"Sing from your diaphragm"... obviously.
We've all heard this common singing instruction at some stage in our vocal journey. Whether a beginner or professional, we've all been made aware of the diaphragm's 'integral' role in our voice development. But what is it? Where is it? And what does it actually do?!
The diaphragm is a dome shaped muscle that sits midway through the ribcage just behind your sternum.
It's made of smooth muscle just like the heart. You can't actually feel it as it doesn't have any nerve endings that are associated to physical sensation. The lungs sit above it within the ribcage. As you inhale, the diaphragm contracts to a more flattened position allowing the lungs to inflate as the ribcage expands. It also moves as you exhale, returning to its original position at the point of full exhalation. You don't have a say in the movement of the diaphragm per se. For example, if you hold your breath, it's not going to move. But as you breath in and out, like blinking, it happens without you being aware of it.
"...that language is misleading... it’s kinda like saying 'walk with your feet'….
what else are you supposed to do it with anyway?"
Founder and Voice Coach at Voice Body Connection
So an instruction such as "breathe from your diaphragm" means what exactly? Breathe deeper? Use more belly in and out motions? Sing louder? Quite often, a singer can very rarely say where it is located, let alone describe its purpose, even though they've been instructed to use it for years. Turns out they were using it the whole time, regardless of whether they tried to or not! Yay!
Here's an excellent video of the diaphragm in motion!
In my experience as a dancer and with others that I work with that have the same background, it's all too clear that there is a direct correlation between a dancers held in tummy posture and the way they stand when singing. A belly button being drawn to the back of the spine can have a positive effect on chest positioning. However, solid abdominals mean the internal organs below the diaphragm (stomach, intestines, pancreas etc) are being held in so firmly that the diaphragm cannot actually descend optimally. Therefore the lungs cannot inflate easily which can lead to an inefficient air flow.
In addition, ever heard a singing teacher say "Don't raise your shoulders up when you take a breath in"? The short, snatch breaths are exactly what they would want you to avoid so I completely understand the reasoning behind this statement. However, there's a strong chance this could be misinterpreted and the singer will not allow movement in their ribcage AT ALL. So imagine. The stomach's held in so the diaphragm can't move DOWN. And the shoulders are held down and sometimes forward, so the compacted ribcage cannot expand OUT. Snatch breaths will happen regardless as the lungs try to inflate but struggle, resulting in air pressure under the larynx that can become hard to manage. This could result in a number of dodgy outcomes.. constricted tone, a yell, breaks or excess volume.
So what the diaphragm really needs is space to move freely!
On the flip side, someone might think that the abdomen being completely relaxed or even pushed out is the way forward. But again, another extreme is not going to balance airflow either. Without efficient use of the transverse abdominis, rectus abdominis and internal and external oblique muscles, the diaphragm loses its "oomph" to return to it's relaxed, heightened position. A slight contraction in these "support" muscles will arguably give the lungs an extra bit of help in exhaling the carbon dioxide.
S.P.L.A.T (Singers Please Loosen Abdominal Tension) was a method researched by Janice Chapman (2001), which confirmed that the muscles in and around the lower abdomen should remain in a relaxed state on an inhalation, allowing the lungs to fill with air as the diaphragm contracts. The study of 5 singers over a considerable period of time also found that SPLAT methodology resulted in ‘rapid and better controlled changes in sub-glottic pressure’.
"Chapman is also a big fan of the Accent Method, it's fundamental principle
being that the diaphragm contracting,
alternates with a contraction of the abdominal muscles."
So what do you do then?! How should you breathe when singing?
Become aware of how you breathe in a natural, relaxed state, exactly as you do when speaking. The abdominals are in a relaxed position and contract ever so slightly when speaking. A relaxed abdomen will allow a full contraction of the diaphragm and wonderfully functioning lungs.
Just like strengthening any muscle in the body, an efficient breathing system will take time to get used to. So don't get disheartened if you find it quite complicated at first! Patience is key.
If you have any concerns about whether breathing is an issue for you during singing, then come and visit me in the studio! Whilst it may seem like such s simple matter, getting it right is fundamental in achieving the best vocal. Check my availability at www.natalieandreouvoice.co.uk/online-booking.