Really I should entitle this blog in a similar way to my blog about ‘big breaths’ – ie. -don’t. But that is not entirely accurate. We do want to breathe deeply to sing well, it is just a question of understanding what a deep breath means. It means – LOW. Somehow the word ‘deep’ evokes tremendous effort, straining away, filling up with masses of air – all a disaster for free singing. But LOW – means low in your body. If we want a diaphragmatic breath, and everyone agrees there, then we want all the miles of gut, stomach, liver other organs, all crammed into our bodies below our diaphragm – to GET out of the way! So all of the muscles that hold these organs in place, for instance the rectus abdominus, the transverse abdominus, the obliques – want to be released, relaxed, softened, in short -let go. So when I aim to have a LOW breath, I need to feel in the first instance NOT as if I am buckling up and defending myself, but rather the opposite, as if I am letting every ounce of my body below my belly crash downwards. And that low ‘let go’ is fundamentally a response to gravity. So don’t think deep, think low.
I suggested in an earlier blog that in order to become better singers we need to become more intimately acquainted with our bodies and how they function. We need to find exercises that show us or help us sense what we are doing, and how, with our bodies moving in space. When I talk of movement here, I recognise that we are ALWAYS in motion. Our hearts are pumping blood, our brain is directing our diaphragms to descend and ascend to keep us breathing, food is being moved through our digestive system, our very cells are metabolically reacting – (not talking about the mobile kind). I may know, intellectually, that an inbreath is a contraction of the diaphragm DOWN and a little out with the lower ribs. I may know equally that an out breath is a return of the diaphragm UP to resting position.- as per the somewhat dry diagram above. Unfortunately that knowledge may lead me to forcing the matter – pushing at my diaphragm and surrounding muscles, instead of allowing the action to maximise itself. One of my solutions to this problem is to look at ways in which we naturally work well with our diaphragm- more precisely, particular ways in which our whole body supports our diaphragm’s activity.
Here is one exercise: the swing.
Everyone knows how to push someone on a swing. You don’t tense your arms, or the poor ‘swingee’ will be pushed off, you sense without thinking how to let go and then push against the arriving back of your niece, nephew, little brother, whoever is on that swing. In that ‘let go’ you naturally find your in-breath, and in the push, you can find a natural impetus to exhale. Furthermore, in that swing you instinctively understand that working high in your body is tiring, you want to push from the ground, hello grounding again! You can, with imaginative recall of this lived experience, reproduce it for your in and out-breath. Really reproduce it – let your weight shift as you would in reality, let your breath go as you would, and gather a natural impetus to launch your air. Increase this sensation with sound. If in doubt, find a real swing, and a victim to swing on it.
As a starter singer, I always used to wonder how to be ‘grounded’. It seemed such a desirable thing to be.
I could recognise a ‘grounded’ performer but simply holding still didn’t seem to get me anywhere, in fact, to my distress, it was clear that I sang better when I walked or moved around. Martial arts all use techniques for grounding. Here is a very simple one.
Stand comfortably (don’t get obsessed with perfect posture etc). Make sure your feet are neither together or farther apart than the width of your hips (and I don’t mean the fatty part of your hips – I mean the bone). Check that your knees are slightly released – ie not hyper-extended or locked. This is how your knees would be quite naturally if you found yourself on a bouncy castle or a mattress – in short your instinct to balance would command your knees to stop bracing. While you are at it you can check that your natural spinal curve isn’t too exaggerated – though releasing your knees should already help that. Now place a hand below your belly button, and another hand on your sacrum (your lower back space directly opposite your ‘lower belly’ hand). Now LET GO. Just let go of your muscles, let it all hang out. You will feel a drop of weight onto your feet immediately. Voilá! Grounded.
This basically means you are ALLOWING gravity to have much more influence on your body – you are resisting gravity less, without actually collapsing. By the way, it is fun to do the above exercise, do the let-go bit, then DO IT AGAIN. You may think you will be at risk of an unpleasant accident but you won’t – you will simply discover there is more to go.
Already you have now massively helped your breathing by giving yourself a huge platform to lean on- planet earth. But gravity – which affects us in every way physically – also logically will affect our breathing. In the same way that you gave yourself more grounding, you can give yourself freer breath by noticing and even exploiting the effect of gravity on your inhale and exhale. Time for another blog.