Depression and Singing.

Well, this is going to be a cheery post, isn’t it?

I’m not going to back away from it though – it needs addressing.  There are many things which stop you singing – and not just singing, but being creative in any form at all.  The one that I hate most is depression.  It’s not fashionable, and it’s definitely not the sort of thing that one often talks about in company, but if you catch people quietly, and in a confidential mood, you may discover that depression is a thing that happens to far more people than you realise.

I’ll put my hands up and say that I suffer from depression.  There you go.  I’ve said it.  Over the years I’ve figured out how to hide it pretty well, and most people who aren’t close to me even realise that it is a thing.  But it most definitely is.  And when I’m depressed I find it incredibly hard to create anything of any merit.  Or maybe it’s just that I think it has no merit because I’m depressed.  In actuality, I don’t much care about the “why”, I just can’t do anything.  It’s horrible and tends to lead to a downward spiral of negativity which never ends in a particularly good place.

I’m luckier than most because I run choirs.  I am forced to sing multiple times every week because otherwise I am letting people down.  And if there’s one thing that makes me feel worse than having to go out and do things whilst depressed, it’s letting other people down.  So…  I sing.  I have to sing.

And no matter how bad I feel before I go out, I can *guarantee* that I’ll feel better after I’ve sung for an hour and a half.  I can feel the depression ‘fog’ lifting, and for a not-inconsiderable amount of time, I do feel a whole lot better.  This works whether the depression is situational or just out-of-the-blue chemical.

But why?  Well, there’s significant evidence to show that when we sing or make music of any kind, our brains release dopamine.  Dopamine is the “pleasure” chemical that is released in our brains when we do something that feels good – eating chocolate, taking a hot bubble bath or falling in love.  It is the same neurotransmitter that some of the more addictive drugs can stimulate.  Singing really does make you feel high in the same way that a tiny dose of an illegal drug might do.  Added to this, the action of opening your lungs and breathing intensively will aerate your blood and make your heart pump a little faster, which will make you feel more alert and combat the tiredness which depression often triggers.  If you are singing with a group of other people in a communal setting such as a choir, then it becomes even better.  It’s been proven in scientific studies that singing in groups makes our heartbeats synchronise and gives us a feeling of belonging and self-worth that is difficult to mimic in any other way.  Singing with other people bonds you into a social group, literally, and helps to battle the isolation of depression.

The important thing to remember is that singing is only going to help if you ACTUALLY DO IT.  The cruel irony of life with depression is that it tries very hard to isolate you and stop you from doing anything at all, when going out and doing something is exactly what you need.  The urge to just stay at home in bed or on the sofa is very, very strong.  But if you can force yourself to go out and sing, it *will* help, I promise.

It’s well worth talking to your choir leader as well.  Let them know how you’re feeling, and they’ll keep an eye on you.  If there are certain songs that trigger feelings of sadness or depression, tell your choir leader, so that they can work on other things if at all possible.  Remember that this is a partnership, and it is only by working together that you’ll get all the benefits.  Let your choir leader know what’s happening with you, and let them help.

So there we go.  I get depression.  I sing.  It helps.  I hope it helps you, too…

Singing Loudly, Singing Quietly…

For most beginning singers, the volume of their voice is something that bothers them almost as much as how in tune they are.  I’ve lost track of how many times I have stood in front of a group of new singers and asked them to reproduce a note, and hear them enthusiastically sing back a variety of wrong notes, then ask them to do the same exercise again, but quietly, and hear 95% of them hit the note accurately.

Equally, I hear people every week who can’t hit a note unless they metaphorically run at it, belting out anything in the upper third of their range, and unable to access that without the volume.

Volume shouldn’t be a tool to *achieve* accuracy, it should be a tool that you can deploy *alongside* accuracy to breathe life into your performance of a song.  It can also be the enemy if you let it.

