How can I sing from the diaphragm

Fact check: the diaphragm

Latest knowledge about the function and importance of singing

Breathing training - superfluous or useful?

(Image: © Shutterstock, Photo from Magic mine)

Who does not know her? The good old breathing exercises for diaphragm stimulation. We have been struggling with it for years. But does this automatically make our singing better? There are what feels like a million YouTube videos and hymn books on the subject of "diaphragmatic support". But do such breathing exercises really help to be able to sing better afterwards? We'll explore this question, but we'll start with anatomy and look at what happens when we breathe.

Where is the diaphragm located in the body?

The diaphragm consists of a large flat muscle that separates the abdomen from the chest.

(Image © Shutterstock, Photo by Blamb)

What is the diaphragm doing?

When you breathe in, it contracts, flattens, pulls down, creating enough space in the chest for the lungs to expand. This creates a negative pressure in the lungs and air is sucked in.

On exhalation, the diaphragm relaxes and springs back upwards; the lungs push the air out through the windpipe. The chest becomes smaller again and the stomach pulls back into a relaxed position if it has previously arched outward during inhalation. Exhaling is a passive process.

With every breath, diaphragmatic breathing takes place, which is vital because it ultimately ensures that the bloodstream is supplied with oxygen. In fact, you can't breathe any other way.

(Image: © Shutterstock, Photo by Aldona Griskeviciene)

What are abdominal breathing and chest breathing?

In general, a distinction is made between abdominal and chest breathing. The only difference between these two types is that when breathing in the chest, the intercostal muscles ensure that the rib cage expands considerably during inhalation, the diaphragm does not move lower than necessary and the stomach thus remains flat and gently tensioned. The effect of this form of inhalation can be clearly seen in the enlarged chest.

When breathing in the abdomen, the loosened abdominal muscles allow the diaphragm to lower itself far downwards. The organs are pressed into the abdomen and the abdominal wall bulges outwards. Here, too, the chest expands when the lungs fill with air - but this effect is less and therefore less visible.

What is the healthy way to breathe?

Abdominal breathing is recommended for the health of all people, as it prevents diaphragmatic hernias and constipation and also has a stress-relieving effect. When resting and sleeping, we automatically use abdominal breathing.

Whoever rushes from one appointment to the next all day long, sits at a desk for hours or is simply always somewhere else, sometimes forgets to breathe relaxed. Often, muscles in the body that prevent normal breathing become tense. This can lead to breathing that is too fast and shallow, which even gives you the feeling that you are not getting enough air. This is of course not healthy and can make you sick in the long term.

Fortunately, there are tons of breathing exercises that can help relax the mind and body, relieve tension, and regulate our breathing rate.

Exercises of this kind can also be found, for example, in the areas of sport, yoga, tai chi, psychology, speech therapy, theater, meditation, music.

When does the diaphragm tighten?

First of all: the diaphragm does not go it alone!
It only ever comes into action in cooperation with the intercostal muscles and the abdominal muscles! We feel these activities when defecating, when lifting, pushing or pulling a heavy object or when giving birth to a child, for example. So generally with physical exertion, sports and dancing, but also when speaking and singing.

When we speak, sing long tones or shout loudly, we feel a clear reaction in the middle of our body. This happens because a resistance is built up in our larynx, in which the vocal folds close except for a small gap, hold the closure tension, and thus stimulate the diaphragm and make its breathing tension possible.

  • When articulating plosive consonants (p, t, k, z, ss and b, d, g) the air is briefly held up by the areas that are responsible for forming the consonants - i.e. the tongue and lips.
  • During physical exertion, the closed vocal folds (and also the overlying pocket folds) ensure that the air is held back.

The muscles in the body react or support, depending on the level of exertion, with tension.

Muscular support when singing
What does breathing support actually mean?

Singers make use of this natural process in which they release the retained air in a controlled and even manner to the vocal folds, and thus can specifically influence the sound and the quality of the tone.

This air retention is commonly called Breathing support designated. That means nothing else than that the air consumption when singing is regulated.

