I have yet to come across a singer or voice teacher who doesn't have at least a basic understanding of the ways breathing applies directly to singing.
In my experience, though, the importance of breathing in the maintenance of vocal health and function outside the studio is often overlooked.
Last fall I dropped off the proverbial face of the earth after discovering the extent to which my asthma had been under-managed for the majority of my life. For my health and well-being, I needed to figure out how best to care for myself in the context of my illness.
In the process I discovered the world of breathing re-training.
Understandably, while most of this field is dedicated to helping people with severe breathing pattern dysfunction and chronic respiratory illnesses, it seems to me that a lot of this information is relevant to the singer community at large.
Below are my three favourite breathing tips for singers from my research so far:
1. BREATHING AFFECTS EVERYTHING AND EVERYTHING AFFECTS BREATHING
The way we breathe affects everything in our body - from our blood chemistry, to the way we move, to the way our brains function. While respiratory problems will throw off our breathing (obviously), seemingly unrelated things, like injuries, chronic pain, anxiety disorders, GI issues, and hormonal fluctuations, can also affect the way we breathe.
Very often, when we think of seeing a practitioner for our vocal health and function, we think of ENTs - for good reason. But since basically anything that throws our bodies off can throw our breathing off, and anything that throws our breathing off can throw our voices off, it can be useful to see other practitioners as well when it comes to keeping our voices in shape.
2. NASAL BREATHING IS SUPER-IMPORTANT
Breathing, like phonation, needs to be adaptable. In some situations, oral breathing is necessary. That said, it is very seldom the case that breathing orally is our best option. Habitual nasal breathing promotes better function of the respiratory muscles and muscles of the lips, jaw, and tongue. Nasal breathing is also ensures better filtering and humidification of the air that moves through our vocal tracts.
(If you struggle to breathe through your nose at rest or during light activity, that's definitely a reason to see an ENT.)
3. DON'T FORGET TO EXHALE
Whether we're preparing to phonate, trying to calm our nerves before a performance, or fitting in a workout to prime our bodies for the demands of singing, most breathing cues we're given focus on the inhale. While breathing in efficiently and effectively is important for all these activities, it's also only 1/3 of a complete breath cycle. Releasing our respiratory muscles and allowing ourselves to exhale is just as important as engaging our diaphragms and taking a deep breath in.
Without a balance between our inhale and exhale, phonation can be a struggle, feelings of anxiety may be heightened, and our tissues might not get the oxygen they need. These difficulties can occur when we breathe in too much, not just when we don't breathe in enough.