Believe it or not the vast amount of problems with tuning for singers is not to do with technical details, but entirely to do with not *listening* correctly.  If you can’t tell if you are singing a note correctly, I *highly* recommend using an app called “Vocal Lab” – it is what I use to chart whether students are staying on key, and if not, whereabouts they are having problems.  It is £6.99 from the Mac App Store, and there are similar packages available for Windows as well.  What you need to do with this is fire it up, and then play a note.  Attempt to sing it back.  Look at what the computer says you are singing – are you sharp or flat?  Singing too low or high?  Try again, this time a little more quietly.  How does that attempt compare to the first one?  Easier or harder?

Now, try breathing in – a big breath into your tummy.  Sing the same note, quietly, just using a tiny bit of the air you drew into your lungs and tummy.  Hold the note.  Listen to whether it wiggles up and down or shakes.  Try and ease those shakes out.  Aim for the smoothest, most consistent note that you can.  Look at how the line is being drawn on your screen and work at keeping it as smooth as possible.  Most importantly though, pay attention to your breathing and where the note actually is.  On Vocal Lab, you will get a readout at the top of the screen telling you what note you are actually singing, and you’ll need to make sure that you aren’t miles away from that, by lowering or heightening the pitch of your voice.  Be careful to listen closely to the note you are trying to sing before you start, though!

Making your singing voice louder is entirely a matter of breathing, and where you ‘place’ your voice.  You should always be breathing into your tummy, and aiming to having a loose, relaxed throat when producing a note (exercises with the throat, neck and face can help enormously with this).  Broadway show type “belting” is an extreme (and often damaging) technique which can use a lot of air and often requires the manipulation of vowel sounds to get some of the showier effects.  It can, if done correctly, make your whole head almost rattle or hum with the force of the sound you are producing, as indeed, can a good operatic voice!  For a loud, belting voice, imagine the sound being fuelled from your stomach-reservoir of air, but being produced from the front of your face (imagine it as a mask of sound).  The more air you push through under pressure, the more power that mask will have, and the more powerful your voice will sound.  But nobody wants to sound like a Broadway Belter all the time (even the Broadway Belters!), and to get the quieter, more precise, voice, imagine that you have a tiny, delicate music box in the back of your throat, that produces gentle, tinkling music…

Most people will naturally swap from their chest to head registers when ascending a scale quietly.  If trying to holler it, they will stay in their powerful chest register and will find it difficult to access your higher notes.  It is, however, much easier to go a long way down a scale in head voice without ever switching to chest voice, and it won’t be until the bottom three or so notes that you will notice any difference apart from volume…

I’m hoping to find some time to record some vocal exercises in the next few weeks and I’ll demonstrate exactly what I mean by that.  But until then, I really recommend getting a voice analyser such as Vocal Lab and seeing exactly where you are singing, and how to improve it.

 

The Role of Imagination in Singing…

Having a singing lesson is an exercise in imagination.  In a gymnastics lesson, a tutor might say, “extend your arms, keep your back straight and bend your knees when you land!”.  All very good advice and put over in an easy to understand way.  As long as you know where your arms, back and knees are, and how to stretch, bend and extend them, you can carry out these instructions well.

The same is not true for singing.  You wouldn’t get very far with a teacher who said, “Aduct your vocal folds and make them vibrate at 261.63Hz over a 131.87cm wavelength, tightening your soft palate, heightening your tongue at the rear of your mouth, widening your obicularis obis and then abduct your folds to their original position.”

However, a teacher who plays a “C” on a piano and says, “use a ‘witch’s voice’ to sing that  with an “eeee” sound and then stop,” will get an instant action from the student who understands what the teacher is after.

I use a wide variety of often daft imagery to get students and singers to marshall their muscles and produce different sounds.  For extreme nasality and voice projection, “The Wicked Witch” (image the Wizard of Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West character laughing), and for low breathiness and palate-lifting, “Sloane Ranger” (OK, yaaaaaah!) is hard to beat.  Cycling through vowel sounds and lifting the voice through the body (starting with ‘a’ in the belly and ending with ‘u’ shooting out of the top of the head), singing into “the mask”, supporting long notes with “bearing down for a poo” muscle tension rather than “go on, hit me in the stomach” muscle tension… the list goes on and on.  I’ve used phrases like “nose lasers!” and use imaginary lemons and lions in every single warm up I do.

