Rebecca Sherburn - voice expert

Introduction to Breathing

Learn how to breathe for perfect singing

In this first video of a multi-part series, Prof. Sherburn introduces the right way to breathe.

Released on January 3, 2018

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Video Transcription

Breathing for singing is our topic. It's a big one, so we're going to do this in three separate videos.

Today we'll have an overview. In the following video, we will work specifically on inhalation, and the last segment will be about exhalation.

I'm Dr. Rebecca Sherburn, the Director of Vocal Studies at Chapman University in Southern California, and this is the fourth in a series of talks on how the voice works, presented by virtual sheet music.

When we speak, we inhale without thought and we let go as we speak, exhaling without thought. And then we do that again. There's not much to it. It's pretty easy.

Most of our breathing, especially when we are asleep, is not consciously controlled, but when we breathe to sing, the breath must come under conscious control so that we can finish the phrase of music and be expressive.

To bring our breath under conscious control is to manage it. Breath management for classical singing looks like this:


It doesn't look like much is going on, but it actually is a fairly complicated coordination. There are a number of different ways to breathe well for singing. I'm not stating that this is the only way, I'm just sharing my way with you.

When I was learning to sing, I spent a lot of time trying to find a spot in my torso where I could control exhalation support. I tried leaning hard on the epigastric area, right here, pushing it forward. I tried pulling in with the lower abdominals as I exhaled, and I tried cranking my ribs as wide as possible and holding them flared out as I sang. But what I found with each new attempt to support in a specific place was that new problems would arise in other parts of the instrument. It took me years. But I finally figured out that there isn't one place or one set of muscles in charge of exhalation. A lot of the torso is involved. And, because of that, exhalation can feel rather generalized or non-specific.

The famous pedagogue, Richard Miller, wrote, "Sing on the gesture of inhalation." And, for me, that feels isometric, like inhaling and exhaling at the same time.

So, trying to support by contracting a specific place in the abdomen doesn't accomplish this gesture of inhalation, and support is not just about the torso. The vocal folds have to function effectively, as does the resonator. It is a coordination that's sort of complicated, and we're going to try and take it apart to feel it in pieces, which really is not possible, but we're going to try it anyway.

So we'll focus on the muscles of the torso in these three talks, and take up phonation and resonance at another time.

So these are the four phases of breath management: inhalation, suspension, exhalation, and recovery.

In Phase One, inhalation. On a relaxed abdomen, the ribs roll up and the diaphragm flattens down, pushing the internal organs forward. Depending on the build of the body, there can also be a slight feeling of pressure against the pelvic floor on inhalation.

Phase Two, suspension. As we hold our breath, the muscles of the abdomen engage gently, setting up an isometric antagonism between the muscles of inhalation, ribs, and diaphragm and those of exhalation: abdominal wall, another set in the rib cage, and a set in the lower back. So, at this point, all the muscles of inhalation and exhalation are at the ready. That's what suspension is. As we learn to sing, it's really important to set up suspension.

Phase Three, exhalation. Air is now slowly released, just enough to accomplish the pitch dynamic and phrase at hand, and then we let those muscles all return to their original state.

Phase Four is recovery. it's simply a pause before the next inhalation.

So, in the next video, we're going to focus on Phase One, inhalation, experiencing the expansion of the rib cage as it rolls up, and the diaphragm as it flattens out. If you're going straight on, grab a belt or a strap, which we'll use to wrap around the rib cage. Props are so fun.

See you soon.

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