How can I learn how to breathe from the diaphragm? Don’t singers breathe from their stomachs?
Whoopi Goldberg pushed that nun’s belly and made her sing louder. How do I do that?
These are some of the questions I’ve heard while working with voices. They all focus in on the confusion of what the diaphragm is and why we care about it while we sing or speak. Really the question should be, how do I use my ability to control the speed of my breathing to improve my singing or speaking?
What is “breathing from the diaphragm, what does it do?”
Diaphragmatic breathing can be defined in one word—BREATHING. The diaphragm, in technical terms, is the largest muscle involved in breathing. All mammals have a diaphragm. Indeed, if you did not have one you would most likely not survive, as evidenced by the high mortality rate of those born with no diaphragm or a highly deformed diaphragm. While all mammals have a diaphragm, the human diaphragm is the only one that can remain parallel to the floor even while moving, as noted by Kitaoka and Chihara in a 2009 article in the journal Advance in Experimental Medicine and Biology. They argue that this allows us to have greater control in the velocity of our breathing.
This greater control allows humans to change their breathing patterns to suit what they are doing. Indeed, we shift our breathing partially because of the brain’s role in body regulation (e.g. while running) but also by volition (e.g. trying to time our breathing while in a swimming race). We do this with the help of the diaphragm and more than thirty other support muscles.
How can we use it to sing or speak better?
Of course, when we begin to sing or speak in a prolonged manner, we need to shift that pattern again. We still use our diaphragm, but now we need to slow down the rate of inhalation and exhalation, which allows us to gather more air, which in turn provides the energy for our vocal folds to vibrate for a sustained period of time.
Do I need to push my belly to use the diaphragm?
In a word, no. Here is where the Whoopi Goldberg example becomes relevant. The point of using our ability to control the velocity of our inhalation and exhalation is to ensure there is enough energy for an entire phrase. In the movie “Sister Act,” after the young nun inhales by contracting her diaphragm and other support muscles, the character played by Whoopi Goldberg pushes the young nun’s abdomen inwards and pushes all her air out. It works for one note... what about the rest?
Rather than pushing air out, a singer or speaker needs to control the speed of exhalation by controlling the natural relaxation of the muscles. The vocalist is then perfectly situated to contract the muscles to take in another breath. This allows a continuous flow of air for an extended length of time.
There are a few ways to become mindful of this controlled relaxation and to use it. One way is monitoring how your torso is moving, by gently placing your hands on the lower ribs (those not connected to the sternum). In this way you can feel as the ribs expand (or don’t expand). Melanie Tapson, a fellow vocologist, talks about this expansion as being three dimensional - you should feel the ribs expand forwards, backwards, and sideways.
As all breathing is breathing from the diaphragm, it is important to be mindful of it as you are singing. The good news? It’s easy! You were designed to control the diaphragm. Doing so will allow you to energize your voice.
Trissa DiBenedetto WAlter
Is a singer, voice teacher, speech language pathologist, and certified vocologist