Back to Basics - Top 5 Breathing Mistakes

Thanks in large part to the terrible techniques we listen to every day from pop music, it's very common that the amateur singer doesn't know how to adequately breathe when performing.  From my experiences with choirs, these seem to be the 5 most common breathing mistakes that are easily remedied.

  • 5. Exaggerated Breathing - I once had a choir teacher tell us "When you fill a car with gas, the car doesn't puff out and draw attention to the fact."  Many singers will raise their shoulders or do other motions as though the excess movement helps them to breath deeper.  Guess what?  It doesn't.  If anything it adds more tension in the larynx and restricts the expansion of your rib cage.
  • 4. Breathing Too Shallow - When speaking, we don't need to fill our lungs completely to finish a complete sentence.  We tend to sing the same way and only take deep enough breaths to make it through one or two short phrases.  Make sure you do what you can to keep your breaths full and complete.  Breathing exercises are there to help you learn the difference between breathing when speaking and the breathing requisite for singing.
  • 3. Noisy Breaths - Have you ever noticed how loud pop singers' breaths are on recordings?  It's usually louder than the singing itself!  Loud and noisy breaths are indications of tension in the pharynx or your tongue being in the way of air intake and tend to prevent you from taking a full breath in a short period of time.  You can take a much fuller breath much quicker if it's silent.
  • 2. Breathing Too High - Take a deep breath and pay attention to what part of your torso moves the most.  If it's the chest then you're breathing much too high in your body.  Deep breaths should distend your stomach.  I know, you're worried about looking not-quite-so-fit, but if you focus your breathing to your upper chest only then you restrict the expansion of your lungs and you will never get as much air in one breath. Allow your diaphragm to do its job and live with a larger than normal stomach for a few seconds.
  • 1. Not Enough Air - It seems ridiculous to mention, but I have to remind people constantly that if you need more air - have some!  When you get to the point that you're forcing the last bits of air out of your lungs then you need to just take another breath.  If you get really good at it, you can breathe in the middle of words (with practice, of course ;)).  The point is to never let yourself feel like you're about to pass out simply because you think you need to run a marathon on a single lung of air. Singers have good lung capacity, but it doesn't need to be that good.

There you have it, simple but powerful.  More breath means more breath support which means more power behind your singing!  Don't sell yourself short.

Back to Basics - 6 Points of Posture

When taking lessons, people usually expect the teacher to come at them with a radical new concept that will drastically change their tone and launch them to superstar-dom.  The thing is that most of the time fixing the basic mechanics of singing will do more to fix problems in tone than anything else, not to mention the fact that it's completely necessary to have those basics down before you move on to any advanced technique.

I start off my students every year with a discussion on posture.  Good posture during singing is essential to having good breath support, a general release of tension in your muscles and will alleviate unwanted aches and pains through your body from slouching during a performance.  I have 6 Points of Posture that are easy to remember and, if followed, will always ensure that you are not constricting yourself in any way.

  1. Chin level with the floor - Keep your head erect and don't point it in the direction of the note thinking it's helping.  Moving your head up or down will actually just constrict your airway and make the notes even more difficult to reach.
  2. Shoulders back - Raise your shoulders up to your ears and then let them fall backward.  Keeping your shoulders here will prevent you from allowing your rib cage to collapse during singing.
  3. Sternum high - Your sternum is what holds your rib cage together.  Keeping your sternum high also prevents a rib cage collapse and guarantees your shoulders are back.  Imagine an invisible string leading from your upper chest and let it be pulled slightly to the ceiling.
  4. Hands at your side - As much for aesthetics as anything, keeping your hands largely to the side prevents the tendency to pull your arms forward and close off your rib cage.  In solo performances, some movement is fine but be aware where your shoulders are.
  5. Knees slightly bent - Keeping your knees bent keeps a certain amount of energy flowing through your body, without adding much tension, and prevents you from locking your knees, increasing your chances of fainting.
  6. Feet shoulder-width apart - You must have a solid stance while you are singing to ensure you get the greatest possible power from your breath.  A good stance will also prevent you from shifting your weight to just one leg throwing your posture completely out of alignment and adding tension.

Obviously you can still practice while seated, but you still want to follow these general rules, just slightly modified.  From experience I can promise you that following these simple 6 Points of Posture will bring greater ease and power to your voice.  Hey, they work on junior high kids so they've got to work on everyone!