The most common self-assessment I hear from people discussing their own voice and who want to improve their singing, by far, is:
“I think I’m doing a good job, I just need to work on my breathing“
Comments like “I need to work on my tone“, or “my vocal quality still needs work“, or “I reach the high notes but it doesn’t sound that good” occur a fair amount too, but they are vastly outstripped by people who think their issue lies with their breathing.
I understand why this comes up. Such singers will typically think they sound alright, but that they run out of breath during specific lines, struggle to finish phrases, or they’ve got full lungs of *something* but physically feel like they have to empty and refill before the next section of the song, etc. Breathing is critically important for singing, but I’ve got news for you: breathing probably isn’t your main problem. In fact, most singers’ breathing is typically fine, and the issue lies elsewhere.
Let’s do a quick demonstration to prove my point.
Firstly, breathe in as deeply as you can, and hold it for a second.
Then, breathe out. Repeat this a few times in different ways, e.g. with your mouth open, closed, with a small opening to your mouth, just through your nose, slow, fast, etc.
You have just demonstrated two things:
1) You are already perfectly capable and in control of your breathing. You are perfectly able of refilling/refueling your lungs, emptying them, and doing that repeatedly. If you didn’t know how to breathe you’d have been in severe need of medical intervention long before now.
2) You’ve covered all the ways you can control your airflow with breath alone. The issue is that everything we’ve just done breathing wise took place WITHOUT the involvement of your vocal folds. To discuss breathing in singing without engagement of the vocal folds is utterly pointless. Here’s why:
When we are singing, we are not simply breathing out.
In a simplified form, we are directing air from our lungs through our larynx to generate vibration in the vocal folds. The vocal folds not only make sound, they actually come together (adduct) to resist and regulate the airflow during their vibration (phonation). The folds are capable of exerting a huge amount of control over: airflow; resistance to airflow; and their consequent vibration.
As such: if you feel like you’re having problems with your breathing when you are singing, this is the consequence of insufficient control of your vocal folds in regulating your airflow, and not a result of your breathing per se.
But cut yourself some slack. Bear in mind that the vocal folds are also trying to get the pitch right, achieve good tone, not be too tense nor too slack, vibrate freely, etc. They can also become tired or fatigued. The vocal folds are capable of many subtle configurations and modes of operations, only some of which are critical to good singing and regulation of airflow, and many of which are not conducive to this.
Focus on good singing first, and breathing will typically take care of itself
You are asking your vocal folds to do a huge number of things when you sing, AND on top of that they need to regulate airflow well. This is to enable you to keep singing well them over lines of a song with no breaks, inconsistencies or interruptions to the flow of the lyric/melody. My point with today’s article is that when it comes to singing, it’s not as simple as “I need to work on my breathing”. Of course, at higher levels of singing breath control does warrant focus, but in the first instance (and usually many subsequent instances), if you work on good singing first, develop better and more appropriate control of your vocal folds and your instrument, your breath control will take care of itself.