I am a very dedicated 17 year old vocalist living in Westchester, NY. Some background info- I’ve been singing seriously for about a year and a half now. I sing classically and r&b style. I’ve performed at many venues, mainly pro bono, to increase my performance experience, and for good causes. I have performed in front of Capitol Hill in Washington DC in front of 25,000 people at the Global Peace Festival, and that has been my largest audience up to date.

I consider myself a good vocalist with exceptional control in terms of melisma (vocal acrobatics, w.e. you want to call it) and I stay on pitch quite well.

However, the reason why I am writing you this is because I have recently been struggling with one issue: breathing. My singing training has been a self-taught process; I’ve read and relied on numerous online resources to enhance my singing ability. Around 6 months ago, I stumbled across an article that explained the benefits of diaphragmatic breathing. Upon reading it I decided I was going to condition myself to breathe like that.

I started by squeezing my midsection (diaphragm) with my hands, to isolate my breath. When I breathed in, my sides/lower ribcage protruded, I could feel my stomach, lower back and buttocks area tense up slightly. I decided I was doing the right thing, so I continued to train that way. I have even tied a belt around my waist, wearing it all day, in order to isolate my breathing into my diaphragm. It’s been several months since I have started this endeavor.

But recently- and I’m presuming it’s because of this entire breathing re-configuration process- it’s been difficult to breathe. The major problem is my throat feels tight. I feel bloated, I always have to burp- and my burps seem to be coming straight from my stomach- a low, deep gurgle- and sometimes the tight throat prevents it from coming out. When I stand up, I can’t seem to relax when I breathe, I feel like it’s forced breathing, and all my air intake seems to be going to my chest and other parts not my diaphragm.

I really would appreciate it if you would take the time to help me overcome this problem, and teach me how to BREATHE properly.

How we breath is an important topic for singing. The basic manner of breathing you describe sounds correct. But it is possible that in your dedication you have gone too far, and are trying too hard, in your exercising. Natural breathing should be free and flexible. There is tension involved but it should not feel tense. I prefer to describe it as taut, always feeling elastic. Active but not a struggle. It is helpful to understand the basic physiology involved when we breath to make sure we are not overstepping the capabilities of the body.

When we inhale the diaphragm contracts (it is a muscle) and pulls against the lower ribs and back, where it connects. This contraction requires a stable bone structure to pull against or it will not be balanced. This requires the muscles of the rib cage and lower back to be coordinately active, through posture, to balance the contraction of the diaphragm. If this coordination does not happen we get the result of either high chest breathing or undesirable abdominal breathing, depending on the posture conditions and the individual habits.

Some helpful things to keep in mind when breathing are, 1. Feel like you are breathing into your lower ribs and lower back. This is because the largest area of the lungs are the lower lobes which are felt in these areas and because this is where we feel the muscular activity counterbalancing the contraction of the diaphragm. 2. Keep a good uplifted posture. Standing in an up-stretched condition is important to combat the typical sag we see in the majority of the population. This alone nearly guarantees improved breath function. 3. Don’t over-breath. There is such a great emphasis on breathing for singing that people have a tendency to over-do it. We should strive for a comfortable fullness but not a feeling of being completely packed. We just want to make sure that we don’t allow the lungs to be deflated so there is an insufficient amount of air to be compressed and provide the energy necessary to feed the vibration of the vocal folds.

We need to remember that the purpose of the breath is to feed the vibration of the vocal folds, it is not the sound itself. So we need to always balance the breath with the resistance of the vocal folds and not send it out as if it were the sound. This misconception is what makes people over emphasize the breath and over-burden the voice with too much breath. If you are over-breathing when you inhale the body will feel a need to let that breath out. If we let the breath out while we sing we will disturb the balance of the phonation. If the release of the breath disturbs the vibration too much the body will unconsciously constrict the throat to resist the breath to compensate. This reaction could be the cause of your tight throat.

The problem of burping is a sign that you are being too vigorous and disturbing your digestion. I think it is likely that you are just trying too hard with your breathing practice. Try being more smooth when you breath and don’t take in more than you can suspend comfortably. This will allow your voice to vibrate freely without being burdened with too much breath pressure trying to get out through the glottis, which is the cause of throat constriction.