Feb 18 2014

Q&A: The Process of Breathing

I found your article about compression and breathing into the back very interesting. I’ve had a heck of a time trying to get my head around proper breathing – ‘working’ techniques seem to come and go with varying success, though vocal fatigue is usually inevitable whatever I try.

I’ve got a great singing teacher who’s a highly qualified professional singer and is big on breath support and bel canto technique. I’m still confused as to the process of breathing and I wonder if it would be useful to lay out your breathing technique in a step-by-step way for those of us who are confused.

For months I thought the ‘support’ was the slight tucking in and up of the abdomen, followed by a ‘low’ breath. I was then corrected and told to breathe low FIRST and then tuck in and up. Recently I’ve had best results by breathing ‘into the back’, feeling a distinct bulge in the small of the back which allowed a fuller sound and better pitch, though the tuck in and up didn’t seem to help this.

Now your article suggests that the sensation of this abdomen tuck is felt when I fully exhale, which felt right immediately, especially the way it forced the lower breath into the back – so do I let this ‘tuck’ happen naturally by exhalation at the end of phrases, or do I learn what the abdomen feels like in this position and then draw into it AFTER taking the breath? Or do I just keep it in this tucked position at all times? Or should I just give up? (That last one was a joke – I’ve got a huge gig coming up as lead singer of my band so it’s not an option anyway.)

It is good you have been exploring this to find what works. The thing of it is, I wouldn’t recommend trying to do any of those things. We must first set up the body in an elastic, upward stretched condition. Part of that is the in-and-up of the low abdomen. So posture comes first.

The position of the lower abdomen is a support for the spine and internal organs. Without it the abdominal contents sag out and pull on the spine. This distortment of the torso causes muscular imbalances and tension that interfere with the automatic behavior of the breath compression muscles.

Because it is part of the postural condition the lower abdomen should always be in-and-up. It is a common belief (though mistaken) that the abdomen needs to be released out in order to breath freely. (I’ve even observed singers unbuckle and loosen their pants ala Thanksgiving to allow for more distension of the abdomen.) This is not actually true. We can breath perfectly fine with it in. It can still move in and out, it just doesn’t need to be released out. An easy way to find this position is by exhaling first.

It sounds to me that you are so focused on doing things with your breathing that you are over-riding the natural, instinctive behavior of our breathing. Our natural behavior of the body is always the most effective. So by trying to control things you are basically trying too hard, causing imbalance and fatigue.

The best option I have found is to just breath, not try to breath in a certain way. It can very hard to not do things and allow the body to behave naturally. As I said before, the abdomen should be gently drawn in as a postural constant along with a long feeling in the torso. Then we just breath. I like to visualize the lungs doing the inhalation, elastically expanding, and then exhaling through the natural recoil of that elasticity.

The thing I have found with this approach is since the lungs have no muscular ability of their own, by thinking of them doing the work the involuntary muscles of the respiratory system are stimulated to act with no conscious interference. We should feel the lungs inflate, while at the same time the flexible ribs expand, the diaphragm descends and the upper abdomen comes out some after starting in. But we don’t “do” those things, they happen reflexively.

The feeling in the back is a part of the whole. There is some expansion back as well. It exists because the diaphragm connects to the back ribs and the back ribs connect to the pelvis with the back muscles. The problem with trying to emphasize any part of the breathing complex is it exaggerates that part so the whole is distorted.

The other issue is when we breath deliberately we disconnect the breathing from the larynx. And if we are going to get instinctive function of the larynx we can’t afford to do that. Conscious breathing generally will immediately exhale or require tension to restrict.

There is a recommendation from G.B. Lamperti that applies – “Breath a little bit over a large area rather than a lot in a small area.” When we breath a lot in a small area, like just the abdomen or the back, we distort the system. A distorted system is less efficient and loses the automatic quality.

We tend to forget that breathing is an involuntary system that we make voluntary. The best option is to try and behave as naturally as we can, which is the involuntary behavior. We should allow the automatic functions of the body to take care of as much as we can. We don’t determine or control it, just maybe guide it to make sure it is behaving correctly.

You also mentioned support. This is a concept that has become very confused with all of the differing opinions. The simplest place to start is to understand that support is a condition, not an action.

Any attempt to actively support is a deliberate use of the breath. No matter if the act is pushing, pulling, squeezing, exhaling or any other possibility. Any deliberate use of the breath will separate it from the vibration of the vocal folds. Which will cause it to overpower the vibration and force the voice bigger than is appropriate. This is how we get out of balance.

Another quote from Lamperti applies here,”Let the voice take the breath it needs.” When we sing the vibration needs to start first, then it takes the breath it needs to feed it and keep it going. If we use our breath by giving it to the voice faster and in greater quantity than it is ready to use, we force it to expel the breath out through the vibration causing imbalance. This happens whether we deliberately support or we unknowingly relax and exhale while we sing.

So the procedure is: First set up the body with a feeling of stretch through the torso. Breath by quietly filling the lungs without expanding much in any one place. Feel the elastic quality of the expanded lungs and strive to retain it. Don’t let the inhale position drop until you are done singing. Initiate the vibration by simply saying what you are going to sing freely with the larynx.

While singing the phrase there will be some natural deflating of the lungs as puffs of air escape with the vibration, but we never want to relax and let them collapse. That is what the old timers called “la lotta vocale” – “the vocal struggle/contest”.

We are trying to not let the exhalation come by continuing to try and inhale. Singing on the “Gesture of Inhalation”. Then the breath supports the voice naturally rather than overpowering it. The breath should support the voice like a good spouse or parent should support us. Just by being there for us to lean on when necessary, but not pushing us or doing the work for us.

