Take a Deep Breath and...

Back to 'Things to Try' in 'Learn to Sing'


So, where do I start?

Group vocal instruction is part of every Barbershop rehearsal, because everyone can learn to sing better.

So, since every song starts with a breath, let's start there.  What could be easier than breathing?

Proper breath control is necessary to sustain notes through the end of each phrase. Try singing a note for as long as you can. You'll notice that one of two things happens as you're running out of breath. Either the sound fades to quiet or, if you try to sustain the volume, it becomes hard to keep steady.

When we're singing, we don't want to end each phrase by fading out or becoming unstable, so make sure that you take enough breath that you still have a strong sound at the end of each phrase.

Sometimes, the song requires you to hang on a note for a long time. If you find that you run out of breath no matter how deeply you breathe, then make sure that you smoothly fade out before you run out of air, take a breath, then smoothly come back in. Don't try to force it until it becomes unstable.

Bellows, not balloons

A good analogy for describing proper breath control is the difference between bellows and balloons. As you blow up a balloon, the pressure inside increases as the balloon stretches. If you then let the air out of the balloon, it comes out faster at the beginning, because the pressure is higher. As the balloon gets smaller, the air comes out slower.

A bellows doesn't do that.  As you open the bellows, the air comes in, but it doesn't have any more pressure than the outside air. If you hold the bellows completely open, no air comes out. Only when you close the bellows does the air come out. If you were to lay the bellows on its side after filling it with air, the air would come out in a steady stream. That's what we're aiming for.

If we tense our abdominal muscles as we breathe in, we create a pressure against the air. By relaxing those muscles and allowing them to expand as we breathe in, we create a bellows action. The volume of air increases, but the pressure does not.

So why do we tense those muscles? Maybe because our bodies expect that after we breathe in fast, we're going to breath out fast. After all, that's what happens when we run or do other physical exercise. We breathe fast and deep, both in and out. Singing is different, though. We breathe in quickly, but breathe out slowly.

A good way to test whether you're relaxing after breathing in is to take little panting breaths, like a dog on a hot day. If you're relaxed, you can do it just as easily at the top of your breath as you can when you're almost out of breath.

Clearing your throat a lot?

You may find when you sing that you are clearing your throat or coughing a lot. If you happen to have a cold, then that's understandable, but if not, you might be breathing through your nose too much. You should try to breathe mostly through your mouth. Not only does that prevent too much mucus getting into your throat, but it prepares you for singing the first word of the next phrase.

It's also important to keep hydrated. High temperatures, physical exertion, and some medications can lead to dehydration. In those situations, be sure to drink a lot of fluids. This isn't something that you can do an hour before a performance by drinking a quart of water. You have to start long before. It's good for your health too.

Bubbles and Lip Trills and Filters...Oh My!

You may have heard people talk about breath control and breath support, but aren't sure what that means or how to achieve it. Here's a couple of videos--with perhaps the strangest vocal exercises--that may help.

The idea is to sing with a steady stream of air, a steady breath.

After you take a deep breath, there is a tendency to use a lot of air at the beginning of the phrase and to run out toward the end. This makes it harder to sing because your vocal chords have to constantly adjust to the changing amount of air. The same is true if you use more pressure trying to reach high notes. There's just too many moving parts.

These exercises allow you to feel the amount of breath that you're using, and the goal is to keep it constant throughout the phrase.

I find it impossible to do lip trills. If you do as well, try making an "oo" sound through lips positioned to make a "w" sound, so you can feel the vibration on your lips. There should be no pressure on your cheeks. If there is, just relax. It is surprising how much sound you can make with so little breath. If you combine this with open breaths, as described in the "ng" voice exercise [in the "Sound of Your Voice" section], you should look like a fish breathing.  Weird, but effective!

I like this particular filter because it reminds me to use a rounded opening, rather than a wide one, which is especially important for pronouncing vowels correctly at high notes. And it allows me to keep the tip of my tongue below the lower teeth as described in another exercise [also in the "Sound of Your Voice" section]. It's also easy to alternate between the filter and vowels on one breath: woo - ah - woo - ah. As you do that, the trick is to keep the amount of air constant; no puffs released as you open to the vowel sounds; no pressure on your cheeks as you close.

Once you get used to keeping a steady breath with the filter, then do it while singing. At first, you may think that you're not using any air at all, but you'll soon find that the steady breath makes it easier to sustain notes and to move between notes.

Stay smooth

Here's another exercise that helps you start and end phrases smoothly, keeping your breath steady.

What is a "wall of sound"?

You may have heard the term "wall of sound" and were told that it's something to strive for, but you may not understand what it is. Your first impression may be that you should sing like a tsunami wave about to hit the shore, with destructive power, or stand firm like the front lines of an army, denying the enemy any progress.

That's not it at all.

It means nothing more than a continuous flow of air as you sing.

Think of singing the song, "Row, row, row, your boat." If you follow all of the techniques described above, you will sing that as one continuous phrase, smoothly and effortlessly. That's the wall of sound. If you pulse the words "row row row your boat," with bursts of air on each word, that's the opposite. That puts breaks between the words; breaks in the wall.

You may wonder why this matters. Well, without the continuous connection, each note is another new beginning, and could start on any pitch. You don't have to make it that difficult. Just keep breathing.

Remember, it's not about power; it's about continuity.

What did he say?

Since we started talking about terminology, here's a video that might help.