The Diaphragm and the Intercostal Muscles (How to breathe while

The Diaphragm and the Intercostal Muscles (How
to breathe while singing)
The human voice is the hardest instrument to master, contrary to what a lot of people
think. There are two reasons for this: Firstly, your voice is invisible. You can’t see it,
so in order to be a good singer you must have a good imagination to make those physical
things inside your body work. Unlike learning piano or guitar, where you can watch your
hands on the instrument, your voice is internal. You can’t reach your hand down your
throat and make your diaphragm go flat, so you need to “trick” your body into doing
what you physically want it to do by imagining certain things. Secondly, your body is
your instrument, so if you don’t eat correctly, are sick, or out of shape it will all show up
in your voice. Ed used to say to me, “…if you want to be a good singer you must be an
athlete…” This is very true.
There are two parts of the body involved in the act of singing. The first is your head,
which acts as the “amplifier” of the voice. The second is the mid-section, which contains
the intercostals muscles and the diaphragm. Together the intercostals and the diaphragm
form the “foundation” of good singing. You can have the most beautiful house in the
world but if it has a badly laid foundation the house will eventually fall down, no matter
how nice the house looks. The same holds true with voices. There’s a million different
ways to make sound but unfortunately only one way to sing without damaging the voice.
There are many singers who have great sounding “natural” voices, who have sold
millions of albums, and yet they’re shredded their voices. I’m talking here about singers
such as Elton John, Rod Stewart, Stevie Nicks, Tom Jones, Roger Daltry. The list goes
on, and it’s quite common for many pop/rock/country singers to develop hoarseness or
lose their voices entirely with nodes or polyps. Not singers who sing using Bel Canto
however. A perfect example of someone using this technique is Tony Bennett, now in
his late 70’s, who still sings many dates per year. This is an Italian technique, and for
that reason a lot of the old Hollywood cats like Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Tony
Bennett, Andy Williams, all sang like this. Almost all of the world’s greatest singers
over the ages have used the Bel Canto technique.
When you hear someone else’s voice it comes to you as a “sound wave”. Breath comes
up from our lungs, across our vocal chords, vibrates off the hard palate in the front of our
mouth, and then carries as a “wave” towards our listener. We hear our own voices as a
“sound vibration” however. This is our breath or voice vibrating inside our head. When
we record our voice, whether it be on a cheap tape machine or in the recording studio, our
voices never sound like we think they sound. This is why. Some singers hate the sound
of their own voice. I’ve grown to like mine over the years, but there’s still times I’m in
the recording studio when I listen to the playback it doesn’t sound like me.
A popular misconception among voice teachers is to get their students to open their
mouths when they sing. I suppose this is to get more sound out, but in actuality it hurts
the voice and has little to do with projection. In fact, Lamperti, one of the greatest
teachers of Bel Canto said, “…the less you open your mouth, the less you disturb your
line of sound…” It is a huge mistake to open your mouth widely when you sing.
Remember that sound does not travel by “throwing” breath out of your mouth. It travels
by sound waves. If your voice traveled on breath, that would mean if you were yelling at
someone at the end of the block, breath would fly out of your mouth, down to the end of
the street, and land in that person’s ear. Ridiculous!
Normally when we breathe we only use 1/8 of our lung capacity. This is called clavicular,
chest, or shallow breathing. This is useless when we sing because what happens with
most singers is that they run out of breath and subsequently go flat. The proper way to
breathe when we sing is by using our diaphragm. I commonly hear voice teachers say to
their students, “…sing from your diaphragm!...” when what they really should be saying
is “…breathe with your diaphragm…” Your voice doesn’t come from your midsection!
It’s created between your vocal chords and amplified off the hard palate.
The diaphragm is a dome shaped muscle located beneath the lungs connected on either
side to the lungs. It resembles a loaf of rye bread. Normally the diaphragm is in a
“raised” position. When the diaphragm is lowered, (and you have to be taught how to do
this) because it is connected to the lungs, it pulls the lungs downward, much like opening
up an accordion or bellows. When you open an accordion it fills with air. The reason
for this is obvious-you’ve created a “vacuum” and air outside the accordion is sucked into
the accordion by the low pressure area. The same holds true with the lungs and
diaphragm. When the diaphragm is lowered, it pulls the lungs into a downward position.