The trick to getting the most out of this is to disengage your “sensible” head.  Let a bit of silliness and playfulness enter your singing – it will benefit you in so many ways.  For one thing – imagining these scenarios and attempting to recreate the accompanying sounds really *does* help you to work on parts of your voice that are not consciously operable without serious training.  And through that training you can learn how to work with your physiology much more seriously.  Also, music is *always* better when the person performing it is enjoying the experience – be playful!  Enjoy yourself!

NB: If you’d like an exercise to play around with, I recommend picking 4 characters (maybe an old man, a witch, a young child and someone from Scotland – to pick 4 at random, pick 4 that work for you!).  Try to sing the same song – any song – in 4 different and distinct voices for each of the character.  Record it on your phone or computer.  Listen back.  Which one sounded most in control?  Did your voice feel strained during some characters?  Why?  How could you ease that strain?  Really stop and think about the silly exercise, and how your voice felt and how that could inform your day to day singing…

How To Be “In Tune”…

There are many things in this life that irritate me to the point of… well, maybe not violence, but certainly a heartfelt “GRRRRR!” under my breath and stalking away to put the kettle on.  Bullying, racism, being rude to waiters….  And first and foremost: people who think that if they can’t hit a note reliably from the age of 3 or 4, then they are ‘tone deaf’ and should never be allowed to sing.

I’ve spoken at length on every platform I can think of about why this is a complete fallacy.

Yes, some people do seem to be able to hit notes more reliably than others.  If you look a little closer into the background of these people, you will see that they’ve often had a very early exposure to music.  Maybe their parents played music, or they had older siblings who played records when they were around, or they were just encouraged to sing along in the car to make journeys a little less boring.  None of these things *seem* exceptional, but they encouraged the people to start listening and experimenting with their voices early.  They didn’t have time to learn fear, and by the time that external judgement and fear kicked in, the habit of singing was already ingrained.  They weren’t child prodigies, able to belt out the collected works of Wagner from their pram before they could talk – no, they just started *working* a little earlier than everyone else, and before they understood that it was, indeed, working, at all.

Everyone else, and it’s a big percentage of the population, just has to do a bit of work to catch up.  Make no mistake, however, you can catch up.  In much the same way that some children can walk at 9 months old and others are still happily shuffling around on their bottoms at three, but almost everyone eventually manages to make it onto two feet, you can totally learn to sing at your own pace.

Singing is more than the simple act of opening your mouth and hitting the right note.  It involves breathing, learning lyrics, telling a story, the muscular techniques of controlling your voice and much, much more.  But to start with, we’re going to concentrate on just hitting the right notes.

So – having problems hitting those notes?  Can you hear that you are wrong?  If you can’t hear that you are wrong, the most basic advice is to go back to the drawing board and listen to lots and lots of music.  Listen to it all the time.  Sing along with it constantly.  Slowly but surely, you’ll start to differentiate between the notes and understand where your voice is sitting in regards to the tune (in tune, out of tune, varying between the two?).

At this point you can come back to how to get your voice singing the same notes as you are hearing.  (And make no mistake, singing is *always* about what you are hearing – whether it’s out loud, or internal, you always hear what you are meant to be copying…).

I would recommend getting a piano, or a cheap keyboard – it doesn’t have to be expensive and take up a lot of room, your local electronics or music shop will probably have something for under £50 which will do you just fine.  Now remember that you don’t have to be able to “play the piano” to get a note out of it.  You’ll probably look at it in confusion for a little while first and wonder what the heck you are meant to do with it.

Play a note.  Any note, but one from near the middle of the keyboard is probably a good move.  Play it a couple of times and really listen to it.  Imagine in your head how it is going to sound before you play it for the third or fourth time.  Before singing it, play it and imagine it again.  Finally, after imagining it a LOT of times and playing it even more, open your mouth and try to sing it.

