Inhalation Exercises for Beginning Singers

Learn to Use Your Diaphragm

When I first learned about singing with the diaphragm, I spent several hours a day practicing deep breathing. People tend to “suck in their gut,” but to breathe deeply you need to learn to relax the abdominal muscles. I found it an easy concept to understand and a very hard idea to apply.

Not until I spent months using various exercises, did deep breathing become natural and instinctive to me. Now I can hardly remember how to breathe lifting my chest. Below is a list of exercises that I used to master the technique.

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Lie Down

Here is a demonstration how to lie down and breathe.
You tend to breathe low naturally on your back. Here is a demonstration how to lie down and breathe. Photo © Katrina Schmidt

Half the battle is becoming aware of what it feels like to use your diaphragm. Most people breathe using their diaphragm when lying on their backs. Before you go to sleep each night, spend a few moments breathing on your back. Notice your stomach rising and falling. How does your body feel? Try to memorize the sensations.

Unfortunately, the audience would be bored to tears if every singer performed on the floor. Next time you practice, spend some time on your back and then stand up and try to match the way you breathe lying down.

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Place Book on Abdomen

Placing a book on your abdomen will help you to observe low breathing. Photo © Katrina Schmidt

When you start observing yourself, it is quite possible your breathing will become more forced and unnatural. Or you might find the breath hard to observe in the first place. You might also have so much built up tension in your body that you find it hard to use your diaphragm even when lying down.

In these cases, lie on your back and set a book on your stomach. When you inhale, allow the book to go up. When you exhale, the book goes down. Whenever you breathe deeply, remember to breathe slowly so you do not take in too much air at one time. Allow the book to rise for at least four counts and lower for at least six counts.

The book on the abdomen exercise can be used as a transition into breathing with the diaphragm while standing up.

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Get on Your Hands and Knees

Let gravity help by getting on your hands and knees.
A great way to release stomach tension is to let gravity help by getting on your hands and knees. When you inhale your abdomen should go towards the ground. Photo © Katrina Schmidt

Gravity is a friend to those with tight, tense abdomens. Use this to your advantage; get on your hands and knees and breathe deeply. Allow the pull of gravity to help your stomach release towards the floor as you inhale. Remember to breathe slowly. Inhale for three counts and exhale for four counts.

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Inhale Covering One Nostril at a Time

When you cover one nostril, you restrict air intake and your body tends to take a low breath. Photo © Katrina Schmidt

Take your left pointer finger and cover your left nostril gently so no air comes in through that nostril. Breathe in deeply through your nose. Switch to the other nostril by taking your right pointer finger and covering your right nostril. Breathe in again. Constricting nostrils forces you to slow down your breathing.

For many people, one or both of your nostrils will be constricted or “stuffed up” enough that you naturally use your diaphragm. I have seen it work for countless students. For you, it may just make it easier to stand or sit down while breathing low, but you will still have to make a conscious effort to let your stomach out during inhalation.

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Pretend to Suck Through a Straw

When you pretend to suck through a straw it limits the amount of air you take in and slows down your breath causing you to breathe low. Photo © Katrina Schmidt

Purse your lips as if you have a straw between them. Breathe in slowly and deeply through your mouth. Exhale and repeat. Like the last exercise, pursing your lips forces you to slow the breath down. You will find yourself using your diaphragm naturally or at least find it easier to do so.

Pretending to suck through a straw should not be quiet. When you inhale, the breath should make a loud windy noise, and during exhalation, it should make a quieter sound. Normally when you breathe before singing, you aim for a quiet breath. Pursing your lips gets you familiar with your diaphragm and deep breathing, but is not an end result.

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Hold Two Heavy Objects, One in Each Hand

Holding two heavy objects in either hand keeps your chest low when you breathe. Photo © Katrina Schmidt

This is my favorite exercise and one that I spent as much time as I could on. It does require upper body strength, so as with any physically demanding exercise be careful not to push yourself too hard.

Stand straight in good singing posture. Take one chair or heavy object (a filled suitcase for instance) in your left arm and another in your right arm. Lift the chairs, and breathe while lifting. You will find it impossible to lift your shoulders, forcing your breath downward.

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Breathe Deeply at Crosswalks and Stop Signs

Find time to practice breathing throughout the day, such as when you wait at a crosswalk or at a stop sign. Photo © Katrina Schmidt

Your goal is to make breathing deeply completely natural. To do so, practice throughout the day. I suggest using a basic breathing exercise whenever you are at a stop sign or waiting for a crosswalk signal.

While you are waiting, take a deep breath in for five counts and exhale for eight counts. Focus on your stomach going out on the inhale and in on the exhale. Stay relaxed and repeat as many times as you can before it is time for you to walk or drive.

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Lift Arms

Holding your hands up in a "T" will make it harder for you to lift your chest during breathing, forcing the breathe down. Photo © Katrina Schmidt

When you are physically unable or do not have the necessary materials to hold an object in each hand, then use your arms. Stand straight in good singing posture with your hands to your sides. Lift your arms straight up until they are vertical with your shoulders forming a “T”.

Breathe in for four counts, and breathe out for six counts. Now try to inhale quickly as you previously practiced doing the surprise breath exercise. With your arms up, it is much harder to physically raise your chest during inhalation. Be sure your stomach goes out during inhalation.

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Breathe with Surprise

Pretending to be surprised or shocked causes you to take a quick low breath. Photo © Katrina Schmidt

Pretend to be shocked by something as you open your mouth and inhale quickly. It may help you to make a gasping sound. Hold the breath for a moment and then exhale. Breathe normally and then try again.

Do you notice your stomach going out when you inhale? If so, you are using your diaphragm. If not, you will need to consciously allow your stomach to move outwards during inhalation. The surprise breath is the closest you will get to how you want to breathe before you sing. The only difference between the gasping breath and the singing breath is you lift the roof of your mouth so there is no noise when you inhale.