Breathing is a vital component of singing.
But the way we breathe when singing is different than the way we breathe in everyday life, requiring us to use our respiratory muscles in new and different ways.
The goal when singing is to have breath control and good breath support.
Breath control means being able to inhale quickly and exhale slowly throughout the phrase while maintaining good posture. (source)
Breath support means using other muscles (e.g. abdomen, back) to support the work of the lungs and foster better tone production and the ability to sing longer phrases. (source)
But how do you develop these skills, especially when working with a volunteer choir?
Today, I'm sharing a few warm-up exercises and helpful teaching strategies for talking about breath and helping your choir members (of all ages!) develop breath control and good breath support.
First, a little anatomy. The diaphragm is a muscle in between your lungs (just under your rib cage) and your stomach that helps us take a deep, low breath for singing. (source)
When we breathe in, the diaphragm flattens out, pressing the stomach and intestines down and pushing the rib cage out to create space for more air.
When we breathe out, the diaphragm lifts, creating a dome shape, and pushes on the bottom of the lungs. The rib cage resumes normal position, aiding the lungs in releasing the rest of the air. (source)
Like any muscle, the diaphragm needs to be exercised. When developing good singing habits, the diaphragm may not flatten and lift the ideal amount right away - be patient. It will get stronger as you use and develop it, and you will gradually have more control over your breathing. (source)
1. Describe a Good Breath
You might consider starting your rehearsal with a few deep breaths. This will help everyone get settled and relaxed before singing (plus, they can't talk if they're doing this exercise!). Offer a few spoken directions, like this:
Exhale first to get a fresh, full breath.
Breathe in using the diaphragm, not your lungs. Be careful about your shoulders going up when you inhale. Try putting one hand on your shoulder and one hand on your abdomen.
Breathe deep and low - feel your abdomen and lower back expand. (With children, I've used the analogy "wearing a belt of noses," which they think is hilarious. For adults, think about having an inner tube around your waist.)
Exhale and feel your abdomen return to normal. Keep your chest lifted - in the same position when you breathe in and out. (source)
A quick word of advice - don’t spend too long doing breath exercises, as it may cause lightheadedness.
Breathe in for four beats and breathe out (hissing) for four beats. Repeat this pattern with slight variations:
in for 6, out for 10
in for 6, out for 12
in for 2, out for 12
in for 4, out for 16
in for 2, out for 16
in for 4, out for 20
in for 1, out for 20
Choose a few of these per week (rather than trying to do them all in succession in one rehearsal). Some directors recommend breathing in, holding for a few beats, then releasing on a hiss. Conduct this exercise and count out loud for the choir. You might also consider finding a piece of recorded music to accompany this exercise - something in 4/4 time that maintains a steady beat.
If working with children, use your imagination to make this exercise a little more fun. I've seen directors describe this as taking a big sip of a milkshake (sucking in through a straw), holding, then spitting it out!
The purpose of this exercise is to pay attention to your breathing and build up stamina for longer phrases. Encourage choir members to breathe in steadily throughout the number of beats and exhale with a consistent stream of air. Listen for a smooth, even sound. (source)
3. Double and Triple Scales
This vocal warm-up is a great way to connect breath to tone and vocal production.
Using numbers, sing a 5-note scale up and back (e.g. 1-2-3-4-5-4-3-2-1). This is a relatively short phrase (depending on your tempo, I suppose), so this should not be too challenging for your choir.
Next, try singing the same scale twice in one breath, same volume and tempo as before (e.g. 1-2-3-4-5-4-3-2-1-2-3-4-5-4-3-2-1). If your choir is up for the challenge, try singing the scale three times in one breath, same volume and tempo.
For a more advanced exercise, try this with a full octave scale. You could also use solfege, vowels, or nonsense words (children love that!) instead of numbers. (source)
4. Breath Support
Help your choir develop good breath support with these fun, energetic warm-ups:
1 12 3 34 5-3-1 (“ha he-ee ha he-ee ha ha ha”) This exercise combines staccato (ha) and legato (hee)
1234 54321 Sing this exercise on a lip trill (humming + buzzing lips).
These exercises are great to do at the end of your warm-ups, before moving on to anthems.
1111 2 3333 4 5-8-5-3-1 (“zing-a-zing-a-zah, zing-a-zing-a-zah, zee-oh-zee-o-zee”) This exercise helps develop stamina for singing through longer phrases.
1-3-5-3-1 or 5-3-5-3-1 (“ha” or "va") Bounce lightly on each note; feel breath engage.
*Note: This could also be a fun change-of-piece in the middle of your children's choir rehearsal. Ask for a few volunteers to share a joke with the choir, then sing this exercise as a response (musical laughter).
Lip Trills. Engage the breath when singing by singing once on a lip trill (humming and buzzing lips). It takes a certain amount of breath to sustain a lip trill, requiring renewed breath support and a steady stream of air throughout the phrase. Once you've done this, sing the phrase with text, but keep the same amount of energy and support. (source) Children love singing on lip trills!
Chant rhythm. Use a consonant sound such as "sh" or "ch" to chant the rhythm of a phrase. Have choir members place one hand on their abdomen to feel the diaphragm engage. Next, sing the phrase with that same engagement. (source) For children's choir, try chanting the rhythm of a familiar song (like "Row, Row, Row Your Boat") using only consonant sounds. Change consonant sounds for each phrase.
Preparing to sing. Practice inhaling silently (no gasping) in 1, 2, 3, and 4 beats. Remind singers not to wait to breathe until the last half of a beat before their entrance! Practice leading into their entrance and having them breathe in steadily over the course of several beats.
Keep energy on long notes. Often, singers lose breath energy on long notes and at ends of phrases. Help choir members pace themselves by having them sing the subdivided beats of a longer note value on a neutral syllable. For instance, when singing a whole note, sing "doo" on every eighth note beat. Re-articulating the subdivided beats will help renew breath support and energy and keep breath steady throughout the duration of the note. (source)
Steady breath. Singing with a steady stream of air is especially important for smooth, legato phrases. Practice this by having choir members pretend they are frosting a cake in front of them (or painting a flat surface with glossy paint) - make it as smooth as possible! (source)
Keep pitch. Did you know? Pitch problems in choirs often come back to proper breath support. If your choir is losing pitch while singing a descending line, try having them point up throughout the phrase or hold one hand out in front of them and pretend there is a helium balloon underneath, lifting the hand higher with each note. (source)
Looking for more?
Download this free eBook with 50 fully-notated choral warm-ups for church choirs.