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Breathing for Singers

Updated: Mar 13

Before we talk about breath and explore breathing for singers, let’s start with the concept of space.

Our body is full of more space than it is dense matter. Think about it. All of the space between every cell, the space between layers of muscle, the space between nerves and vasculature, the space between bone and the periosteum, etc. If there were no space, nothing in your body would be able to move; you wouldn’t be able to move! This being said, at all times, your body is always trying to create and maintain its space because space equals happy cells and happy function. 

In order to breathe, you need to be able to access, create, manage, and influence the space within your body. Expansion and contraction happen at every level and layer, from the macro to the micro, from the whole body to the cells. When tissue gets stuck, overly strained, too compressed, torqued too far, sheared too much (you get my point), our ability to access space efficiently is reduced. Reduced space means reduced function. Reduced function means increased compensation. Increased compensation means a greater likelihood of injury and long-term wear and tear. With regards to phonation and the athleticism of singing, if you can’t access your space, you aren’t breathing in a way that is fully embodied. Working off the concept that the entire body is the instrument, this means you wouldn’t be playing your instrument to its fullest potential. This doesn’t mean you aren’t playing your instrument well (I’ve worked with SO many people with compromised space who still sound and sing incredibly), but it does mean an increased risk of injury, poorer recovery, finicky vocal technique – the list goes on and on.

Breath is, literally, so layered. What 'good breathing' means for one person will likely not be the same for another. However, I do want to speak to the physiology and foundational concepts of good breathing that can apply to all individuals. This physiology goes beyond 'inhale muscles do this' and 'exhale muscles do that'—it is especially beyond 'breathe with your diaphragm' (don’t get me started on that cue). Your brain and body do not think in individual muscles or groups; they interpret the whole. The whole is discerned through sensory awareness of space. The majority of the afferent nerve endings (body-to-brain information) are enmeshed within the spaces between all defined systems. Ok, enough of that tangent, on to the core concept.

Let’s talk next about air pressure. 

The relationship between internally generated air pressure and the air pressure on Earth, influenced by gravity (super important point!!), is crucial in vocal production.

Internally generated air pressure refers to the pressure created within the respiratory system when we inhale and exhale. Inhale = low internal pressure, exhale = high internal pressure. This air pressure is fundamental for phonation, the process of creating sound with our vocal folds. When we exhale, the air pressure from the inside of our body pushes through the larynx, causing the vocal folds to occlude and produce sound.

The air pressure on Earth is influenced by gravity (and so are our tissues) and varies depending on altitude and even atmospheric conditions. In vocal production, this external air pressure interacts with the internally generated air pressure. When we exhale to produce sound, our internal air pressure needs to overcome the external air pressure in order for the vocal folds to vibrate effectively. This balance between internal and external air pressure ensures that the vocal folds can vibrate freely and produce sound efficiently.

Overall, the relationship between internally generated air pressure and the external air pressure on Earth, influenced by gravity, is essential for effective vocal production. Maintaining a balance between these pressures ensures optimal phonation and sound production. 

Gravity Matters

When considering air pressure, we see that the balance between internal and external pressure is in a direct relationship with gravity. Movement of our tissues is also in direct relationship with gravity, and therefore when we consider movement, we need to consider pressure.

All movement relies on pressure. Pressure generated from movement translates directly into the fluid systems of our body (joints, vasculature, extracellular and interstitial, ground substance, etc.) and aids in keeping our overall alignment stable. If your physical form (muscles, bones, ligaments, connective tissue – FASCIA!!) is not able to overcome the forces of gravity, your ability to efficiently expand, contract, and mitigate pressure (breath support/breath control) is going to be reduced.

So how does gravity relate to breathing and space? For this, we can look toward Newtonian physics (I promise I’ll do my best to make this perspective on physics not scary or overwhelming!). The laws of motion, of which there are three, state:

  1. An object at rest remains at rest, and an object in motion remains in motion at a constant speed and in a straight line unless acted on by an unbalanced force. (inertia) 

  2. The acceleration of an object depends on the mass of the object and the amount of force applied. (Force =Mass x Acceleration) 

  3. Whenever one object exerts a force on another object, the second object exerts an equal and opposite on the first. (equal opposite reactions) 

The first two laws of motion we will save for a more in-depth conversation, but the third law is the one we’ll focus on for this generalized concept of supporting breathing. If we apply this concept to gravity, we see that gravity is pressing down on Earth (and our body) at 9.8 meters per second squared. This also means that Earth is pushing up on gravity (and our body) at 9.8 meters per second squared. This upward force is what we refer to in biomechanics and movement as “Ground Reaction Force” (GRF). These forces are also mirrored in the functions of our tissues. Hard tissues like bone work to resist compression (gravity) while soft tissues like muscle work to resist strain (GRF).

Here is the key point: too often we think about breath support, stability, and pressure regulation through the resistance of gravity. The approach taken for this is usually done by “standing up tall” and forcing our body into an unsupported alignment where tissue becomes overly strained in order to hold an “ideal” postural shape. Instead, when we think about these actions through the engagement of Ground Reaction Force, we create the potential to actually resist the compressive effects of gravity and hold our alignment in its most natural, balanced state – it is in this state that we have access to the most uncompromised amount of space. Here is the most fun part: over time, should we learn to engage GRF appropriately, our tissues will naturally begin to adapt and we will eventually find ourselves in a non-effortful state of balance between gravity and the ground. It is here that true, supported, and stable breathing happens.

Long story short: good breathing starts with our relationship with the ground and gravity. When this relationship is well-established, pressure both internally and externally can flow with greater ease and control; through either the lens of breathing or movement. They are one and the same.

If you are looking for specific information on anatomy and connective tissues to start exploring, please refer to this article. You can schedule an appointment with the Singing Body Clinic to learn how these concepts apply to your subjective physiology.

breathing for singers, breath exercises, singing body clinic, Jay Colwell

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