Contrary to popular belief, one doesn’t simply wake up in the morning with a perfect singing voice. And rarely is one born with it. I know popularized television shows like Idol and X Factor would have us believe that this is the case: That there are stars out there, waiting in backwater suburbia to be discovered. Waiting to be handed their fame simply because they were born with the perfect voice. Sorry to disappoint you, but this is just not the truth.
Most of us, actually nearly all of us, have to work for it. Think about it. Would you place someone with absolutely no prior piano training before those black and white keys and expect them to play Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 1? I doubt it. And it always stumps me why we as singers think we should just automatically “have it.” Perhaps 0.01% of the people on the earth do just have it, but for the rest of us, it is something that can and should be trained and learned.
And that is a wonderful thing! Singing is a life-long journey of self-understanding, growth and improvement. You can set yourself goals and work towards them. And this “work” starts by training yourself to use active breathing.
What do you mean by active breathing?
When I speak I don’t think about how I am breathing – I just breathe. I take air into my body and that air is released in the form of words. This is what I call passive breathing. Passive, because you are not controlling it in anyway. It just happens.
When we use this in singing though, it doesn’t work. This very same passive breath causes many of the following singing problems:
- pitch instability
- a breathy or unclear sound
- a sound lacking any power or substance
- a sound that is shaky, unstable and waivers
- a lack of lasting power
Why do these things happen?
Because singing requires support, and that support comes through active breathing. This happens when I work actively with the muscles involved in the breathing process, to control the length and speed of both my inhalation and exhalation.
In doing this we are controlling the air pressure inside us. And this is important because (here’s a little physics trivia): In order to hold a tone the air pressure beneath the vocal chords needs to be greater than the air pressure between them¹. When this is the case, the air outside of the chords aids in pushing the chords together whilst singing. Without this the tone falters and you may hear a shaky, unstable sound come out instead. And how do we get enough air pressure beneath the vocal chords? You’re right. Through active breathing.
Ok, but is it really necessary?
What would happen to a tree if you took away its roots? Took away all of those strong anchoring structures that allow it to grow so tall? It would collapse. And so it is with the voice. Without an active breath, your voice is essentially collapsing because you don’t have a strong enough supporting structure (created by air pressure) to hold it in place.
If you don’t believe me, try it for yourself. This is an exercise that I give in many of my workshops and it works wonders. First you need to do a little homework and check out my blog on Learn to Love your Pee-Pee Point. Once you understand your pee-pee point, the following will be a lot easier.
Here’s the exercise:
- Let a mid range tone out on /ja/ (yep, the German form of ‘yes’). Don’t control it. Just let it out like to do when you speak, passively.
- Now do this again, and half way through your tone, I want you to press in with your pee-pee point. Hear the difference? It should be very significant! (If you have trouble with this, contact me and I can help you out).
I got it! Now what?
As I said at the beginning of this post, it all comes down to work and training. Unfortunately there is no magic pill that will take you from beginner to opera singer in under a minute. But there are some great exercises out there that you can regularly use to help develop your mind-body connection with your breathing muscles.
Here’s a mandatory active breath development exercise that I give to all of my students:
You’ll do this exercise lying down, so find a comfortable surface that you can lie on. Lying on your back, place one hand on your belly abdominals and one on your pee-pee point. Allow yourself to slowly lengthen and deepen both your inhalation and exhalation for a few minutes before we begin:
- Inhale for 3 seconds with your belly and exhale with a “sss” like an angry snake. Do this three times.
- Inhale again for 3 seconds and this time exhale with two powerful, short and consecutive “sss.” Let the rest of your exhalation passively out. Do this exercise again twice.
- Inhale for 3 seconds and exhale with a mid-range tone using “ja” whilst actively engaging your pee-pee point. Do this again 3 times.
- And for the finale: We’re going to do one round (not 3) of steps 1, 2 and 3 back-to-back. So, you’ll inhale for 3 seconds and exhale with “sss.” Then you’ll inhale again for 3 seconds and exhale with two powerful, short and consecutive “sss.” And then you’ll inhale once more for 3 seconds and exhale with a mid-range tone using “ja.”
Do this breathing exercise on a daily basis for 30 days and you will find that “doing something” can have a wonderful effect!
¹ M. Bosnian – Sing Free Now 2011