How was it?  A bit high?  Too low?  Not sure?  Kind of wobbly?  Play it again and try again – any better, or can’t you tell?  Try a few notes, one after the other and try to copy them with your voice, always using the trick of “Listen, imagine, sing”.  Always imagine before you open your mouth!

This is not an overnight fix.  You need to put aside a few minutes every single day to do this exercise, and slowly but surely you will find that your voice and your ear start to work together.  You can hit the pitches you are aiming for!  A happy side effect is that if you are singing for just 15 minutes, but every single day, your voice strength and range will increase as well!  Hurrah!  Get singing!

Happy New Year!

Apologies for not blogging over the Christmas and New Year period – things were very busy here at Bishop Grosseteste University with all of the Community Choir events and then a little bit of relaxation and unwinding after what has been a bit of a challenging year.

So, what should you expect from a Community Choir over the festive season?

Speaking personally, we’ve done a variety of events: we’ve sung for a charity event for the local Hospice, we’ve sung in a local shopping centre as a fundraising exercise, we’ve performed for older members of our local community, we’ve performed at a wedding and sung at several carol services all around the area.  It’s been *very* busy indeed!

Without a question, the December holiday season is one of the busiest times for singers working in their local communities.  Everyone wants a choir for Christmas.  The only trouble is, as noted in a previous blog, there isn’t a whole lot of time to get things rehearsed as people start wanting you to perform at roughly the same time as you want to start singing Christmas songs.  Any earlier feels like buying an Easter Egg in January, and any later and you’ve missed the boat.  This year I am going to live dangerously and attempt building a Christmas song at several very non-Christmassy points throughout the year – a little like Wizzard recording, “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day” in July…  It’ll feel weird, but we’ll be ready!!!

I like to try and have a good selection of both carols and secular songs – not everyone celebrates a religious holiday at this time of year, and having some secular things like “White Christmas” or “Chestnuts Roasting” can be a relief for those who celebrate a seasonal holiday, but not necessarily a religious one.  A good mix of voicings and difficulties also helps to spice things up for the singers.  Make sure to have a few easy and cheerful things for a good old sing-song, but also keep a couple of really impressive things ready to go at the right moment – everyone likes to look good on a showy number that you’ve really got right!

I would also recommend being prepared to bring the Christmas singing season to a close earlier, rather than later.  Many people will be feeling overburdened with commitments at this time of year.  If your last big choir event is mid-December, it gives them time to work on other things, and you’ll find that attendance stays relatively high, and you can go out with a great feeling of satisfaction for a job well done.

New Year is also a great time to start something new.  I’ve got a couple of projects on the horizon, and want to start getting prepared for those – it is inevitable that other things will jump up and require attention, but if I’ve already started on the bones of my bigger projects, then I’m hopeful I can get everything fitted in.

So what are we looking at here in Bishop Grosseteste Community Choirs?  Well, I’m hoping to have two big concerts this year – one in summer and one in late spring, both with separate repertoires, and playing to very different crowds.  Fingers crossed!

What singing are you planning on doing this year?

 

 

The Problem With Autumn…

Sorry to have been away so long!  imgresThe past couple of months have been taken up partly by a break from work over the summer (although it was a bit of a busman’s holiday this year, as it involved accompanying my husband to festivals for a lot of the summer) and before that – by a huge show that my community choirs were asked to do for the BBC – “Green Fields Beyond”.

We’re now back after the summer break and feeling a little shell-shocked.  I had decided to take things a bit easy, but no sooner was I back from holiday than the phone started ringing with requests for us to sing.  We can’t do everything – everyone has other commitments as well – but the last quarter of the year is a problematical one for choir leaders and singers.

Problem 1: Everyone wants to book you in for Christmas singing.  Everyone loves carolling at Christmas.  However….  No-one really wants to be singing Christmas carols in September.  It’s difficult to just produce Christmas carols in late November without having done several weeks of practice beforehand.  But “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” on a blazing hot day in September?  Hrmmm….

