Five Easy Ways to Polish your Singing: #3 Breathing


in Music Technique, Performance

Good, supported breathing is critical for polished singing. Proper breathing is crucial for maintaining good tone and pitch in singing, and is vital in following marked dynamics and phrasing.

There are two main aspects in regards to breathing in as far as singing is concerned. These aspects are, first, where to breathe within your body, to produce the best support for singing, and, second, how to read and interpret musical phrasing, assigning breathing points to natural, non-distracting sections of the music.

Breath Location

When we breathe in regular, day-to-day events, we tend to take shallow, chest and shoulder breaths.

Look at yourself in the mirror. Breathe as you normally would. If your shoulders and chest move in an upward direction, you are not breathing correctly for singing. Push from your abdomen, engaging your diaphragm, and expanding your lungs out horizontally. You should feel muscles engaged in your stomach, back and chest, and feel air flow into the bottom of your lungs, not just the top.

Instead of your shoulders rising and falling, you should see your stomach increasing and decreasing in width. By breathing this way, you allow much more air into your lungs, thereby able to sustain notes longer. Also, by controlling your breath with your diaphragm rather than the lungs themselves, you maintain stronger control over your lungs, and are thus able to support the notes better. This support provides higher quality tone and more exact pitch when singing.


Once you have learned how to properly breathe, and are now able to sustain notes for longer periods of time, while still maintaining good quality sound, it is important to determine when to breathe, while singing, so as to not distract from the music, or, in many cases, to support the lyrics of the piece.

Three main things to consider in phrasing are what the composer has actually written into the music, what can be interpreted from the songs lyrics, and what areas of the song need the most breath support.


Oftentimes composers will mark breathing spots into their scores – it is shown with an apostrophe ( ‘ ) above the musical bar. Similarly, they will distinguish held notes by horizontal parentheses attached from the beginning of the note to the end of the sustained note. Breathing should not occur within these holds, despite a change of note.

If it is impossible to maintain the note and you are singing within a choir, you can manipulate a technique called ‘stagger breathing’ to sustain the note as it is marked, without dying of lack of oxygen. Stagger breathing is simply what its name implies – stagger your breathing with your surrounding choir members, so no single breath is heard. Just remember that this is not a viable option for phrasing if you are singing a solo or in a small group – only large choir numbers.


I have a friend whose pet peeve is how people recite the pledge of allegiance. “ONE NATION UNDER GOD!” – she’ll often spew – “THERE’S NO COMMA!” And, in all fairness to her, there IS no comma. But I still habitually pause between nation and under. This is what we have to avoid in singing.

In creating phrasing for a musical number, we must still follow normal speech patterns – thus, pause (or breathe) for commas and periods, and hold when no comma or period is extended.

Follow grammar and natural flow of language to help pinpoint key breathing spots. It sometimes helps to speak the lyrics, to get an idea of when normal breaks would occur. The point is to make the songs lyrics natural and understandable.

Song Requisites

There are times when more breath is required to produce the pitch required by the music. These instances include extremely high or low pitches, extremely loud or soft dynamics, and long holds on certain notes or pitches. Before these areas of the song begin, a singer must prepare with added breath support. Thus, breathing must be added into the song directly before these areas (either as a whole-choir breath or a staggered breath) to maintain these notes and dynamics with tonal quality and pitch precision.

Thus, to polish you singing from a breathing standpoint, ensure that you are breathing from the correct area of your body (manipulating your diaphragm), and provide yourself with the best control over your singing and the most space within your lungs. Also, pay attention to the phrasing marked in by the composer, as well as created by the lyrics of the song itself.

Finally, prepare yourself for harder pitch, dynamic, and phrasing sections by breathing prior to their occurrence, either in a whole-choir or staggered fashion.

Author Bio

Heidi is a freelance writer for Living Dailies.

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