What do you really need to know to sing?
Well, isn’t singing a natural thing? Everyone can breath, so everyone can sing, right?
Yes, and no.
Singing is a natural human process, and it does use the breath.
This is where singing veers away from normal breathing and even from normal speaking, and is best developed starting with vocal technique exercises.
Think of singing as “speaking-plus.” Both activities use a controlled form of breathing, but the act of singing requires more control of muscles and awareness of what the body is doing. Singing also uses higher and lower pitches than speaking, as well as rhythmic movement that isn’t usually a part of everyday speaking. These differences make singing a much more involved activity than speaking, one that requires some training to do well.
The foundation of all singing is breathing, both supporting and controlling the air that is expelled. Early vocal training starts with basic vocal technique exercises that teach how to breathe correctly, progresses to vocal exercises that help the student control breathing, and continues throughout the singer’s career with vocal warm-ups that continually reinforce those basic principles of support and control.
1. Good Body Posture
Good use of the body’s muscles starts with the correct alignment of the body. Interestingly, the first vocal exercises are usually soundless; no melodies or songs are involved. However, you have to start with the right posture to efficiently use the body’s muscles to produce a beautiful sound.
Start by standing against a wall, making sure the back of your head, your shoulders, your posterior (your behind), and your heels are touching the wall. Believe it or not, that is pretty close to good, upright posture! It will feel very odd at first, almost like you’re leaning backward. When you step away from the wall, your head will swing a bit forward to balance on the top of the spine, but the rest of the body should maintain that upright feeling.
2. Correct Breathing Motions
Once you align your body, the next step is to move your abdominal muscles to correctly inhale and exhale. Ideally, you should learn how to do this immediately after getting the body aligned properly, preferably at the same lesson.
Natural breathing motions aren’t “natural” to most humans beyond infancy. Most people will pull in on the abdominal muscles to inhale and relax the same muscles to exhale. The truth is, the exact opposite is true!
The next exercise is isometric. That means that it works one set of muscles against another, which is a great way to strengthen both sets of muscles. As well, it requires no special equipment. It is suggested that you use a mirror to watch your abdominal muscles move.
Stand with good, upright posture and pull in the abdominal muscles (this is called contracting them). Quickly exhale and allow the body to automatically inhale. At the same time, relax the abdominal muscles. It will feel like your entire abdomen is a bag filling up with air. Exhale, allowing the muscles to contract until you feel the need to inhale. Relax the muscles and inhale again, continuing the cycle. This can be repeated a few times but be sure to exhale slowly after the first inhalation. You do not want to hyperventilate!
3. Control the Stream of Air Being Exhaled
Up to this point, there is no need for you to make any real sounds. With this third principle, it is important to actually make a sound to judge the steadiness of the air stream. This can be an unvoiced sound, like an S consonant (a hissing sound) or an F consonant, or it can be a voiced vowel, such as AH (father) or OO (moon), on a comfortable pitch.
Repeat the previous exercise under the second principle, but when you exhale, you should use one of the voiced or unvoiced sounds mentioned above. As you exhale, hold your abdominal muscles fairly still, allowing them to move in slowly, until you feel the need to inhale. Then, repeat the cycle. Just be sure you rest after every 2 or 3 repetitions to avoid getting too much oxygen in your system at one time.
Another fun way to practice producing a steady stream of air is to blow on a pinwheel, an inexpensive toy that you can make yourself. It takes a steady, gentle stream of air to keep the pinwheel going; too strong a stream, and it will stop spinning. Experiment with different strengths of air streams to see how to keep the pinwheel moving. How long can you keep the wheel spinning on one stream of air?
4. Vocal Exercises That Strengthen and Extend the Breath Stream
The next few voice exercises will help you strengthen your abdominal muscles and extend the length of time a single breath stream can continue. They do build on one another, so it's recommended that you try them in the order they’re given. You’ll also notice that the sounds you start to make get more and more amusing!
The first exercise could be called “blowing out the candles.” First, you completely exhale, then inhale deeply, and finally suspend the breath, keeping the throat relaxed and open. Using an S consonant (hiss), an F consonant, or a P consonant, slowly puff out air. As you do this, feel the abdominal muscles pumping out. You will actually be sipping in some air between puffs, but don’t focus on that. Instead, continue to gently puff out air. If you choose to use a real lit candle, your puffs should not put the flame out, but the flame should move back and forth.
Bumps In the Road
You can think of the second exercise as “bumps in the road.” Rather than small, separated puffs of air, this exercise produces heavier pulses in a steady stream of air. The pulses feel a bit like running over speed bumps in a car. As usual, you start with a complete exhalation followed by a deep inhalation and a short suspension of the breath before beginning another exhalation. Blow out the air slowly, pushing outward gently on the abdominal muscles to keep them from moving inward too quickly. As you blow, pulse harder puffs of air (without stopping the stream) at regular intervals. You’ll feel the abdominal muscles pump outward with each pulse.
The fun part of this second exercise is that it can be unvoiced, using a hiss or an F consonant, or voiced, using a vowel sound such as AH or OO. If possible, all breathing exercises should be converted into voiced singing exercises as soon as the breathing process is secure. After all, the purpose of learning correct breathing practices is to use them in singing songs. Besides, the sounds you make can be really funny!
Lip Trills or Lip Bubbling
The last vocal exercise can make your practice session a truly hilarious time! Lip trills or lip bubbling is excellent not only for practice in controlling the flow of breath but also for relaxing the facial muscles around the mouth.
As always, exhale completely before inhaling, then suspend the breath for a moment, taking care to leave the throat relaxed and open. As you begin to exhale, purse the lips slightly and tighten them just enough to make the lips move up and down against each other. The sound created is the same sound a child makes to imitate a motorboat or a race car. Have fun with this one!
This vocal exercise can also be done with or without pitches. Using pitched sound does require more attention to the muscles around the lips, so I recommend that you do the unvoiced style at first. When you add a pitched sound, start with a single, sustained pitch. As you become more proficient at it, you can use a different series of pitches, such as scales, arpeggios, or even well-known melodies.
So, how important are vocal breathing exercises?
You may begin to understand that learning to produce and control the breath for singing is perhaps the most basic part of vocal training. Every practice session or performance should begin with vocal warm-ups. The warm-up that is the foundation of all others is breathing--moving the abdominal muscles, relaxing the throat and face, and controlling the airflow as you exhale.
However, just practicing breathing is not as beneficial as using those important breath control principles as you begin to sing vowel sounds and words. The purpose of any vocalization exercises is to improve the sound and quality of the singing voice.
It’s quite easy to leave breathing exercises out of your warm-up as you become more proficient. You may think that you don’t need to do all that every time you warm up, that your time is better spent working on repertoire. However, all singers need to remind themselves daily of their breath and how it works, since it is the basis of all singing. So stand up tall, take a deep breath from your middle, and blow!