Jump to content

How is the Diaphragm Used?

   (0 reviews)

chuy67 wrote:

[When I think about singing from the diaphragm,] I picture support as a balloon. It is filled with air and then you can push it with your hands and air comes out. The only problem is, I can picture it, but I cannot do it. Do people really push it [the diaphragm] like a balloon?

Also another problem I have is pressure in my throat and upper chest when trying to breathe in heavily. It can also be painful at times. Could someone please give me an explanation of this? It is driving me nuts!

Steven Fraser wrote:

I'll be happy to answer your questions.  There are also some resources on the main site -- articles about the location and action of the diaphragm -- that are pretty good.

The image of support as a balloon only goes so far. Let me give you a more accurate, and hopefully, useful one by describing what is actually going on in your body as you breathe normally and then when you sing.

Very generally, inhalation happens any time you make your chest cavity bigger, expanding it. There are a number of motions that can do this, more or less effectively.  Some work very well for athletic endeavors, and some work well for singing. Setting aside any notion of voice for a moment, here are the motions that cause air to go in the lungs, beginning with the one that almost always happens:

  1. The diaphragm, which forms the bottom of the chest cavity,  flexes, and flattens downward and a little forward from its relaxed, arched position. This makes the chest cavity bigger, creating a lower pressure in the lungs, and outside air gets pushed in (by the higher outside air pressure) through your mouth and/or nose. As the diaphragm descends during this motion, it presses downward and forward on your abdominal organs, pushing them downward somewhat. This is the motion you see when the diaphragm lowers: the belly expanding.  Sometime, watch a sleeping baby breathe. The motion you can see is the abdomen moving as a result of the diaphragm flexing, and then relaxing.
  2. You expand your ribs side-to-side, and lift them. This expands the chest cavity circumference.It's very likely that the diaphragm is also flexing, too, but it is less obvious.
  3. You raise your sternum (breastbone).  This expands the chest cavity height. It's very likely that the ribs expanded, and the diaphragm flexed at the same time.

Exhaling happens when the effort used for any one of these motions is relaxed.The reason is that the motions store energy in the body.  This happens by:

  1. Expanding the belly: abdominal muscles are stretched, as are the elastic lung tissues.When the inhalation stops, the tissues which were stretched want to spring back to where they were. In a sleeping child, it's these forces that power the exhalation.When conscious, a person can add even more power to this exhalation by contracting the abdominal muscles, resulting in an inward motion.
  2. Letting the ribs come back in, somewhat helped by gravity, air is forced out.
  3. Letting the sternum down.  This one is also helped a lot by gravity. Again, forces air out.

Ok, that is how basic body-breathing happens in normal life. Most of the time, we use breath motion #1, and for a sigh, maybe add #2. If we are running for our lives, we do everything we can to move the air rapidly to stay alive. We may do all three under those circumstances.

I explained all this for a reason: breathing for singing is not about moving air rapidly for life; it's about supplying just the right amount of air for the vocal sounds you want to make.  In singing, we train the enormously powerful #1 action of breathing to be more subtle, and we lessen, or eliminate, the motions of #2 and #3 so that they do not overpower the teeny, weenie laryngeal muscles.

In singing, the way that #2 and #3 are lessened is to make them part of the posture.If you don't move them much as you breathe in and out, they don't add unwanted or uncontrolled breath energy. It's very hard to do either thing subtly. Keeping the sternum in one place prevents gravity from powering air out of the body.  It does not necessarily have to be high: just not moving when you breathe in and out. For your information, classical singers very often adopt a high sternum chest position and leave it there all the time. It looks a bit better on stage.

When #2 and #3 motions are stilled, breathing happens entirely by #1, the diaphragmatic action in coordination with the abdominal muscles. This is very often called belly breathing, low breathing, breathing from the diaphragm, etc. All those terms mean that only motions of the diaphragm and the abdominal muscles are involved in moving the air.This takes us back to the kind of breathing your body does when you are asleep.  The same thing as a baby does.  You have breathed this way your whole life.

Now, what is support  It is two things:

Maintaining some of the flex of the diaphragm during the exhale. In a normal, easy breath, the diaphragm relaxes at the end of the inhale, and the stored energy in the abdominals presses the air out by pushing the diaphragm up. Check out that sentence again.  The diaphragm is just along for the ride on the exhale. It is not powering the exhale. It moves up because the abdominals are making the abdomen smaller, and the guts are pushing up the diaphragm. Also, because the stretchy lungs are collapsing a little; this helps to pull the diaphragm up.

Keeping the diaphragm active slows down the exhale, and reduces its force. You likely can do this almost without thinking about it deliberately. If you take in an easy, #1-style breath, and then just exhale as slowly as you can, your desire to exhale slowly will cause the diaphragm to stay active. You can even stop the exhale momentarily, just by wanting to. You have even more control than that. You can take in a 3/4 breath, and then limit your inhale/exhale motion to be from 3/4 to 1/4 full. The diaphragm responds very readily to your will in this matter.  This kind of outward breath is slow, warm and moist. Secondly, support is:

Providing extra exhalation energy after the abdominals have released their stretch-energy. Without doing this, you cannot sing on the last half of tidal lung capacity. As an exhalation proceeds, the stored energy lessens, and the exhale force decreases. To keep the breath energy going continuously, the abdominals must also contract.

In summary, support is the term we use to describe the bodily actions which provide long, consistent, appropriately-powered breath energy to the voice.

Here is a very important, useful clue. One of the most common problems for singers is too-much breath energy. Remember, the body is capable of moving lots of air, very rapidly. The abdominal muscles are huge compared to the laryngeal muscles. The sensation of breath balance you get when you do the slow exhale is the right sensation for starting a sung note. If you do that, the desire to make the vocal sound upsets the balance just in favor of exhaling, and the voice gets the air it needs to make the sound you are wanting.  If you think a loud sound, a bit more air is supplied.

A way to practice this is to take a 1/2 breath inhale, and breathe outward slowly, with your jaw dropped about 1" (check between your front teeth in a mirror) and just start some short notes in the middle of your range. See if you can keep the sense that you are still breathing out slowly, even when you are making the sound. I think you'll experience something cool: that you can make a very clear, easy, relaxed sound with little or no throat tension or pain. The more you practice it, the better you will get at it.

This essay was first published April 22, 2010 on The Modern Vocalist Forum of The Modern Vocalist.com the Internet's #1 community for vocal professionals, voice health practitioners and pro-audio companies worldwide since November 2008.


  Report Articles


User Feedback

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.


  • Create New...