One of the biggest challenges any singer faces is learning how to breathe correctly. As if that is not hard enough they also need to know how to control their breathing so it is used to optimum effect when singing.
From birth our breathing is naturally correct. For example, a baby can scream, yell and breathe using their lungs with optimum effect because they are doing this without a conscious thought. However, as we start to grow older some people become lazy in their habits and only use the upper part of their lungs – they take a shallow breath instead of a normal one.
To understand how correct breathing and breath control works, first you need to understand the process that it uses to operate.
Surrounding your lungs is a muscle system called the diaphragm which is attached to the lower ribs on the sides, bottom and to the back, acting as an inhalation device. When you breathe in the muscles lower, displacing the stomach and intestines. When you breathe out the diaphragm helps the abdominal muscles control how quickly the breath is exhaled.
If you breathe out quickly, the diaphragm does nothing but when you breathe out very slowly the diaphragm resists the action of the abdominal muscles. A singer learns to use this muscle system to control the breath as it is being exhaled.
Hold a finger close to your lips and breathe out slowly, the breath should be warm and moist and you should notice the action of the diaphragm as you exhale. This is the correct amount of breath used when singing normally. A singer does not need to 'force' or 'push' air through the vocal chords to produce a good strong sound, doing so creates too much pressure against the chords, preventing them from operating correctly which can cause damage to the voice.
The stomach area should move naturally inward toward the end of the breath, the stomach should not be 'sucked in' as it prevents the diaphragm from working effectively. Instead the abdominal area should remain expanded to the level it was when you inhaled and allowed to gradually decrease naturally at the end of the breath.
This is where the 'control' comes into play - the singer expands the lungs by inhaling and 'controls' the amount of air expelled when singing a note by allowing the muscle support system to remain expanded - this doesn't mean the stomach is pushed out, rather that it is blown up like a balloon when the air goes in and the singer slows down the natural rate at which it goes down. In most people the breathing is shallow and only the top half of the lungs are used - breathing correctly uses the whole of the lungs so that more air is available, the singer then uses the natural action of the muscles (diaphragm and abdominals) surrounding the lungs to control the amount of air that is exhaled when singing a note.
Good breath support during singing and speech requires good posture, abdominal breathing and breathing during natural pauses. Breathing techniques and correct support does not require great physical strength - although having toned abdominal muscles helps. Remember the diaphragm doesn't exhale for you - just helps to control the amount of air exhaled and if done correctly your vocal exercises routine will become second nature.