Breathing from the Diaphragm

Singing and speaking from the diaphragm is so easy that a baby can do it. Then why do so many voice students spend thousands of dollars and many hours on lessons trying to learn how to do it and many, despite years of practice still never fully learn the skill?

Let’s first look at a few reasons why we lose this skill. When babies are born, they instinctively breath from the diaphragm because it is the most efficient way to breath and it is natural. That is why you can hear a baby babble across a crowded church yet can barely hear some members of the adult choir from ten feet away.

What is the first thing a parent will say to a child who is making loud noises? Shhhhh . . . quiet . . . shut up. Infants and toddlers quickly learn that being heard is wrong so they stifle the natural process of breath support in an effort not to be heard. Likewise, teens and adults who are insecure, self conscious and don’t want to stand out suppress the natural mechanics of support so they are less noticed. This also causes people to slouch, bring their shoulders together, bend their neck or close their throat. Another reason is that proper breathing comes from the belly region and nobody wants to make their belly look bigger. Fear of what other people think of us is very stifling to creativity.

Finally, gravity pulls down on the body and people instinctively think that raising the shoulders is how we breath because that is what they think it feels like to breath. Breathing doesn’t come from the shoulders or lungs.

Let’s first look at our anatomy. The lungs are beneath our ribs and right beneath the lungs, still under the ribs, is a parachute shaped sheet of muscle called the diaphragm. When we breath, we pull down on the diaphragm muscle which creates a vacuum in the lungs and air simply falls down or is sucked into the lungs. Our chest and lungs are not necessarily directly involved in that process. There is no need to raise the shoulders although, maintaining an expanded chest allows more air to fill the lungs. Bigger expanded lungs means more space for more air intake. Every good soldier knows to “STICK OUT YOUR CHEST. SUCK IN THAT GUT!”

When you exhale you push the diaphragm muscle upward and it pushes the air out of the lungs. If you only breath from the upper chest and shoulders you will only use half the air in your lungs causing you to run out of breath or have other issues with your vocal production. If you use the diaphragm, you will use all the air in all of your lungs.

Expanding the chest and only breathing partially through the diaphragm is also the secret to the dead man float. The lungs are like balloons and if you expand and fill up the upper lungs with air, then only breath through the lower lungs, you’ll float without effort.

Let’s do a few exercises to show you how effortless, natural and efficient breathing from the diaphragm can be.

Let’s start by lying on the floor. Bend your knees if you like. Breath naturally. Feel that your breathing comes from the stomach area. That’s it. Simple. Now let’s try a few things with your voice. Cough. Notice from where it emanated from. Pretend you are a fire engine making siren sounds and get louder and higher each time you sound the siren. Yell “HEY” like you just caught someone stealing. Yell “Bad” as if your dog just messed on the floor. Yell “GIT” to a cat in your trash. Call for help three times with increasing volume as if no one can hear you. Say “BOO” like you are jumping out from behind a door to scare someone. Now, playfully say “Woof!” as if you are a puppy trying to entice its owner to play. Now get on all fours and pant like a dog. Where does it all come from?

Do you see how easy and effortless all that was? The challenge now is to stand up and continue to breath that way after years of training your body to accept ignorance, misuse and abuse as normal.

While you are still on the floor, try not to breath from the stomach and only breath from the upper chest. After five minutes of breathing properly and effortlessly, can you now feel how wrong it is to breath from the chest and shoulders? Proper movement always makes improper movement to feel bad, like it really is.

I have included a video link to an example of what it looks like to breath properly. This clip is taken from the movie ROCK STAR starring Mark Wahlberg or “Marky Mark.” Notice that he takes his breath from his stomach then pushes in or contracts his muscles to expel the air. If we had cameras from his back and side you’d also see expansion there, too. There are intercostal muscles between each of the ribs and because of the intensity of what he is singing, he is expanding and contracting those, too. Also watch the swimming competitions at the summer Olympics and pay close attention when the swimmers get out of the water or do interviews immediately after competitions. They are trained to breath from the diaphragm. Some of them may raise the shoulders but they are at least instructed properly otherwise. The professional dancers on Dancing With the Stars are well trained in breathing since they are also reprimanded for raising the shoulders. There are many great examples all around us in our professional athletes. Musicians need to remember that they too are athletes and can sometimes benefit more by a few lessons from a sports coach than a singing coach. Singers will also benefit by singing WITH the lost, lonely, homeless, dying and the sick. Technique is worthless if it is not connected to an emotion. Too many of our trained singers are also devoid of soul.

I will add that if anyone is suffering from any form of COPD, this type of breathing can prolong their life and also rescue them from a shortness of breath panic attack. Diaphragmatic breathing also increases oxygen in our blood stream which aids in healing, repair and clear thinking because oxygen is needed for brain function.

So, new moms, please think twice before saying to you infant “Shhhhh . . . ” At least, if you have to say “Shhhh . . . ” do it from the diaphragm.

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