Bad habits of vocalists and what to do about them – Part 1 – Breathing
Everyone has them- those little things that we do without even thinking about them. Bad habits in singing, as well as in life, are things that we don’t necessarily notice we do unless someone points them out to us. Over a series of posts I’ll highlight the most common bad habits I come across in singers, and ways that you can catch them before they become full scale problems.
Now the idea of breathing ‘wrong’ seems bizarre to many people. We do it instinctively from the moment we are born. Without it, we die. So obviously, we all like to think that we are quite good at it. However without even realising it, most people actually limit their breathing abilities in ways that are quite easy to overcome.
When we are told to breathe in, our natural reaction is to ‘suck in’ and make ourselves as skinny as possible. This may work in the modelling world, but for singers it is a definite no-no. When you pull everything in, all the muscles in your torso are restricting your lungs from doing what they do best – breathing. Breathing in, we need to allow the lungs to expand as fully as possible, which ultimately makes us get fatter on the air, not thinner!
Top Tip – Lie yourself down flat on your back with your arms at your sides. Place a book (a light one – not War and Peace) at the bottom of your rib cage. When you are breathing in you want the book to be rising up slightly with the inhale, and dropping back down with each exhale.
This is another side effect of us ‘trying’ to breathe in. For some reason, when we think about getting as much air in as possible one thing our bodies do naturally is to raise our shoulders up towards our ears. This causes tension through the shoulders and upper back, and ultimately is not good for the breathing process. We want all these muscles to be as relaxed as possible so that what is happening underneath them can happen without any restriction.
Top Tip – Get someone to sit or stand behind you with their hands placed gently on your shoulders as you breathe. As you breathe in, if raise your shoulders get them to counter your movement by putting a bit of pressure on them. You probably don’t even know you’re doing it. After a few reps, as you become aware of your movement, you’ll be able to put a stop to it.
As we breathe, our lungs are restricted by the packaging they are inside, namely our torso. In order for our lungs to be as free as possible, we need to ensure that they are permitted to move in all directions. When we tense a certain muscle area we are restricting that movement in our lungs. Imagine a balloon being blown up inside a small box. If the box is made of steel, the balloon doesn’t stand much chance of reaching its full capacity as it is limited by the box. However, if the box is made of spandex, the balloon can continue to grow, not limited by the confines of its surroundings. By tensing muscles as we breathe (common culprits are the abdominals and the pectorals) we aren’t allowing our breathing apparatus to work to their potential. Even holding your breath is easier when you’re not tensing all your muscles (trust me – try holding your breath as you normally would. Red faces and watering eyes will quickly follow with all the pressure you’re putting your body under. Then try just taking a properly deep breath and hold it feeling completely relaxed, not pushing or tensing anything. More air, less stress.)
Top Tip – Try breathing in as normal, and then once you have finished your inhale, try and take in some extra air. Feel the areas of tension and try to relax them and try again. Our lungs are usually working well under their capacity, and you will find that by allowing your muscles to relax and your diaphragm to work properly you can increase your air intake by surprisingly large amounts.
It can take time to correct the things that we do without thinking about them. Ultimately you want to get to a stage where what comes naturally to you are deep, supported breaths.
If you want to analyse your breathing, watch yourself breathing in a mirror. Notice the movements, big or small of each part of your body. The only area you want to be seeing an obvious movement is in your abdomen. Any other areas that move show points of tension, which you will want to work on. Take note of where your problem areas are and make a point of paying attention to these. You can do it on the bus, in the car, at work- just be aware of your breathing and you’ll hopefully find that soon all these new habits will become second nature.
The Musicademy Worship Vocals Course is a full years’ vocals programme in a single DVD box set. It covers all the basics of breathing and posture before taking you through warm-up exercises and finally getting into a variety of singing techniques – all with a worship-focus and outworked with contemporary worship songs.
Catherine Mayne is what she likes to call ‘a creative type’. Working freelance as a singer, actress and vocal coach she likes a bit of variety to life, be it appearing on film, treading the boards in London, in the recording studio, or teaching others to sing in her lounge. She has worked extensively with vocal groups, providing coaching and instruction for choirs, and workshops for contemporary vocal groups on microphone technique, blending and harmony work amongst many other things. Catherine offers coaching to singers of all levels, individuals and groups, and across all genres, believing that a good fundamental knowledge of your instrument is the first step to success, no matter which route you plan on taking.
If you would be interested in either private vocals coaching from Catherine, or a day’s workshop for your worship team, plese contact the Musicademy office [email protected]. Catherine is based in Walthamstowe, East London but can travel.