Just breathe

I worked with a singer/former Navy SEAL who, in frustration, said that singing was leaving him light-headed unlike his practice for deep-sea diving. His years of SEAL training presented an unusual challenge to his ‘breathing for singing’ because he had fallen prey to the idea of “tanking up,” or taking in a great amount of air in hopes of sustaining the voice for long periods of time.

Purity of Air

Many singers have the misconception that they should take a full, deep breath and “top off’’ the breath at every opportunity. This means that fresh air is being pulled in on top of stale air which is fast becoming in the lungs. Carbon dioxide is a waste gas produced as part of the body‘s energy making process. The system understands that there is too much carbon dioxide and not enough oxygen, so it asks for more oxygen, causing another inhale. Since the lungs are still partially filled with carbon dioxide, not as much oxygen can get in. A cycle is set in motion that will lead to shallow breathing and holding your breath.

It is not only the amount of air in the lungs that determines whether you will be forced to take another breath, but also the purity of the air there.

The Exhale is as Important as the Inhale

In anticipation of a difficult passage, singers sometimes change the way they breath. Their concern over a lack of breath, triggers a deep, forced breath causing tension.

Try this: Release your ribs and abs and expel all air in the lungs. Hold this position momentarily before allowing air back into the lungs. Repeat the exercise a few times noticing the motion of the ribs and abdominal muscles and the satisfying flow of respiration.

In this experiment you have engaged the spring-like action of your ribs to expand and create a partial vacuum so that air flows naturally into the lungs as a neurological reflex. No thought or extra effort is required. Upon exhalation, the body is designed to take a reflexive, fulfilling inhalation.

Play with the idea of measuring the breath   


The singer needs to do some investigation to notice how much breath is needed for each phrase. Try the following comparisons using this excerpt from “Nymphs and Shepherds” by Purcell.

Answer these two questions for each step of the following experiments:

1. How far did you sing?

2. Did you have breath left over to exhale when you finished singing?

Experiment 1

A. Deliberately take in as much air as possible and then sing phrase 1.

B. Repeat for phrase 2.

C. Repeat step A and step B but this time expel some air on a “hiss” for 2 seconds before starting to sing.

Experiment 2

A. Take in as much air as possible and begin singing both phrases using only one (Don’t breathe on the quarter rest between phrases.)

B. Repeat, but this time expel some air on a “hiss” for 2 seconds before starting to sing.

Experiment 3

A. Now sing the two phrases using song text, taking a breath on the rest between phrase 1 and phrase 2. Take only as much air as you think you would actually need to sing each phrase.

B. Repeat, but this time expel some air on a “hiss” for 2 seconds before starting to sing.

Try these experiments using a piece of your own music. It will be interesting for you to discover how much air is really required for each phrase of singing.

Italian singing teacher and author G.B. Lamperti offered this advice on breath:

Breathe to satisfy the lungs, not to overcrowd them.”


Heinrich, Jane Ruby. Voice and the Alexander Technique: Active Explorations for Speaking and Singing. Berkeley, CA: Mornum Time, 2005.

Miller, R. (2004). Solutions for singers: Tools for performers and teachers. Oxford University Press.

Polatin, B. (2013). The Actor’s Secret: Techniques for Transforming Habitual Patterns and Improving Performance. North Atlantic Books.

Rundus, Katharin. Cantabile: A Manual about Beautiful Singing for Singers, Teachers of Singing and Choral Conductors. San Pedro, CA: Pavane Pub., 2009.

Vennard, William. Singing the Mechanism and the Technic. New York: C. Fisher, 1967.

Jamea Sale

Executive Associate Director, William Baker Choral Foundation Vocal Coach, Allegro Choirs of Kansas City Candidate for Ph.D. in Choral Pedagogy, University of Kansas

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