Problem 2: People booking events in November want a whole different programme of music.  Non-Christmassy music.  I’m currently working towards a charity event in late November with a very varied programme – a Celtic hymn of blessing, a Gary Barlow number and some Enya.  Only one of these is something in our standard repertoire, and the Enya is a reasonably complicated piece.  We’re also starting working on material for a themed show next year.  That’s a LOT of pieces of music to fulfill everything around December.  But come December, all we’ll be singing is Hymns Ancient and Modern and Nat King Cole, I guarantee it…

Basically, people don’t understand that in order to produce a programme of themed music (whatever the theme is: Christmas, Show tunes, 70’s hits or anything else) requires a whole lot of work from the choir director (repeatedly clicking “Buy Now” on the sheetmusic.com site…) and even more from the singers.  Considering that the average choir meets for a couple of hours once a week or so, that’s a big ask.

There’s also the question as to how the singers consider their time within the choir itself.  Are they there to sing in the moment, or are they there to practice singing for a performance in a few week/month’s time?  If there are a variety of opinions, which opinion takes precedence?

It’s all pretty tricky.

Personally, I’m of the opinion that a little bit of thought and consideration can go a very long way, as can performing out-of-season songs, and making it clear that a specialised programme is a long-term commitment and not something that people can just pull out of the air as if by magic…  That’s certainly the way I’m taking it.  It looks likely that our Christmas programme will feature “May It Be” by Enya, alongside “White Christmas” though…

To Perform or Not Perform? That is the Question…

There are a few different views about the issue Adrenaline-Logo-300x168of performing in public – some
choirs just like to gather together and sing for the joy of it without any of the stress and adrenalin that comes along with performing for external people.

Other choirs really enjoy performing, and thrive on the excitement and gratification of a job well done and the obvious enjoyment of an audience.

So which is the best sort of choir for you?

Remember that this might not be an “either/or” kind of decision – some choirs may be performing choirs, but be perfectly happy for certain members to bow out of concerts and appearances.  It is always worth asking to see what their policy on this is.

I would also suggest that it is worth asking yourself why you want or don’t want to perform.  What are the underlying reasons?  For many people, singing is a very personal thing, and singing in public can feel very exposed – an uncomfortable feeling.  If this is the case, then do bear in mind that singing in a choir is a very different thing to singing on your own.  You will be part of a section – a number of people all singing the same thing as you – and the aim of the performance is to blend your voices together to make them sound as much like a single voice as possible.  Nobody is going to be listening to your voice on your own, unless you ask to do a solo.  Also remember that when you are surrounded by people all singing the same thing as you, it is much harder to get lost and sing the wrong thing.  If you do all go spectacularly wrong at the same time, then nobody will be blaming you on your own, and the choir leader will gently figure out where you’ve gone wrong and try to find a way to make it easier to stick to the part you should be singing (if you have a choir leader who shouts or makes you feel bad about either the music or your own skill, LEAVE IMMEDIATELY, OK?  Nobody should have to put up with that sort of behaviour.)

Of course, what it is impossible to describe is the high that one gets from singing in public for an appreciative audience.   Yes, there can be nerves, butterflies in the stomach, and an adrenalin rush (whether you enjoy the adrenalin is a very personal thing – personally I detest it – it makes my fingers go very cold, I feel sick and I need many trips to the bathroom, but other people absolutely adore that “riding a rollercoaster” feeling.)

The thing that it is almost impossible to understand until you’ve experienced it is the feeling of being a part of something much bigger than oneself, losing oneself in the music and creating something utterly spellbinding.  And when you’ve finished?  When you are standing there in the spotlight, having performed the very best that you could, and listening to the crowd clapping just for *you*…  Well, it’s the best feeling in the world, bar none.

Personally, I love performing, and enabling others to perform is the thing that motivates me, and makes me want to get up in the morning and start my day.  I’d love everyone to have the opportunity to feel that incredible buzz.  Even if singing solo is not your thing, give a choir a try, it is less scary, less pressure and all of the happy buzz, along with the pleasure of companionship with your other choir members.  What’s not to like?

