“Taking a good breath means you have to breathe into your diaphragm.”
Whenever I ask a new student what they know about breathing, I often get some sort of answer like this. The idea that you need to “breathe into your diaphragm” is amazingly popular amongst new singers, and even many teachers. However, when I go on to ask these same students what it means to “breathe into your diaphragm”, they often realize that they don’t know.
As teachers, it is our job to make sure students understand their breath. Good breathing is arguably the most foundational aspect of good singing. Therefore, there is no room for students to be confused about it. Let’s take a moment now to discuss what the diaphragm is, what it means to breathe “into” it, and whether or not that’s the best method to teach breath to our students.
What is the Diaphragm?
Take a look at the image below
The diaphragm is that lined muscle that sits underneath the lungs, making it a part of your core. Think of it as an upside down bowl that is bendable. When you breathe in, it flattens out to be more of an upside down plate. When you breathe out, it returns to its bowl shape.
How do You Breathe “Into” It?
If we’re speaking factually for a second, you can’t really breathe into your diaphragm. What you can do is simply breathe and then the diaphragm will flatten out.
However, when voice teachers encourage students to “breathe into your diaphragm”, what they are asking the student to do is to breathe low and deeply to encourage a greater expansion of the diaphragm.
Why does that matter? Well, for two reasons. One, you physically have more air to sing with. Two, and more importantly, the greater the extension is in the diaphragm, the greater the potential is for a steady and “controlled” release of breath, exactly like you’d want when singing.
Is This the Best Method to Teach Good Breathing for Singing?
The answer to this question is a bit subjective. However, for the sake of discussion, I’m going to take a side and say, “No”. Why not?
First of all, in singing, it’s vital to encourage what I’m going to call natural action over deliberate action. I define natural action as a movement we make that sets up the systems of healthy vocal use organically. A natural action allows for freedom and flexibility in the voice. The great thing is that the movement of the diaphragm is great for a natural action. By telling our students to “breathe into the diaphragm” though, we turn a natural action into a deliberate one, which in turn can create strain or struggle.
Secondly, even if breathing into the diaphragm creates a natural and flexible low breath, a low breath is not the only kind of breath a singer might want. It ignores the fact that singers can’t take in as much air as they can with a more balanced breath (or one that happens higher up in the torso), or that belt singers often need to use a high breath to create more power.
So teachers, if you recommend to your students to “breathe into your diaphragm”, please make sure they fully understand what that means and why you say it. Students, if you have heard of this concept before but didn’t fully understand, I hope this sends you in the right direction. Please just be sure to also discuss it with your teacher, especially if you have any questions pertaining to your personal experience.
Teachers, do you teach your students to breathe into their diaphragms? Why or why not? How were you taught how to breathe? Did you have confusion about the diaphragm when you were younger? Do you think your students have similar questions? Please discuss and share any thoughts you may have!