Proper breathing is one of the key aspects to learning to sing. Breathing correctly affects the quality of your voice tone and also helps you sing long notes when you need to. One of the most common mistakes made by people when they first sign up for singing lessons is that they think that breathing for singing is the same as breathing for, say, aerobics or regular activity.
Instructors for fitness activities such as dancing and yoga often have to teach correct breathing. It's the same with singing - in fact, the breathing techniques for all these activities is the same, although singing lessons aren't going to teach you some of the more exotic breathing techniques practiced by yogis. These breathing techniques taught in singing lessons can be applied off the stage, and can be used for relaxation - or on a different stage during public speaking.
The sort of breathing required to help you sing better is known as "belly breathing" or "stomach breathing", as opposed to "chest breathing". Most of the time, we breathe shallow breaths, using the muscles attached to the rib cage to expand and contract the lungs. If we need a lot of air in a hurry, we breathe like this - notice how your chest moves when you breathe rapidly after intense physical activity. But shallow chest breathing is not the sort of breathing needed for good singing.
Deep breathing for singing is powered by the lowest part of the respiratory system - the diaphragm or solar plexus. The diaphragm, which is easier to control, is found at the bottom of the ribcage just above the stomach. To breathe properly using the diaphragm, imagine that you have a huge hole in your lower back where air rushes in and out of - perhaps you can visualise your diaphragm and your stomach as a huge bellows. When you are actually singing, you will not be visualising this or concentrating on your stomach muscles - you'll have the words and the music to concentrate on - so it is important to practice proper breathing so you can sing better.
One key thing to proper breathing for singing is posture. The diaphragm works best when your stomach and chest are not compressed. The spine should be straight. This means that to breathe properly and to sing well, you should either be lying down or standing up straight. No surprises here - you will have to be standing up straight when you sing. You never saw a good singer sit down to perform, did you?
Some singers do sit down, you may argue. Didn't Eric Clapton (Unplugged) sit down on a chair and sing his heart out while he played his guitar?. However, this is the exception rather than the rule, and you really do sing a lot better if you can stand up straight. And if you want to accompany your singing by playing the guitar - and plenty of people do - then look out for a guitar (classical, acoustic or electric) with a strap that allows you to play standing up.
How do you stand up correctly so you can breathe and sing better? It's not just a case of throwing your shoulders back and sucking your stomach in, as many people do when asked to stand up straight for a photo or to be measured. For one thing, you can't keep your stomach muscles sucked in the whole time - you've got to breathe with them. Again, you will need to use visualisation to help you get the correct breathing posture. Imagine that you have a string attached to the top of your head and that this string is pulling you up like a marionette. You should feel your torso aligning and straightening so your chest and stomach open up.
If you are stressed, then you still might not be able to breathe correctly and sing well, even if you are standing up straight.. Stress or stage fright will make you breathe with your chest and lungs rather than in your diaphragm where you need to. And this will affect your performance. However, this is where you take control. First, raise your shoulders and shrug them up as high as you can go, squeezing them towards your ears and then releasing them. Feel the wave of eased tension pass down your shoulders and back. Now breathe consciously and deeply, deliberately keeping your breath slow. Now you're ready to sing.
To sing well, you must be able to control your breathing. There's nothing more embarrassing for a singer than suddenly running out of breath in the middle of a long note in a dramatic musical climax. This is why knowing your music and practising is so important. You need to know how to time your breaths so you have enough "gas in the tank" for those drawn-out passages. Singing is done on controlled exhaled breath, and you have to find a good gap so you can inhale. You will need to make sure that your intakes of breath are timed correctly.
Where do you breathe during a song? This really depends on the song, but a good rule of thumb is to look at the punctuation. A natural break in the lyrics, as marked by a comma or full stop (period), makes the perfect place to take a quick breath. However, if the copy of the lyrics you have access to doesn't have punctuation - an all too common situation - then you will have to read and study the words so your breaths break up the words so that they make sense. You don't want to. Have your song. Sounding. Like this because it's. Awkward for people. To listen to and sounds really bad.
When you breathe in during a song, you have two options. First, you can take deep breaths during an instrumental passage. Secondly, you can take little "sips" where the sense of the words allows it just to top you up. If you need to "sip", then do this through your mouth as well as through your nose to allow the maximum oxygen in.
And if you think you've learned good breathing for singing, here's a challenge. Find the song "Summer Moved On" by Norwegian pop band A-HA, and try to sing along. If you can hold the 20-second note, you know that you've really mastered the techniques of breathing.