Riva Capellari

[email protected]

Located in Brookside in the heart of Kansas City

Our Breathing Machine

The Ins and Outs of Breathing

The past two issues of News of Note have focused on body alignment and the importance of good posture to good singing. In this article we will begin to explore the use of breath in singing. But first, an overview of the respiratory system, its functions and mechanics.

Whenever I ask my new voice students “what would you like to improve about your singing?”, their answer inevitably includes, “how to breath better and be able to sing longer phrases without running out of breath”. Breathing is fundamental to life and a basic premise of healthy, beautiful singing. But before we discuss its role in singing, first we must address what actually happens when we breathe.
The primary function of our respiratory system is to ventilate the blood, i.e. transfer the oxygen from the air into our bloodstream. This takes place in the lungs which then transports the oxygen to the rest of the body, releasing carbon dioxide on the exhalation. Our breathing affects our heart rate, our blood circulation and informs us of our emotional and physical state.
The respiratory system consists of more than just the lungs. The nose, throat, larynx (which houses the vocal folds), the trachea, the bronchi and the musculature of the thorax and abdomen, including the ribcage and the diaphragm, all work together during respiration.
We should also be familiar with the various capacities or volumes associated with our lungs. Total lung capacity is the maximum amount of air the lungs can hold, generally between 4-7 liters, depending on size, gender and age. Of this total, about 1-2 liters, is residual air, the amount of air that cannot be expelled. Our lungs do not ever entirely empty unless an injury or illness causes them to collapse. Vital capacity is the quantity of air in maximum exhalation(excluding the residual air). These 3-5 liters are what the singer has to work with to get to the end of that long phrase or extend a high note. Tidal volume is the amount of air used in normal breathing, approximately 10-15% of our vital capacity, which increases as we become more active. We feel comfortable at this level and it is at this point in our breathing cycle that we inhale our next breath.
So how does the respiratory system work?
Clavicular breathing, also called shoulder or shallow breathing, causes the shoulders and chest to lift, allowing only the upper portion of the lungs to fill with air. It disrupts our alignment and creates tension in the upper body. It prohibits effective use of the breath, an important factor in efficient and healthy singing. Diaphragmatic breathing involves thoracic, ribcage, back and abdominal action, resulting in a horizontal movement. A large, double-domed muscle, the diaphragm separates the respiratory system from the digestive track. On inhale, it descends, displacing these organs outward and giving the lungs room to lengthen. Because the diaphragm attaches to the ribs, sternum and spinal column, the expansion happens all around: the ribs “wing out” on the side, the abdominals expand in front and the back muscles widen. This method of breathing requires the body to be upright – if the shoulders are hunched over and the chest collapsed, the diaphragm will have difficulty moving and breathing will be shallow. I have seen many a student needing to rise up to a proper posture before they can breathe correctly only to collapse the chest back down on the exhale or during singing. This up and down movement of the upper body while breathing wastes energy and causes fatigue far more readily than if a consistent good posture is maintained. After inhalation, the abdominal and intercostal muscles of the ribcage, the diaphragm and even the lungs, use their natural recoil properties to provide the impetus for exhalation. It is important to remember that diaphragmatic breathing is not just for singing, but is how the body breathes more efficiently all day, every day.
But how does our body know when to breathe? Obviously there is some involuntary action at work as we continue to breathe while we sleep. And even during our daytime hours, we rarely think about controlling our breathing.
Simply put, when the air pressure inside the lungs does not match that of the outside atmospheric pressure, the body tries to balance things out. When we inhale, the air exerts pressure on the surface of the lungs. Remember holding your breath until you thought you might explode? As the pressure increases, our body automatically releases the air to lower the pressure inside to equal that of the outside. When the pressure in the lungs is once again less than atmospheric, we inhale and the breathing cycle continues. This is why we really don’t need to focus directly on our normal breathing – our bodies do it for us – it is part of our core consciousness.
So how does this help us be better singers? In the next issue we will use this knowledge of the respiratory system to learn how to coordinate all its components into the making of a free, healthy and beautiful vocal tone. We will explore some of the differences between breathing for singing vs. everyday life and learn how to monitor the air pressure to maintain an even, strong air flow to the end of those long phrases.
This simple explanation of the breathing process belies the complexity of transferring the “knowing” into the “doing”. Success comes after much practice and patience – re-training the body back to its natural state of breathing and then taking it beyond into the realm of singing!
Principles of Vocal Production. Ingo Titze. Prentice Hall. 1994.
Vocal Health and Pedagogy. Robert T. Sataloff, MD, DMA. Singular Publishing. 1998.
The Science of the Singing Voice. Johan Sundberg. Northern Illinois University Press. 1987.
Your Voice: An Inside View. Scott McCoy, DMA. Inside View Press. 2004.
Spring Sings!!!!
Don’t forget that spring marks the beginning of voice classes and Sunday afternoon workshops at reVoice. The Sunday afternoon gatherings provide an informal, friendly atmosphere for performing a favorite song with helpful feedback. The fee includes an accompanist and refreshments. The dates for spring are March 18th, April 15th (tax day!) and May 20th. All are held at 2pm in my Brookside studio and run approximately two hours depending on the number of students. If you always wanted to perform, this is a great opportunity for a non-threatening musical experience!
Beginning voice classes will be forming the first week in April. I am offering classes on both Tuesday and Wednesday evenings from 7-8pm starting April 3rd and 4th, depending on enrollment. These 6 week sessions introduce the basics of good vocal production for both speaking and singing. Posture, breathing, registration, resonance, articulation and vocal health care are some of the topics to be covered. If you would like a preview, I am giving a one hour introductory voice class through Communiversity on Saturday, March 24th at 10am in the New Student Union on the UMKC campus. To enroll, please contact 816-235-1407 or
If you would like additional information on any of these opportunities, please visit my website at for class descriptions and/or to download registration forms. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me at [email protected] or 816-444-5089.

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