When you’re having a casual conversation with a friend, are you struggling to take a breath? Are you (in between sips of coffee) thinking about filling up every empty space in your chest, back and belly so you won’t run out of breath? Are you constantly aiming to take in the *perfect* breath of air so that your speaking voice will sound on point? Hopefully the answer is no.
So if we don’t have “breathing issues” when we speak… why do we run out of breath when we sing?
Why do we think that the reason that our voice doesn’t ________ (fill in the blank—sound good/hit high notes, etc. etc.)… is because we need to work on our breathing?
Why did my first experience of voice lessons back in the day consist of… not much singing… but rather, me trying—and failing miserably!—to feel out every nook and cranny in my back and fill it with air (I quit those lessons… singing shouldn’t be so confusing!)?
Most singers assume that my online vocal courses and private lessons will spend copious amounts of time working on breathing exercises… and then are surprised when I don’t talk about it much at all (gasp… say what?!). I choose to focus on other, more important things.
Is breathing important? Absolutely. Your lungs are the power source for your voice, so efficient breathing and airflow is obviously important! But is it the most important thing to focus on? No… not even close!
Here’s the thing… for the vast majority of singers (so this probably applies to you too!), the cause of their issue—be it running out of breath, not hitting high notes, having an unpleasant tone, etc—is not their breathing… so hours and hours of breathing exercises don’t actually end up doing much! The issue is not that they aren’t taking full enough breaths, or that they’re not using enough support from their diaphragm… though they’ve probably been told that! I’ve heard vocal coaches say that if you correct those things, everything in the voice will “fall into place”… well I don’t know about you… but I worked on those things and nothing “fell into place”!
Instead, focus on THESE things (not your breathing!)… and you might just find that what you thought was a breathing issue wasn’t really at all!
Ditch the breathy sound.
The raspy/breathy sound may be trendy these days… but it’s not worth it! When we constantly sing in an airy or breathy-sounding tone, the voice isn’t using our breath in an efficient way (instead of fully closing while they’re vibrating, the vocal cords stay slightly open), and thus too much air is leaking out. Sometimes a breathy tone can be used for stylistic effect for part of a song, and that’s fine (I’m a fan!)… but what we DON’T want is for it to become the default for our voice. It tires out the vocal cords quickly, causes us to run out of breath, and worst-case scenario… can lead to permanent vocal damage.
If you’re driving and you’ve got a leak in your tire, the solution is NOT to just fill the tire up with more air… you’ve gotta fix the leak! In the same way, doing breathing exercises to build your lung capacity won’t do much if you’ve got leaky vocal cord syndrome! To get rid of the breathiness, we need to build the inner edges of the vocal cords so that they have more strength—and thus, proper grip—while we’re singing. Efficient vocal cord connection (closed, not open!) will naturally regulate your air flow so you don’t run of breath too soon… AND… give you tons more power and volume. A breathy voice will always lack power and stamina—but singing in a clear tone changes the game completely!
What to do: exercise your voice regularly (3-5 times/week), using specific vocal exercises designed to bring strength and clarity! I recommend starting with the exercises from my “Discover Your Voice” course, then move onto “Master Your Voice”!
Learn to shift your resonance.
Just like the gears on a bike or in a car are designed to shift as we change speeds, in the same way, we need to shift our resonance (where the air is buzzing/vibrating in the face) as we move throughout our range.
If you push up your chest voice into the high notes, you’ll run out of breath, you’ll lose power, you’ll go off-pitch, your voice will crack and break… Why? Not because you need to do breathing exercises… but because you need to allow the resonance to shift and take on more head voice in the mix as you go higher!
If you pull down your head voice into the low notes, same thing… you’ll run out of breath, you’ll lose power, you’ll go off-pitch, your voice will crack and break… Why? Again… not because you need to do breathing exercises… but because you need to allow the resonance to shift and take on more chest voice in the mix as you go lower!
