Singing Articles

 kids singing

The Diaphragm and the Intercostal Muscles

How to breathe while singing…

The human voice is the hardest instrument to master, contrary to what a lot of people think.   There are two reasons for this:  Firstly, your voice is invisible.  You can’t see it, so in order to be a good singer you must have a good imagination to make those physical things inside your body work.  Unlike learning piano or guitar, where you can watch your hands on the instrument, your voice is internal. You can’t reach your hand down your throat and make your diaphragm go flat, so you need to “trick” your body into doing what you physically want it to do by imagining certain things.  Secondly, your body is your instrument, so if you don’t eat correctly, are sick, or out of shape it will all show up in your voice.  Ed used to say to me, “…if you want to be a good singer you must be an athlete…”  This is very true.

There are two parts of the body involved in the act of singing.  The first is your head, which acts as the “amplifier” of the voice.  The second is the mid-section, which contains the intercostals muscles and the diaphragm. Together the intercostals and the diaphragm form the “foundation” of good singing.   You can have the most beautiful house in the world but if it has a badly laid foundation the house will eventually fall down, no matter how nice the house looks.  The same holds true with voices. There’s a million different ways to make sound but unfortunately only one way to sing without damaging the voice.  There are many singers who have great sounding “natural” voices, who have sold millions of albums, and yet they’re shredded their voices.  I’m talking here about singers such as Elton John, Rod Stewart, Stevie Nicks, Tom Jones, Roger Daltry.  The list goes on, and it’s quite common for many pop/rock/country singers to develop hoarseness or lose their voices entirely with nodes or polyps.    Not singers who sing using Bel Canto however.   A perfect example of someone using this technique is Tony Bennett, now in his late 70’s, who still sings many dates per year.   This is an Italian technique, and for that reason a lot of the old Hollywood cats like Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Andy Williams, all sang like this.   Almost all of the world’s greatest singers over the ages have used the Bel Canto technique.

When you hear someone else’s voice it comes to you as a “sound wave”. Breath comes up from our lungs, across our vocal chords, vibrates off the hard palate in the front of our mouth, and then carries as a “wave” towards our listener.  We hear our own voices as a “sound vibration” however.  This is our breath or voice vibrating inside our head.  When we record our voice, whether it be on a cheap tape machine or in the recording studio, our voices never sound like we think they sound. This is why.  Some singers hate the sound of their own voice.  I’ve grown to like mine over the years, but there’s still times I’m in the recording studio when I listen to the playback it doesn’t sound like me.

A popular misconception among voice teachers is to get their students to open their mouths when they sing.  I suppose this is to get more sound out, but in actuality it hurts the voice and has little to do with projection.  In fact, Lamperti, one of the greatest teachers of Bel Canto said, “…the less you open your mouth, the less you disturb your line of sound…”  It is a huge mistake to open your mouth widely when you sing.  Remember that sound does not travel by “throwing” breath out of your mouth.  It travels by sound waves.   If your voice traveled on breath, that would mean if you were yelling at someone at the end of the block, breath would fly out of your mouth, down to the end of the street, and land in that person’s ear.  Ridiculous!

Normally when we breathe we only use 1/8 of our lung capacity. This is called clavicular, chest, or shallow breathing.   This is useless when we sing because what happens with most singers is that they run out of breath and subsequently go flat.   The proper way to breathe when we sing is by using our diaphragm.   I commonly hear voice teachers say to their students, “…sing from your diaphragm!…” when what they really should be saying is “…breathe with your diaphragm…”   Your voice doesn’t come from your midsection!  It’s created between your vocal chords and amplified off the hard palate.

The diaphragm is a dome shaped muscle located beneath the lungs connected on either side to the lungs.   It resembles a loaf of rye bread.    Normally the diaphragm is in a “raised” position.  When the diaphragm is lowered, (and you have to be taught how to do this) because it is connected to the lungs, it pulls the lungs downward, much like opening up an accordion or bellows.    When you open an accordion it fills with air.  The reason for this is obvious-you’ve created a “vacuum” and air outside the accordion is sucked into the accordion by the low pressure area.  The same holds true with the lungs and diaphragm.  When the diaphragm is lowered, it pulls the lungs into a downward position. Air at normal pressure outside the head is sucked to the bottom of the lungs by the low pressure area.   Now you have eight times the amount of breath in your lungs that you would have normally.   A popular misconception among voice teachers is to get the student to push their stomach “out” or “downwards.”  This is incorrect!   The confusion lies in the fact that when you push your stomach “out” or “down” it looks the same as using your diaphragm properly, but all you are really doing is pushing the walls of your abdomen outwards.  You’re not flattening your diaphragm at all!   If you use your diaphragm properly, your midsection will be like a big elastic band.  If you push it in with your index finger, it should bounce right back out.  If you do it improperly, or in other words, simply push out your stomach, it will be rigid and hard as a rock.

Learning how to use your diaphragm properly is actually quite simple.   Stand in a relaxed position with your hand flat on your stomach, your little pinky on your navel and your thumb at the bottom of your rib cage.  Now pant.  Panting is the body’s way of quickly replenishing air into the lungs after exerting energy ie. a hard run.   You’ll notice when you pant that your stomach goes in and out.  This is your diaphragm going up and down.  The reason it looks the same as pushing out your stomach is because the diaphragm is going into a lowered position, pulling the lungs somewhat downwards, and pushing the internal organs in the mid-section towards the abdominal walls.   Now slow down your pant until it’s on the “out”.      When you go to pant you will notice the stomach always starts on the “out”.  Try to pant and stop on the “half-pant” or the “out.”   This is using your diaphragm.   Do this in front of a mirror and make sure your shoulders do not lift.  If they do, just grab the sides of your legs.  Remember if you properly use your diaphragm all the action should take place from the bottom of the rib cage down.   You shouldn’t be pushing out your stomach-it will go out on it’s own.   **Note:  Unlike the breathing exercise below, your lips should be open when you take your breath.  In the breathing exercise you are trying to control the amount of breath that you are taking into your lungs.  When you are actually singing a song you only have a split second to take a breath between phrases, so you want to fill your lungs as fast as possible.