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.

Over-tank Exercise

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.

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What kind of warm-up do you do before your personal rehearsal time or general choral warm-up? Of course, warm-ups vary depending on the time of day you begin singing, your gender and age and what kind of singing you are about to do.

What are your default “must-do-no-matter what” warm-ups?

Here’s what our top vocal pedagogues, performers, & educators said ~

clarifications: Lip buzzes are lip trills. Penta-scales are five note scales. All of our vocal pedagogues had two exercises in common: 1) Use of lip buzzes or lip trills and slides (penta-scale to an octave + 1) and 2) slides or glissando as a semi-occluded vocal tract exercise for breathe motion, ease of use of vocal folds, and the thinning of them.

 1. Jamea Sale: Vocal Coach, Singer, Private Instructor. http://www.jameasale.com/

  1. Yawn-sighs and puppy dog whines into descending slides on the penta-scale with neutral vowel.
  2. Ascending flex lip trills high to low [V15 exercise]. V15 Flex Trills
  3. Yoo-ah flexibility using skips and leaps [V14 exercise].V14 Yoo-ah Flexibility

2. Anonymous, Professional Baritone/ Private Instructor.

As a vocal warm up, I’m more interested in stretching other muscles, relaxing and resting my voice, and eating a meal with protein about two hours before performing. Singing with regularity doesn’t require that much time to warm up. That being said . . .

  1. I use coffee stirrers, often two at a time, one if I’m feeling bold. Singing through straws emphasizes feeling your voice rather than listening to yourself helps avoid pushing too much air. Quick scales that span an octave and a half or two octaves.
  2. Continue with the semi-occluded vocal tract idea singing voiced consonants in the mid-range. “Th” is great as in “the” because it naturally fronts the tongue. It’s important to maintain an open pharynx/stable larynx while your mouth is closed.
  3. Classic coloratura warm ups on [i-e-a-o-u] moving quickly through penta-scales and nine scales. Low range to high, aiming to sing three half-steps below and above the range I’ll need to sing during that day’s performance.

Vocal Folds stretch during octave slides:


3. Anonymous, Professional Lyric Soprano / Private Instructor

  1. Lip trills using the penta-scale ascending and descending.
  2. Repeat scales on 16th notes ascending and descending on one breath for at least 10 counts with the last note being a half note to prep air for the next repetition.
  3. Range scales with full extensions as high and as low as one can sing with agility.

4. Andrew Schmidt, Choral Conductor, Tenor. https://www.andrewphillipschmidt.com/

  1. Falsetto slides, up or down using do-sol-do, or sol-do-sol to engage the crico-thyroid while making sure to move plenty of air through the instrument.
  2. Lip Buzzes descending in chain succession: Sol-Fa-Mi-Re-Do, followed by an immediate ascent by a semi-tone and then repeated. Sing 2 or 3 sets before taking a breath.
  3. [u]-scales to the 9th: While maintaining placement, breath motion, and thin vocal folds, start lower in the range (usually low G) and sing a scale that extends to the upper 9th and descends again. Move through the scale quickly working to maintain placement, flexibility via a thin/light mechanism, and resonance with a vibrato spin.

5. Christine Freeman, Choral Conductor, Sopranohttps://www.festivalsingers.org/staff/

  1. Descending lip trills slides on [u].
  2. [Ma Me Mi Mo Mu]  12312342345345645 4 3 2 1 for flexibility
  3. “Zip-Zip-Zip-Za” using do-mi-so-li-ti-do-so-mi-do for range

Jennifer Berroth, Choral Conductor, Alto. http://www.festivalsingers.org/staff/

  1. Lip trills on descending penta-scale.
  2. Ascending glissando penta-scale on a warm [i] vowel. Use a K or G consonant at the beginning to ensure strong closer (adduction) with vocal folds.
  3. As a vocal strengthener, use [V] to sing 1-3-5-8-5-3-1. Rest the top teeth lightly on the lower lip as you sing  [V] continuously.

Lynn Swanson, Choral Conductor, Mezzo. https://www.festivalsingers.org/staff/

  1. [Fu] descending penta-scale slides mid to low range for a gentle activation and to focus and streamline the air. V1-page-001
  2. Lip trills – ascending and descending penta-scales to full scales lip trills from mid to high range to ensure support of diaphragm. V2.Lip.Trill.Asc.Desc.-page-001
  3. [Nyu] to [Nya] or “Zing-Zing-Zing-Za” ascending and descending skips mixed with semi-tone movement for intonation and agility. It’s called The Mel after Melissa Shallberg who uses it very effectively. 1-3-5-dim.7-7-8-5-3-1.
    The Mel.

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