Bottom line—the voice doesn’t function efficiently when we only sing in one resonator! What we need to do is learn to use all our resonators—chest, head and pharyngeal—the trinity of the voice… so that we can mix them together and shift gears seamlessly as we move throughout our range.
What to do: same as above… exercise your voice regularly (3-5 times/week), using specific vocal exercises designed to discover and build your different resonators! I recommend starting with the exercises from my “Discover Your Voice” course, then move onto “Master Your Voice”!
Take more breaths.
This one’s simple. Fill up your gas tank before it’s empty! Some of you need to take way more breaths in your songs! There’s NO need to try to sing long phrases without a breath… this is not classical music. In the contemporary style, pretty much anything goes. Yes, some choices are better than others, but there’s really no right or wrong. Ideally, we don’t want to take a breath in the middle of a word… but other than that, just take a breath wherever it makes sense! Look for the natural pauses in the phrases… sometimes that’ll mean taking a breath after the completion of a thought/sentence… other times the breath will split up a thought/sentence. This will vary from song to song and phrase to phrase, so just aim to be on the lookout for the natural pauses, and fill up your gas tank before it’s empty!
What to do: Plan out your breaths! Write or print out the lyrics to a song, look for the natural pauses and mark them in!
“But I sounded so great in the shower! I hit that high note perfectly! I didn’t run out of breath in that long phrase!” This sound familiar? Why can’t we do on stage what we do at home in the shower? Because when we lack confidence, things start to fall apart. The voice shakes and cracks, we run out of breath quickly… you know the drill.
So how do we gain confidence? Firstly, by exercising our voice regularly (sound familiar?)… the more we build our vocal coordination, resonance, power and stamina behind the scenes, the more we can trust it to be there for us when we need it… so the more vocal exercises the better! But still… nerves are a tricky thing, and really the only cure is to get lots and lots and lots of experience in front of people. So just do it… look for opportunities! Can you lead worship at a small group? A retirement home? Extra services at church? Sometimes it will go terribly… and sometimes you’ll sound awesome, but little by little you’ll gain confidence that yes, you can sing in front of a crowd without shaking like a leaf!
And God absolutely wants to help with this (well, with all these things actually!). He wants to build your confidence so that you can sing and lead without the distractions of your voice not cooperating! So ask Him! Ask Him to help you uproot the lies that are holding you back from singing with confidence, and ask Him for help as you pursue vocal improvement—He loves to pour out His wisdom and grace!
Hopefully these tips have been helpful for you! It’s a myth that improper breathing is the root of all our vocal issues… breathing isn’t your problem! It’s working on the things I mentioned above that’s gonna actually change the game for you! But rest assured—I don’t ignore breathing in my teaching completely… I have a whole lesson on it (along with an accompanying workout) in my “Master Your Voice” course! Once you’ve ditched the breathy tone and gotten ahold of your resonators… that’s when breathing exercises will actually take you to the next level—but not before!
Something about the leaky tire analogy clicked for me! It’s so true, though. I took two years of vocal lessons in college and we focused on breathing 80% of the time… and I never improved. I used my resonators inefficiently and that was my biggest issue. I love that breathing isn’t your main focus!
For sure! Breathing IS important, but just not nearly the MOST important thing!
Almost every other singer I’ve mentored or taught has asked for help with their breathing. This blog will help me point them in the right direction! Thanks Charmaine
Haha yup! Classic!
Thank you! Ditching the breathy tone is a good first step in case you meet a student vocalist who expects you to work on proper breathing and does not understand the priority of resonances yet.
Thanks for the tips… as a classically trained singer, amateur jazz, as well as a professional Western singer. You have given me hope in this style/genre
So glad to hear it!
I have been to many vocal lessons over the years and I have never heard this perspective!
I never knew that singing with a breathy voice, other than for stylistic purposes, could cause permanent damage. Wow!
Yes! Important to be aware of this as both a singer and a coach!