  1. Hello Michael

    I have massive problems with breathing and I’ve tried everything. Currently it’s “ng”.

    My problem apparently is that I don’t close my vocal folds properly especially when singing middle and lower notes.

    This allows air to escape, to be wasted, meaning I run out of breath before phrases are ended, ruining any chance of musicality and control.

    When sshnng I can go as long as anyone so there is nothing wrong anatomically.

    Do you have any tips or advice? Running our of breath really does spoil my enjoyment of singing and makes me very anxious about performance etc.

  2. Thanks for your question, Brian. It sounds like you have identified your issue. That is good because so many have the same issue and have no idea what is the actual problem. They are looking for solutions in other areas of the instrument that will be of no help, and may even create other problems.

    My advice is to learn how to coordinate your glottis so it appropriately closes in the preparation phase before singing. There is really no other solution. It is a skill that needs to be learned and developed. It involves no effort and no secret techniques. Just sensitivity and patience.

    Unfortunately it is not something most people can do on their own. We usually need some guidance. But I have described the situation pretty in depth in my bonus article “The Number One Mistake Singers Are Making.” Just join the VocalWisdom.com community with the sign-up box at the upper right corner. Thanks.

  3. Val Bastien

    Breathing is such an important aspect of singing! Great tips!

  4. Can you contact me regarding your video services?

    Thank you!

  5. Federico E. de los Santos


    How are you? I have a question about “Lower Back Breathing (exhaling)” as it has been something new to me. Is there a name for this? Is this a legitimate form of breathing?

    I took voice lessons from ASU and was taught to exhale with my abs coming in slowly, then eventually the inter-costals, then, letting everything drop and expand like a bell all around my waist, including the lower back. But, I never did anything regarding exhaling consciously with my lower back.

    I eventually met a voice teacher who learned from a “Jan Ritschell” on Broadway NYC to exhale from the lower back by flexing the lower back muscles outward while keeping the abs straight and firm, not hard (kind of like standing straight at attention, then flexing the lower back muscles). For inhaling you keep your abs slightly firm (they need to expand some) and just expand all around the lower back area. Low and behold it worked, and it seemed to loosen things up in the throat. With the ASU method, I would get tired after singing about an hour and fifteen minutes or so while playing guitar (probably because of posture issues, but wasn’t sure). But, the “Lower Back Breathing” method of exhaling seemed to work, but I did not know why and I did eventually find Jan Ritschell and took two lessons from her before she passed away. Do you have any insight on this? Thank you for your time.

    Best Regards,
    Lawndale, CA

  6. Hello, and thanks for your comment. Yes, this is basically the way I instruct people to coordinate their breathing. I actually don’t talk about the back much, but what you describe is what happens.

    I usually try to keep things as simple as possible, so I basically instruct people to keep the abdomen drawn in as we inhale, which engages the back muscles. Then when singing we lean with the back muscles. It is a sort of bracing gesture.

    This bracing is part connection and part compression of the breath. It is the opposite of blowing the breath out loosely on a flow. Letting the breath out will cause the larynx to be unstable and unbalanced. This causes fatigue, as you have experienced.

    The back gesture can actually be fairly natural, which is the goal. Hope this helps.

  7. In one of David Jones’ articles on breathing he says
    “Alan Lindquest once told me to take a thimble full of breath and put it in the lower back’

    how is this doable if

    There is a recommendation from G.B. Lamperti that applies – “Breath a little bit over a large area rather than a lot in a small area.” When we breath a lot in a small area, like just the abdomen or the back, we distort the system. A distorted system is less efficient and loses the automatic quality?

    I thought support meant ‘holding back the breath’ by pressing the small of your back outward while approaching higher notes. do you mean something different by ‘support’ in this articles that
    ‘Any attempt to actively support is a deliberate use of the breath. No matter if the act is pushing, pulling, squeezing, exhaling or any other possibility. Any deliberate use of the breath will separate it from the vibration of the vocal folds. Which will cause it to overpower the vibration and force the voice bigger than is appropriate. This is how we get out of balance.’

  8. Thanks for your questions, Junior. There are many conflicting statements out there in the Vocal world. But I don’t know if would consider these to be.

    A thimble full of breath sounds like a small amount to me. And when you have the intention to breath in to the back there is a certain by-product of breathing into the whole system.

    The main thing is by trying to breath into the back we avoid the mistaken way of breathing by enlarging the abdomen.

    I will be creating several new resources in the near future that will go into more detail about how I advise to approach the issue of breathing for singing.

    The main points that I would give regarding your questions are: first look at what breathing actually is. Not in the sense of “breathing for singing”, but simply breathing for life.

    From my perspective it is the drawing of air into the lungs. It isn’t the expansion of the belly/back/chest or any other peripheral element.

    These may be things that happen along the way, but they are not the breathing itself.

    So from that starting point we can look at what needs to happen to most effectively accomplish that act. Which in my experience is to allow the body to accomplish the act as naturally and reflexively as possible.

    Second, support is a condition, not an action. When we support properly the air pressure from the breath is under the vibration of the vocal folds feeding it automatically. There is no need to actively send or direct the breath to the voice or through it to support the sound.

    Sound does not need to be supported, it needs to be created by vibration. When we try to support the sound we distort the vibration, actually making things harder.

    It isn’t possible to cover the whole situation here, but in those new resources I mentioned I will. Sign up as a free member of the community to be notified when they are available. Thanks again.

  9. Federico E. de los Santos


    If you sent a response to my note on this blog, I did not get it via email… My email address is (federico233@cox.net). Thank you for your time….

    Best Regards,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *