotten used to the feeling of tightness, so you don’t even notice it anymore).

Because the area is not designed to move that way, the body perceives it as a problem when it DOES move that way. The brain then sends a signal to your thoracic muscles (your chest muscles) to come to the aid of the rib cage, and those muscles involuntarily try and push the rib cage back. The result? You have a reverse tug-o’-war that results in any air you have stored in your upper chest to be pushed out forcefully by your chest muscles. And since we need to economize our air to support our voice, hit the tones we want to hit, hold the notes we want to hold, etc, we find that we’re unable to, because the air is being hastily forced out of our chests before we have the chance to use it.

Imagine blowing up a balloon, and then squeezing the sides of it, forcing all the air out faster than it would have been expelled normally. The same basic principle applies to the thoracic muscles forcing the air from your chest.

To understand the second reason why chest / clavicular breathing is detrimental to efficient voice production, try this experiment:  take off your shirt, stand in front of a mirror, and breathe, allowing your upper chest to expand and your shoulders to rise. Now, look at your neck. The muscles located along the sides of your neck towards the front are called the LARYNGEAL muscles, and you’ll notice that the second you take a chest expansive breath, they SHORTEN and TIGHTEN.

Now, without blowing the air out, try and speak or sing for a second. It’s very difficult to do so when your laryngeal muscles are tightened! That happens each and every time you take a “chest breath”.

Now, as far as the body’s breathing mechanism and physiology is concerned, we inhale oxygen, it filters through the lungs, the oxygen is transformed into Co2, and is expelled from the body as we exhale. But just because the air filters through the lungs doesn’t mean that the lungs need to FILL with air, which is what is happening when we take a “chest breath”.

So…why is taking a diaphragmatic breath less detrimental and more efficient than breathing the other way?

Well, the diaphragm is a muscle that is designed to expand and fill with air.  So, when it fills with air (after filtering through the lungs), there is no involuntary bodily defense mechanism forcing the air out. The diaphragm collapses in time and empties, releasing the air at whatever rate we want it to. So, when we try to ECONOMIZE our air (breath economy will covered in a later article), we’re able to.

Picture this:  we take a regular, run-of-the-mill balloon, we blow it up, and we hold it at the tip between our thumb and forefinger to keep the air from escaping. Then, we do what kids have been doing since balloons were invented: with our thumbs and forefingers on both hands, we squeeze and pull either side of the balloon’s mouth, until it makes a high pitched squeal sound. When we hear that sound and look at the balloon, we see that the air is escaping VERY slowly, and the balloon is collapsing equally slowly. The air is coming out at a slow, natural rate, and is not being pushed out by force. That’s the way the air can come out of the diaphragm when our breath is focused there the right way.

Yes, you heard it here first…you only need to use a SMALL bit of air at once to sing loudly, fully, effectively. It’s mind blowing to think about, but it’s been scientifically proven over and over again: whether you are singing loud or soft, high or low, with a heavy rasp or a clear and clean tone, regardless of style or approach: you NEVER need more air than is escaping out of that balloon. The diaphragm can be every bit as efficient as the balloon.

This article has contained a little more technical information than the other articles before it, but as a voice teacher and a singer, I’ve always found that having an intellectual and conceptual understanding of the vocal mechanism allows most people to develop as vocal technicians, and grow as singers, performers, and artists.  You’ll see further technical explanations of the various elements of vocal functionality as these articles progress.

This article is only the beginning of adopting proper breathing technique. Practice the exercises outlined here, and by the time you reach the NEXT article regarding breathing, you’ll be able to use it to move to the next level.

Have a question about singing technique, voice training, or performance, or an article you’d like to see written? ASK DAN.

Receive email updates: