Practice makes you a better singer

Andreas Grussl - Vocal Consultant

Maybe you know the feeling when you just don't have enough air to finish a phrase in a song. You would like to, but somehow it just doesn't work. The sound is literally running out of energy.

Many singers have this problem. The common and for many logically obvious explanation is that it is due to the wrong breathing. So you work on your breathing. You train them and train them, but somehow it doesn't really get any better. Unfortunately, this is the case for many. This often creates frustration when singing and can even cause doubts as to whether singing is really right for you.

At the same time, you could easily fix it by shifting your focus away from breathing to another element of your voice. Only in the rarest of cases are problems with the air when singing really caused by breathing. And when it does, it's easy to fix.

Which in most cases really matters

In order to make a sound, you need to make your vocal folds (often called the vocal cords) vibrate. This converts air into sound. In order to get the vocal cords vibrating, the following things need to be coordinated:

  1. the vocal folds must be closed
  2. you need to create a current of air that can vibrate the closed vocal cords

What you can do to get to the second point just mentioned is essentially the same as exhaling. For this reason, many think that breathing training is very important in singing. In fact, breathing also plays a role, but it is nowhere near as central as it is often portrayed.

There is an essential difference between singing and breathing. The vocal folds must be open when breathing and closed when singing. Pure breathing exercises, in which the vocal folds are open, therefore do not help to coordinate the processes that are important for sound generation. Instead, you only ever train your breathing in an isolated form. The fact that you have advantages in certain areas does not necessarily make you a better singer.

In addition, problems with too little air when singing are in the majority of all cases due to the fact that your vocal folds do not close well enough. You can think of the vocal cords as a kind of valve that regulates how quickly air can escape from your lungs. If they close tightly, it takes a long time for all of the air to escape. If they close weakly, the air is quickly gone.

The principle is the same as with a balloon. Inflate it and then let the air out. You will find that it takes a lot longer for the air to escape if you pinch the air inlet shut with your fingers. On the other hand, if you leave it open, the air will escape very quickly.

So if you run out of breath while singing, it means that your vocal folds are not closing well enough.

How to fix the problem ...

If you want more air while singing, the first thing you need to do is learn how to better close your vocal folds while singing. As mentioned above, pure breathing exercises won't help. You need exercises that really make a sound.

However, not all exercises are equally good here either. It's about better activating the muscles that close your vocal folds. In general, open vowels like "Ä" (compare the English word "cat") in combination with consonants like "g", "b" or "m" are very helpful. For starters, stay in the lower range of your voice and make sure you're not singing too softly. It can also help mimic the feeling when speaking.

As your vocal folds close better, you will also notice how your voice becomes stronger and more stable. In most cases, you will also hear the presence of the chest voice a lot more clearly.

Which does not work...

It is very likely that you will not achieve the desired result if you try to correct the problem by manipulating the muscles used for breathing while singing. Tensing the abdomen, excessive use of the abdominal muscles when breathing in or out, etc. are therefore not effective.

It is particularly advisable not to put pressure on the vocal folds with high levels of air pressure. Unfortunately, this strategy is very often sold to you under the term "support" and you are persuaded that you literally have to push the air out of you through strong use of the diaphragm. It is very likely that your larynx muscles will give way even faster when exposed to excessive air pressure and the lack of air will become even more acute.

It also happens again and again that the larynx muscles react to excessive air pressure with excessive activity. This then causes your vocal folds to close way too tightly. This makes the singing strenuous and the notes, especially the high ones, sound depressed and are often poorly voiced. So you'd better stay away from it.

By the way, if you want to know what support really means, you can find my blog on this topic here.

When does breathing play a role?

Breathing work is appropriate when you are actually breathing incorrectly for singing purposes. This is especially the case if you use what is known as shoulder or collarbone breathing.

It is characterized by the fact that your chest, shoulder and collarbone rise when you breathe in. Although this breathing technique works very well for sports, for example, as it allows you to inhale a lot of air very quickly and also tense your core well, it is extremely unfavorable for singing. This is because the chest raised to breathe in presses on your lungs, pushing air out of your lungs, so to speak. As a result, you can only prevent automatic exhalation by closing the vocal folds relatively hard. If you try to sing under these conditions, there is a high likelihood that the result will be cramped. In addition, there is often a feeling of pressure in the area of ​​the sternum or you just have the feeling that you have too little air to sing.

But even in this, the work on breathing is relatively simple and should take a few minutes at most. You just have to be shown how to consciously use so-called abdominal breathing. Once you know what to look out for, you can easily correct yourself if you are tempted to breathe into your shoulders again.

So if you feel like you're running out of breath while singing, you can solve the problem by learning to better close your vocal folds while you are playing. If a correction of the breathing is really necessary, this can be done quickly. In no case should it consist of trying to load the vocal folds with great air pressure.