The better name for this breathing regulation would actually be support. In other languages, the word support (support, appoggio, soutien) has always been used for this, because that describes exactly what we get when we sing.

Is the diaphragm primarily responsible for vocal breathing?

No. It is a primary inspiratory muscle along with the external intercostal muscles. The widespread opinion that the diaphragm is primarily responsible for the breathing support when singing is wrong. Various muscles in the body support us in singing and speaking by working energetically. Your workload depends on pitch, volume and length, but also age and general health.

The supporting muscles in the body include the intercostal muscles, the abdomen, the upper and lower back muscles and the neck. The diaphragm reacts with tension only when actively exhaling (i.e. singing and speaking).

Ultimately, it is about consciously perceiving the movement sequences and the interaction of the muscles in the body and at the same time avoiding unnecessary muscle tension. Whether screaming, crying, sobbing, speaking, shouting or whispering - our respiratory muscles always accompany and support the sounds that we produce.

If there are any problems, they are usually in the larynx, namely where the sound is produced.

So should you really always start with breathing exercises or "diaphragmatic strength exercises" before you dare to sing?

Not at all! Our singing does not automatically get better just because we do exercises like "pppp, tttt, kkkk, ffff", panting, hoisting, lying on the floor pushing the belly outwards as we exhale. Because our breathing is always the same. When speaking as when singing.

Singing is, if you will, "prolonged speaking", the even and controlled release of the right amount of air to bring the vocal folds into perfect vibration. And that is no show of strength. It doesn't take a lot of muscle to sing a long and even sounding note. Scientific studies have found that a trained singer can only hold a note slightly longer than a person who is not vocal trained.

Observations in everyday singing also show that professional singers can sing high and loud passages in a relaxed manner, even without a "pumped up" chest or a tense diaphragm.

Musical performers who dance and sing at the same time during a performance often only have the opportunity to breathe with tense abdominal muscles. And they can sing powerful notes despite chest breathing.

In vocal physiological research it has long been found out that there is no such thing as one correct "singing breathing". Depending on what we want to sing, we either feel better supported by shallow and high breathing or by deep abdominal breathing. Singers and singing teachers from different genres agree on this. In the method of Joe Estill one finds z. B. exactly this approach.

Become your own observer

I recommend trying it out for yourself. As you sing, ask yourself the following questions!

  • How does it feel when I sing the same phrase with abdominal breathing and then chest breathing?
  • Do I feel any effects on my larynx?
  • What does my sung phrase sound like when I push my diaphragm down / out with force, and how does it sound when I sing without this tension?
  • How does it feel when I sing with my stomach pulled in?
  • Where in my body do I feel other muscle tensions while I sing?
  • What do I do automatically when the tones are loud or soft? (sung and spoken)
  • What do I perceive with high and low notes? (sung and spoken)
  • What if I scream loudly or just shout a little louder?
  • What if I shout angry? What happens when I cheerfully call out?

Feel all tension in your body: in the stomach, chest, upper back and neck, lower back, between the shoulder blades, the neck and throat muscles, the jaw and the tongue. Mind only one area of ​​your body at a time so that you can focus your attention on it. Some will find that having a lot of muscle effort makes it feel less good. Another might find the opposite. Sometimes tension is necessary, sometimes unnecessary.

Become your own observer. Get to know the movements in your body exactly. This is the only way to learn to influence your instrument in a targeted manner.

Breathing training - superfluous or useful?

When singing, we should focus more on our vocal sounds and their production. The focus is on the so-called vocal tract. These include the larynx, throat, nose and mouth. When we learn to produce the right tones at the source, we also learn to regulate our breathing.

Nonetheless, good old-fashioned people can do good body awareness Breathing exercises be helpful. And relaxation exercises help us to release unnecessary muscle tension. It's not all bad that is old, but we should keep checking and questioning to what extent the exercises suggested around the world help us personally.

Lecture by Stefanie Kruse on the subject of air and breathing: