Basic Breath Budgeting

Breathing--it’s the absolute most important element to great singing, but so many singers are unclear about exactly how to do it.

The fact is, when we breathe to sing we need to do a few things differently than when we breathe normally. When we’re at rest, our ribcage expands with inhalation, and then immediately collapses. When we’re singing, however, we want to maintain the expansion of the ribcage. This is mainly done by staying in a noble posture, but it also requires some management of the rib muscles, which are called the intercostal muscles. The trick is to maintain this feeling of expansion without tightening your abdominal muscles. With some experimentation, you can find the sweet spot between too much muscle activity and not enough. The Italians call this balance “appoggio.”

There are two main breathing problems I see in singers. 1. They don’t give themselves enough time to breathe, and so they take a shallow, rushed breath. To combat this, think ahead and breathe earlier. Plan your breath, and be specific about the rhythmic value of the breath--almost always we should be breathing either an 8th note or a quarter note before we sing. If an 8th note breath makes you feel rushed, then try a quarter note breath. Breathing in the rhythm of the piece also makes the breath feel more organically part of the music-making and the expression of the piece. And mark your scores with the appropriate rest--don’t rely on less specific markings like commas or check marks.

The other main breathing problem I see in singers is that they spend way too much of the air on the first few beats of the phrase. Imagine that each breath you take is a dollar, and that you have to budget that dollar out so you don’t run out before the phrase is over. You don’t want to spend a quarter on the first note, or else you’ll run out by the end! Be particularly aware of consonants that waste a lot of air, such as /f/, /s/, /th/, and /h/. Practice making clear consonants that don’t take a lot of air. To use the budget metaphor--practice making a clear /s/ that costs a nickel rather than a quarter. I recommend practicing consonants with your hand held close to your mouth. Try to make clear, focused consonants without blowing a lot of air against your hand.

I hope these tips will help you to manage your breath better. Air is the power source of our instrument, and most of singers’ bad habits come from insufficient air. If you give yourself time to take a great strong breath, and then budget your exhalation, you’ll sing more efficiently and beautifully.