We've all been there.
The setlist for the weekend is epic. The songs are a little outside of our vocal range, but we can't wait to dive in and shout them out with everything we have. We're just hoping our voice doesn't give out before the end of the service because we've gotta hit those high notes and we just can't wimp out or worse yet, crack. Well, we make it through the musical worship without embarrassing ourselves but our voice has been reduced to a raspy whisper because we blew it out during "Great I Am".
This scenario has happened to most worship leaders more than once and a question always arises. How can I hit those notes and even increase the longevity of my vocal strength (for those who lead multiple services) without straining and ending up hoarse by the end of the worship?
The answer is really simple: Proper use of your breath.
Proper breathing is the most fundamental element of good singing. All other aspects of vocal technique rise and fall on proper breathing. You can learn how to relax your throat, achieve resonance, and have perfect vowel placement, but without proper breath to sustain it, it ain't gonna happen.
While the answer of using your breath properly may seem simple, coordinating all of the respective muscle groups for proper breathing will take some time to develop; especially if you've been singing for a long time and have developed some counter-productive habits. In this post, I'll give you some information and techniques for proper breathing as well as some breathing exercises you can do to develop your breathing muscles.
1. Inhaling is an act of relaxing and stretching, not contracting. How many of us have taken a deep breath only to heave our chest, raise our shoulders, and feel like we're contracting every muscle in our core? When we finally let go of the breath, it feels like we're relaxing everything. This is the exact opposite of how proper breathing should feel. Contracting your muscles is what you do to exhale. If done properly, it will be a completely different set of muscles than what you're used to using.
2. When people say to sing from your diaphragm, they don't actually mean that you breath from your diaphragm. While the diaphragm is part of the breathing process, it is an involuntary muscle which acts as a horizontal "wall" between your lungs and your "guts" and basically just "goes along for the ride". There are other muscles which you actually have control over that must be engaged for the diaphragm to do it's job.
3. When you inhale, it should feel as though air is going "down" into our belly rather than "out" in our ribs. The lungs are enclosed by ribs on all sides except the bottom. At the bottom of the lungs is our flexible diaphragm muscle. The way to get the diaphragm to lower and allow the lungs to fill is to stretch and relax the abdominal muscles as well as expand and spread the muscles of your mid and lower back. When we do, our guts spread out, which in turn, allows our diaphragm to lower. When our diaphragm lowers, our lungs expand with air. The process of spreading the back is especially important for pregnant women whose abdominal muscles are already stretched to the max. This type of breathing is a foreign concept for those who have been told to hold their belly in. We naturally want a flat tummy and typically have a small amount of constant tension on our abdominal muscles. For this kind of breathing, that tension has to be completely relinquished and, in fact, the tummy should be stretched outward.
4. There should always be a constant feeling of tension on the sides of your ribcage, under your arms and upper back. This acts a "lifter" of your ribcage and creates more lung capacity as well as a rigid core for both inhalation and exhalation. I tell people to feel as though they are squeezing tennis balls under their armpits, pushing the ribs out toward the arms more than the arms pushing into the ribs. If you're keeping the ribs lifted this way and using your abs as your energy source, the chest will/should never heave while inhaling.
5. After stretching the abdominal and back muscles to inhale, you'll need to exhale or create vocal tone. When doing so, contract the abdominal muscles from the bottom up. Feel as though you're rolling your abs upward. This contracting puts pressure on your "guts". The guts, in turn, put pressure on the diaphragm. The diaphragm (along with the help of a lifted/rigid ribcage), in turn, puts pressure on your lungs and creates compression. This compression of air in the lungs is what allows the voice to stay relaxed and free while creating vocal tone. Once you've contracted your abs to the point of feeling like they will touch your spine, release and relax them quickly for the next breath. How many times have you been singing a fast song where there is virtually no place to breathe and the spots there are to breathe are so fast, you can't get a deep breath? This technique will help achieve quick breaths that are deep and full but it will take time to train the muscles to tense and release quickly since the abs are not the most agile muscles.
6. While singing, always inhale through a combination of your mouth and nose and open your throat as large as possible so air can pass as quickly as possible back into your lungs. Do not inhale through your nose only. While you're singing, this won't allow air to refill the lungs fast enough between phrases. You should feel as though you're drinking air back into your body.
7. While singing, never try to conserve air thinking it will allow you to sing longer phrases. The more you try to hold air in, the more tense your body becomes and the more air that gets trapped inside your lungs. If you have it, get rid of it!
Using a steady beat, sip four times like your sipping on a straw, continuing to inhale until your lungs are full (If your lungs don't fill up all the way in four beats, take bigger sips). Then immediately hiss four times like a tire that's had a hole poked in it (exhaling), pulsing each beat, making sure not to close your throat between hisses and getting rid of ALL of your air in four counts by creating a lot of pressure behind your teeth. Continue this non-stop for at least 30 seconds. Because you'll be exchanging a lot of oxygen, you may get dizzy at first. Your body will get used to it. As your muscles get stronger, more coordinated and more agile, extend the counts to 8 sips and 8 hisses. You can also do this exercise with no beat and just see how long you can do each one. For variation, add voice and hiss on a "z" or even sing in your head voice on an "ooo".
Lie on your back and place a stack of books on your stomach. Take slow, deep breaths. As you inhale, stretch out your abs to lift the books higher. As you exhale, contract your abs to make the books go lower.
THE "RAG DOLL"
Lean over at the waist and let your arms loosely hang down toward the floor like a rag doll so that your upper body is completely relaxed. Take slow, deep breaths. Feel the abs and back expanding and contracting as you inhale and exhale.
Lean over slightly and interlock your fingers in front of your waste so that your arms form a large "U' in front of your body. Take slow deep breaths while trying to pull your arms apart. This helps strengthen the rib muscles that help lift your rib cage while singing. You can also vary this exercise by holding the straps to VERY heavy bags in each hand while you breathe.
THE "STRETCH"Standing straight, stretch your arms over your head as high as they will go. Take slow deep breaths. This raises the ribcage and allows you to feel the abdominal muscles relaxing and contracting during the breathing process. You can vary this exercise by stretching your arms over your head, taking in a huge breath and holding it. While holding your breath, drop your arms to your side and relax them. Now, hiss the air out while keeping your ribs high and expanded. You should feel the abs doing their job.
I hope this information on breathing and the exercises are a help to you as a vocalist. Please let me know if you have any questions by commenting and I'll respond to try to clarify things.