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Breathing Stability

What are some good vocal exercises to help increase breathing stability while singing?
Replies (7): Threaded | Chronological
on August 20, 2015 7:08am
This is an area where there are many different methods, and they aren't all compatible with one another!  If I had to say a few words that I think most voice teachers would agree on, I'd offer some general guidelines rather than exercises:
- Stand up tall and straight but without tension
- Look straight ahead without jutting your chin
- Breathe low, so that the abdominal wall moves freely but the chest remains still.
I like the McClosky Technique, which you can read about in "Your Voice At Its Best" 5th ed., by David Blair McClosky (Waveland Press, 2011).
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on August 20, 2015 9:44am
Breathing stability requires two things of the breathing muscles: strength and control.
For strength I use an exercise I call 4-4-4 and 4. (Neither of these exercises are original with me, but I've been using them for so long I have forgotten where I got them. My apologies.)
    Inhale deeply and completely over 4 beats (expanding your rib cage and allowing the sensation of a deep breath through expansion of your stomach area, but making sure to keep your shoulders from rising).
    Hold that air in over 4 beats while keeping your throat and mouth open. You want to hold the air in solely by keeping your inhalation muscles engaged, not by closing your throat or mouth. 
    Hiss out, actively and firmly, all your usable air over 4 beats while allowing your rib cage to collapse. This is the only time I ask a student to let their ribcage collapse. The reason to do so is that in so doing you are taking your inhalation muscles out of the picture for a moment to allow your exhalation muscles to fully contract, thereby strengthening them.
    Hold that air fully out position for 4 beats, again allowing your exhalation muscles to fully contract, thereby strengthening them. As above, make sure to keep your throat and mouth open.
I suggest doing this exercise twice per vocalizatiosession.
For control I use an exercise I call "In for 2, hiss for 4..."
    Inhale deeply and completely over 2 beats as described above.
    Hiss out, actively and firmly, all your usable air over 4 beats while keeping your rib cage expanded. You want your hiss to be consistent over the beats and timed so that you are completely out of usable air (remembering there will always be some residual air left in) by the end of the last beat.
    Repeat, always inhaling completely over 2 beats, then hissing the air out consistently over 8 beats, 12 beats, 16 beats, etc. (Note - since you will be hissing the air out over varying numbers of beats, the air will be exiting at varying rates so the hiss will sound different with each set.)
By always inhaling the same amount of air but releasing it at various controlled rates, you are gaining control over your breathiing muscles.
    I suggest doing this complete exercise once per vocalizatiosession.
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on August 20, 2015 10:36am
I used to have a voice teacher who would have students sing while bent at the waist, so their torso was parallel to the floor, arms dangling comfortably.  It is nearly impossible to lift your shoulders with your breath while in that position.  She would also have students lie on their backs on the floor so that their tummy lifting was the only way they could get a good breath.  Both of these excercises helped you figure out how to isolate the muscles you needed to use for good breath support, without engaging any extra ones that were actually impeding your efforts.  She would occasionally threaten to strap me into a corset for my lessons when I was getting lazy about technique, so I would have something to push back against for resistance training.  Asking someone to sing a long vocal warm-up excercise, at a set tempo, all on one breath, gradually moving up and down the scale, can also be helpful.  Helps practice parcelling out the breath without losing control of tone and pitch, in a variety of places on their vocal register.  (Which is the larger goal of all this, when you get right down to it.)  
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on August 20, 2015 1:54pm
This is pretty unique. I never heard of doing this before, but I like it. From what you describe, it sounds as if it would bring great results.
on August 20, 2015 5:08pm
Another favorite was having you sing while holding a book on either side of your head, just behind your ears.  It helps you really hear yourself, since it essentially increases the surface area of your outer ear to something comparable to a jack rabbit.  Many tone problems suddenly correct themselves when students can really hear themselves.  There's the way it sounds to the singer, because of the vibration in their head, and then there's the way it actually sounds to everyone else in the room.  Eventually, the singer learns how to finely control their musculature to reproduce that tone by feel, even in a rather dead room where their hearing is compromised.  But!  The other glory of the excercise is that holding two books up next to your ears keeps your rib cage lifted if you are someone who has a tendancy to "collapse" at the end of phrases.  If you and your students know each other well and are comfortable with each other, sing a phrase with them, while they put one hand on their side or tummy, and one on the same spot on you, so they can feel how your diaphram is changing with a breath, and theirs is not, or how their rib cage is sinking in prematurely during a phrase, and yours is not.  For a group rehearsal, standing in a circle, or having a mirror in the choir room let's everybody watch everybody else, so you can point out people who've figured it out for the benefit of those who are still trying to decipher out what the heck you are talking about.  "Dianne's got it!  And Will!  And Annie!"  Hope that helps!
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on August 21, 2015 5:40am
To me, a key for "stability" while singing lies with the intercostal, or rib muscles.  If the singers are breathing properly, they'll feel their ribs expanding sideward (slightly) when they inhale.  The key is not to let those rib muscles collapse too quickly as they sing a phrase.  It can have a big impact on singing stability and the sense of vocal "freedom."
on August 22, 2015 6:55am
When talking about breathing, it is important to make sure you understand the actual physical process that is  happening, as there are a lot of misconceptions out there. If you aren't already familiar with it, you might want to take a look at Barbara Conable's book The Structures and Movement of Breathing.  It's available on Amazon and is very thorough in explaining the breathing process. 
For choirs, I have found James Jordan's book on the Choral Warmup really valuable. With my own group, I liken the slow moving exercises to long tones that brass players do for their warm up. The focus is on fast, steady, spinning air, and maintaining steady tone so the warm ups really help with keeping that in place. It helps the singers learn to engage the muscles that they need to produce a warm, released and full tone. Good luck!
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