Singing vs. Cancer?

blog-sing-for-your-health-memd-300x300I was recently passed a clipping about a fascinating study being undertaken by Tenovus Cancer Care.  They are a charity providing support to cancer patients and funding lots of different research.

One of their most recent studies involves the effects of choral singing on cancer patients.  You will be unsurprised to find out that the results are extremely positive.
We certainly expect to see lowered levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) after singing, and this is an effect that has been seen and studied in choirs all over the world, along with improved moods and lessening of depression.

What wasn’t expected, but is very welcome indeed is the elevated levels in a range of biomarkers related to immune function and inflammatory response in the body, both of which may be linked to the body’s ability to fight serious illnesses including cancer.

It is early days yet, and more research is planned, but right now, it looks like the evidence is pointing towards singing being an effective way for cancer patients to improve their mood, bond socially with other people in the same situation and actively fight the disease.  What’s not to like?

Anyone who sings with a choir will have noticed the effect on mood.  I see it week after week, particularly in the choirs that I run immediately after a work day – people come in, tired and low after a long, hard day, but as soon as we start singing – and particularly when we nail a hard bit! – the mood lifts and lifts.  By the end of 75 minutes of singing and laughing together, people leave with a smile on their faces, often singing as they go.  I swear that the best sound in the world is the sound of people singing as they leave.  They don’t *have* to be singing at this point, but are just enjoying it so much that they don’t want to stop.  It’s a sign that the choir leader has done their job well, and that the singer is carrying that joy and music forward into the rest of their week.  It’s the best thing in the world to know that 🙂

Singing is also a positive anti-depressant – so much so that many doctors are recommending patients start singing instead of increasing their reliance on drug-based solutions.  The combination of lowered cortisol, and increased endorphin and oxytocin levels means that singers feel less stressed, and happier about their general situations.

With all of these health benefits – how can you resist joining a choir?  Nobody is going to judge your voice, and you’ll make new friends as well as helping to keep your health in tip-top condition!

Oh, and you’ll sing some great songs, too – how great is that?

Wicked Witch versus The Sloane Ranger

openmouthWhen we first start to sing, we do so instinctively.  We just open our mouths and make a noise.  Sometimes the instinctive noise we make sounds good, and sometimes it isn’t so great.  Whether the noise that you, individually, make is a good or a poor sound is pretty much a case of good or bad luck.  It is not that most insidious of things, “talent” (for what it’s worth, I don’t believe it exists, it’s all about hard work in my book…), and you should absolutely not believe someone if they tell you that.

Some people just have the kind of speaking voice that translates well into singing.  They do all the correct muscular things in their mouth and throat without even thinking about it, because that’s how they speak.  They find notes easy to copy because their mouths and throats are in the right positions.  This isn’t talent – it’s luck.  They’ve been taught to talk that way.  Others – not so much.

The good news is that you can absolutely get those good habits in place whether you do them instinctively or not.  What I want to talk about today is singing with an “open throat”.

There is a lot of  “spirited discussion” about what an open throat actually is, and whether it is a good thing.  I’m going to tell you my opinion (because, hey, it’s my blog!) but do feel free to disagree or do your own research as seems appropriate.

When teachers tell you to sing with an open throat, they are asking you to pay attention to the back of your mouth – particularly the soft palate and back of the tongue.  Try to drop the back of the tongue as if the doctor had a tongue depressor on it, and lift the soft palate.  The feeling that you are aiming for is the very beginning of a yawn, but without any tension or stiffness in the muscles of your throat and mouth.  Please note that the feeling you are aiming for is most emphatically NOT the feeling right at the pinnacle of a yawn.  When you actually yawn, you expand your throat muscles and squash your larynx/voice box low down into your throat, which is not the position that you want it in.  Nothing should feel tight or under pressure.  Everything should feel loose and comfortable.

