Stomach Out or Stomach In: The Skinny on Breathing
Posted Friday, May 20th 2016 by David McCall
The number one question from new singers is “How should I breathe?”. Interestingly enough, the number one question among not-so-new singers is the same!
"I’ve heard I need to push my stomach out…?"
"Aren’t I supposed to push my stomach in?"
I’ve been hearing this question from the moment I began studying and teaching singing, and, maddeningly for students, the answer seems calculatedly vague:
Yes…in a way.
First things first
Take a step back and remember what we’re talking about. Breathing. The first activity you accomplished when you were born, and you’ve kept it up this entire time. You know how to do it on a subconscious level; however, the notion of breathing for singing suddenly wrecks your perspective. With hands thrown into the air, you concede to knowing nothing about the process you’re currently accomplishing, or you put all of your energy into taking the absolute largest breath you possibly can and hope for the best.
Just breathe. The process is simple: the torso increases in size to pull in air and decreases in size to expel air. Simplistically, that’s it. Granted, there are possible complications that are specific to each student. Some people may have excessive tension in the abdomen, shoulders, neck, etc., and will need coaching to relax. Some may have under developed musculature and need strengthening. All possible variables aside, the process of breathing remains simple.
Simplicity through Complexity
There are multitudinous reasons we of the vocal coaching and teaching profession make you complete breathing exercises. Like a personal trainer, we want you to experience certain physical sensations and coordinate particular muscular movements. We use isolation exercises, not to have fabulously buff external intercostal muscles, but to prime the muscles for use in the larger machine.
Problems arise when the complexity outweighs the simplicity. The question, “Do I push my stomach out or in?” is a perfect example. The stomach, or rather, the abdominal wall can and probably should expand upon inhale and contract upon exhale, returning to it’s starting position. But the abdomen is one actor in the process. Ideal breathing, not just for singing, incorporates movement in the abdomen, ribcage, lower back, and shoulder blades. Focusing in on the abdomen alone leads to imbalanced breathing, forced singing, and excessive tension.
Enough is as Good as a Feast
Singers tend to be very conscientious people, motivated to do their best at every moment, but sometimes our best at a certain moment is less than our full potential. Breathing exercises that target abdomen or ribcage mobility are geared to strengthen and prepare you for singing, but when the time to sing arrives, you will not need the largest breath you are capable of inhaling.
Breathing to your fullest capacity for every phrase of a song is tantamount to eating a Thanksgiving meal three times a day, seven days a week. It takes too long, leaves you to over-stuffed, and is a short road to hyperventilation. Take what you need, no more no less. Not sure how much you’ll need? During your personal rehearsal try different sizes of breaths. I guarantee you, you’ll experience more control and access your best singing potential if your breathing is merely enough.
Breaking Through to the Other Side
Movement when we breathe should be indicative of the internal process. The torso enlarges to pull in breath and shrinks to expel breath. Willfully pushing out the abdomen as we inhale is a movement independent of the act of inhaling. You can easily stick out your abdomen without taking in breath. You can just as easily suck in the abdomen without exhaling. You’re best sounds will not come from pushing your stomach in and out. More likely, your audience will be distracted by the periodic protrusion.
The external expansion of the body in the act of breathing is an indicator of the internal action. The diaphragm is our primary inhale muscle. It’s also the second largest muscle in the body, just after the gluteus maximus. It connects to the lower portion of the sternum in the front, the lower ribs on the sides, and the lumbar vertebrae of the spine in the back. Just before we inhale, it resembles a parachute, doming upwards. When we inhale, the diaphragm contracts, flattening downward, and pulling breath into the body.
The movement in the abdomen is a result of the diaphragm’s movement. As the diaphragm pushes downward, it gently presses against our internal organs, which in turn, press against our abdominal wall. The external movement is purely a reaction to the internal movement of the diaphragm. Furthermore, your abdomen may not move much at all. Remember, you do not want to breathe to your full capacity for your singing breath. Forcing movement of the abdomen is unnecessary complexity that disconnects you from the simple act of breathing.
A strong, healthy, and coordinated breathing system is crucial to singing longevity; however, much like the abdomen moves to assist the motion of the diaphragm, our breathing is to assist the glorious act of singing! And it’s fun! And it’s simple! I promise, you already know how to do it.
Senior Voice Teacher, Head of Vocal Development
David has become one of the leading instructors of Contemporary Voice in New York City, with clients ranging from Broadway singers (Billy Elliot, Matilda), Classical and sacred music singers, cantors in New York City Synagogues, to Professional Rock and Pop artists, some of which have toured and been signed to record contracts, appeared on shows like The Voice and American Idol, and performed at venues such as SXSW. Additionally, David has taught as a Master Teacher of Contemporary Voice for the NYSTA Comparative Vocal Pedagogy series.
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