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Power Breathing I
Mark Baxter- source Singer Magazine

Singer MagazineWe live in a world of the power lunch, the power walk and the power nap. Hey, as long as we’re making ourselves feel powerful by renaming natural activities, allow me to introduce my superturbo, patent-pending breathing technique for singers - power breathing.

To be honest, there's nothing new about power breathing. Every baby on the planet has the technique down. Power breathing is what allows infants to scream for hours on end. Obviously, newborns don’t have a lot of muscle strength. So where does all that energy come from? They instinctively harness two universal properties: air pressure and recoil.

The Air That We Breathe
The air around us is pressurized and self-stabilizing. When the pressure decreases anywhere, surrounding air will move in to fill the void. This is the motor which drives the weather, and why the weatherman is always talking about areas of high and low pressure. On a smaller scale, when you open a new jar of pickles, you’ll hear a suction sound as the seal is broken. Pickles are vacuum packed, which means the air pressure inside the jar is much lower than outside. Unscrew the lid and air is drawn in. The same thing happens when we inhale. When your lungs are expanded, the air pressure inside drops. Outside air then rushes in to equalize the imbalance. What’s important to remember is that air doesn’t make your lungs expand -- muscles do.

The diaphragm is a dome shaped muscle which sits directly under your lungs. When it descends, the area inside your lungs increases. There are also muscles between your ribs, which spread the cage, and muscles in the neck and shoulders, which can lift your chest. Any of these muscles can enlarge your lung space to create an inhale. Of all these options, the diaphragm is best positioned. We are often too tight in the stomach area, though, and don’t give it room to drop. Infants are not tight down there and take full advantage of the diaphragm’s ability to pull in air. Notice how their bellies swell like little Buddhas just before letting go of a wail. It’s a simple principal: the more air you take in, the more pressure you’ll have to cry.

Once expanded, your lungs are like two balloons. The air pressure inside an inflated balloon is greater than outside the balloon. Everybody knows that the pressure will come out -- with force -- by simply releasing the balloon, but we fail to apply this universal law to singing. At the beginning of each phrase, we use abdominal muscles to drive the air out of our lungs. Not only is this as unnecessary as squeezing a balloon to empty it, but it causes all kinds of trouble. Singing requires a specific amount of pressure; too much force triggers your throat to hold back air like fingers clamping down on the neck of a balloon. Control is lost.

Let It All Hang Out
The other under-appreciated source of power, recoil, also relies on the diaphragm. Most people incorrectly associate the words “breathe support” with push. They tap their tummy and say, “Sing from here. Right?” Well, that’s half right. To better understand how the whole thing ties together, let’s get creative with anatomy. It’s been said that the body is a temple but I think it more resembles a tenement. Imagine your body as a building that has one studio apartment on each level. Let’s call the first floor the “legs” of your structure. The second floor represents your abdominal cavity and the third level is the thoracic cavity (if you want to get fancy, you can call your head the penthouse). It doesn’t take very long when you live in a building like this to appreciate that one person’s floor is another person’s ceiling. This rule is the same in your body. The diaphragm is both the floor to the lungs(thoracic cavity) and the ceiling to the abdomen. Move this divider up and down, and it enlarges one cavity while compressing the other.

When your diaphragm descends, it pushes on everything inside your abdominal cavity. Since this “room” is jam packed with furnishings like a stomach, liver and intestines, everything gets shoved towards the walls. This is why your tummy sticks out when you inhale correctly. It’s not filling with air down there, it’s just a response to the ceiling coming down. Compressing your abdominal cavity doesn’t take much effort, as long as its walls are relaxed. Sucking in your tummy when you inhale locks everything in place, so the diaphragm can’t come down. The result is a shallow breath that doesn’t pack much punch. We learn from infants crying that creating a big inhale is important. Even more important, though, is not pushing once you’re fully loaded. You’ve already worked for the energy; all you have to do is release.

The automatic reaction to compression is recoil. If you push down on a spring and then quickly release it will jump back to its original form. The more force you use to compress, the more force you get back on recoil. Push down on the spring again but this time slowly raise your hand. The spring returns at the hand’s speed. This is a controlled release. Notice that, to control the motion, your hand only needs to push downward; there’s no need to pull up on a spring. The same is true for your diaphragm. Once the abdominal cavity is compressed, it wants to spring back. As if it was holding back the recoil of a spring, your diaphragm should continue to apply and downward pressure to regulate the air pressure passing through your larynx. In other words, it “supports “ your voice by making sure that the vocal folds aren’t overwhelmed.

Maximum Vocal Power
Combine the spring-back action of your abdominal cavity with the momentum of high pressure from fully inflated lungs and you’ll have vocal power to spare. Notice that both of these power sources are passive, the work was done during the inhale. If you need more thrust, your abs are always there to add. I know it feels as if you need to push with your abs in order to make your voice powerful. Just remember that this desire is a reaction to half-inflated lungs. Stretching your body will help; start your warm-up routine with some reaches and side-stretches. Reserve abdominal push as a last resort, not a first line of strength. It takes a while to re-train the body to release the abs on every inhale, but the pay-off will be a voice that’s truly bouncing off the walls -- just like when you were a baby.

Mark Baxter is a vocal therapist who offers private and video lessons. To contact him, call: (800)659-6002.
Visit his website at:

(reprinted with the kind permission of Singer Magazine)

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