My favourite exercise for opening the throat is “Wicked Witch versus The Sloane Ranger” (I suspect that ‘The Sloane Ranger’ as a term is only instantly recognisable to those of us who remember Princess Diana as “Lady Di”…).  What I want you to do is this:

Remember The Wicked Witch of the West?  Remember that nasty little cackle she had?  I want you to copy that cackle.  It’s high and channelled through your nose.  “Heheheheheh…”  That feeling right there?  That’s the feeling of a constricted, tight throat.  You can probably reach some of your higher notes when making this noise.  Now, pretend to be a Sloane Ranger or other similarly posh person.  Make this noise, “Okay, Yaaaaaaaaaah.”  You will note that your voice goes down, your tongue drops and your soft palate rises.  But not so much that it is squishing your larynx and making your throat sore and your voice sound weird.

Once you’ve done this for a few minutes, I really recommend trying to sing something silly and easy that you know well, but keeping those feelings in place (repeat the exercise if you feel you are losing the throat shape), but be very aware of not giving yourself a huge double-chin, or making yourself uncomfortable.  All the sensations should be soft and comfortable, not overblown and difficult to maintain.

Another way of thinking about this exercise (particularly if you have a problem with the imagery and associated sounds) is to try and imitate a donkey:  “Heeeeee- HAW”.  The throat will react the same way, but do be sure to do the exercise *slowly* – give each sound a good 3-5 seconds before moving onto the next sound, and think about what your mouth and throat are doing as you make the sound.

 

Remember to BREATHE!

It is easy to underestimate the importance of breathing correctly for singing – after all, we’ve all been breathing for *years*!  Surely we know how to do it properly by now?

Well, the answer is both ‘yes’ and ‘no’, of course.  Yes – we’ve all been breathing since the moment we were born, and unless someone actively challenges the way you breathe, or you are undertaking exercise, you tend to forget that you are even doing it.  But the way that we habitually breathe is not the optimal way to breathe for singing.

When you breathe normally, you are mostly using a very small amount of air from the top of your lungs.  If you try to sing a sustained note with taking just a little normal breath, you will notice that you run out of air very quickly, and the note isn’t very loud.  This is because you aren’t supporting your note.

“Supporting” is one of those comments that singing teachers talk about a lot, and most people are slightly confused by (unless cornered by a singing teacher at a party with a glass of Prosecco and a mission – I may have been that teacher…).  If you equate “support” and “breathing correctly” you won’t be *far* off.

When you breathe properly to sing, you need to take in as much air as possible, control it effectively and expel it precisely.

lungs-2ivfnn4Picture your lungs.  They aren’t a regular shape, they are a little more pear-shaped, really.  Bigger at the bottom where the diaphragm sits below them in your middle.  In order to inflate them *fully*, you really need to focus on sticking out your tummy when you breathe in at first and then filling your lungs from the bottom up.  This will have the effect of pulling your diaphragm down, expanding your lower ribs, and making room for your lungs to expand in all directions, making sure that you have plenty of air ready for a long, slow, steady release.

If you find this difficult, I would suggest trying it with your hands on your head which will help a little, or try breathing deeply whilst you are lying flat on a firm surface.  Both will make it a little easier.  What we are aiming at is doing this kind of breathing *so* much that it becomes second nature.  (However, do be aware that deep and steady breathing of this kind, if practiced whilst lying on a comfy bed may well send you off to sleep in very short order!)

I sometimes find it helpful to put hands on your hips, with your thumbs resting on your lower ribs.  If you are breathing correctly, you will feel your ribs expand and lift a little with each deep breath.  When you feel that you need to exhale, don’t just let go and let your chest and stomach collapse in the aftermath of the whoosing outward breath, but blow slow and steadily, pulling in the stomach as you feel yourself running out of air.

Don’t underestimate how much you need to do this in order to get a habit building up.  Try to take a half hour every day to breathe properly – you can easily do other things at the same time.  The bonus of this exercise can be reaped in many other ways – it will increase your overall lung health, decrease your incidence of bronchial infections and lower your stress levels as well.

Give it a try!