London based vocal coach, Keith Merrill, explains how he helps singers to improve their breathing technique and re-energise their singing.
As a teacher and singer, I’m mostly disheartened when I watch singers breathe. Rarely do I see it performed accurately, yet it’s the very foundation of everything we do.
I will offer three vital words of advice: Firm but gentle. Make them a mantra for every step you take. Nothing forced or exaggerated – but allowed.
Now, silently through the mouth (it’s quieter and gives an important sense of “lift”) take your breath in as though it’s coming from above your head, down through your torso allowing the belly to gently expand out and downwards into your pubic area.
Always think south when you breathe, keeping shoulders and chest out of the action. Movement should only happen from the bottom of the sternum, downward. Now, of course, physiologically it’s only the lungs that take in the air – but by allowing the belly to expand out and downward, we give the diaphragm optimum room to do its business.
When you’ve taken enough air, there should be a split second of a gentle but firm “lift up” of your abdominal muscles. A small movement, the feeling is as if there are strings attached to the abdominals and someone pulls them up gently, then slightly inwards. This offers a cushion of support, just before you sing.
Correct breathing: done.
Recap: Take your breath silently through the mouth “into your belly and groin”.
Slightly pull in and up in the abdomen. Sing. Three easy steps but it will take some coordinating.
It’s equally important to be less concerned about the diaphragm and more focused on what your cords are doing during phonation. Much responsibility of the correct “out” breath falls upon our vocal cords. Specifically, the more our cords engage (and remain engaged) the less breath escapes. To that end, the more engagement we have, the smoother our line becomes; the cleaner our tone, and the easier we can navigate range.
What’s more, the less breath that escapes the less we have to take in the first place! Economy – the bottom line for everything. To help with this, repeat the word, “WITH”, over and over (out loud, not whispered). Now, as you repeat, begin to concentrate on the middle “I” sound. Then say the “I” over and over. Add an “H” to the “I” (as in “HIT”) – “HII” “HII” “HII”, then go back to the “I” on its own. In going back and forth, you’ll notice the sensation of closure, comparatively with the engaged “I” as opposed to the disengaged “HII”. That is the sensation we want for all vowels: “I” to “Ah” – “I” to “EE” – “I” to “OH” etc. Be prepared to concentrate acutely. Try to match the placement of the “I” to all vowels using a very minimal movement as you go back and forth. This is cord closure. The tool for creating the laser beam clarity that so many great singers have. With consistent closure, breath support will become ever more accurate, as when the cords are engaged, only an economy of air may escape.
The five minute exercise that will change your breath support forever
It’s best to perform this exercise lying flat on your back. I tend to do it before bed or in the morning. Over a slow count of five simply take your air in and allow your tummy, as far as your pubic bones, to expand toward your feet as well as rise upward. Gently, no pushing. Then hold the breath (but not rigidly) over a slow count of five. Finally, release the breath over a slow count of five – all silently through the mouth.
Repeat this process over five minutes. When you’ve mastered the five in, five hold, five out – and only when you have mastered it – move to six or seven. Over the course of the next few weeks gradually work towards five minutes of 20 in, 20 hold, 20 out. You will get dizzy at first, so start with five and move on only when it becomes easy. This will train your muscles to do what we need them to do – and you’ll never be concerned with breathing again.