Air at normal pressure outside the head is sucked to the bottom of the lungs by the low
pressure area. Now you have eight times the amount of breath in your lungs that you
would have normally. A popular misconception among voice teachers is to get the
student to push their stomach “out” or “downwards.” This is incorrect! The confusion
lies in the fact that when you push your stomach “out” or “down” it looks the same as
using your diaphragm properly, but all you are really doing is pushing the walls of your
abdomen outwards. You’re not flattening your diaphragm at all! If you use your
diaphragm properly, your midsection will be like a big elastic band. If you push it in
with your index finger, it should bounce right back out. If you do it improperly, or in
other words, simply push out your stomach, it will be rigid and hard as a rock.
Learning how to use your diaphragm properly is actually quite simple. Stand in a
relaxed position with your hand flat on your stomach, your little pinky on your navel and
your thumb at the bottom of your rib cage. Now pant. Panting is the body’s way of
quickly replenishing air into the lungs after exerting energy ie. a hard run. You’ll notice
when you pant that your stomach goes in and out. This is your diaphragm going up and
down. The reason it looks the same as pushing out your stomach is because the
diaphragm is going into a lowered position, pulling the lungs somewhat downwards, and
pushing the internal organs in the mid-section towards the abdominal walls. Now slow
down your pant until it’s on the “out”.
When you go to pant you will notice the
stomach always starts on the “out”. Try to pant and stop on the “half-pant” or the “out.”
This is using your diaphragm. Do this in front of a mirror and make sure your shoulders
do not lift. If they do, just grab the sides of your legs. Remember if you properly use
your diaphragm all the action should take place from the bottom of the rib cage down.
You shouldn’t be pushing out your stomach-it will go out on it’s own. **Note: Unlike
the breathing exercise below, your lips should be open when you take your breath. In the
breathing exercise you are trying to control the amount of breath that you are taking into
your lungs. When you are actually singing a song you only have a split second to take a
breath between phrases, so you want to fill your lungs as fast as possible.
There are three registers of the voice-the high, middle, and low range. It’s always the
high notes that kill singers because: the higher the note you are trying to create, the
faster the vocal chords have to vibrate to create that note. If a tenor is singing a high
“C” for instance, the vocal chords or folds might be vibrating at over 1,000 vibrations per
second. It takes a lot more breath under a lot more “pressure” to sing your highest
notes. Low notes, on the other hand, vibrate much more slowly and require much less
The pressure behind this breath is created by your intercostals muscles, which are located
between the ribs, around the lungs. When the lungs expand and fill with air using your
diaphragm, the intercostal muscles stretch outwards, exerting pressure on the lungs.
(Imagine a balloon inflating with a rubber band around it) These muscles have a “muscle
memory”, much like an elastic band. When you stretch a rubber band and then let it go it
snaps back. The intercostals muscles react the same way. When the lungs expand and
the muscles are stretched outward, they exert pressure on the lungs, as they want to return
to their original position.
Your voice is like those old bicycle horns you used to have on the handlebar on your bike
when you were a kid. The bell on the end of the horn is comparable to your head; that’s
where the sound projects. The reed on the horn is comparable to your vocal chords;
that’s where the sound is created. The ball on the end of the horn is comparable to your
lungs filled with air. The horn won’t honk until you squeeze the ball however, as that
puts the air across the reeds and makes the horn honk. In the case of your voice, the
intercostals muscles squeeze the lungs to put breath across the vocal chords, resulting in
you talking or singing.
You can’t exercise your diaphragm. It’s an organ much like your heart or your lungs in
that respect. You can pump weights at the gym but your heart and lungs are not going to
become more muscular. The same holds true for the diaphragm. I have to laugh when
students come to me and tell me their former voice teacher has told them to lay on the
floor with a pile on books on their stomach to exercise their diaphragm.. Rubbish!
Besides, who sings on their back? Through use the diaphragm becomes more pliable
however. Use it or lose it! It’s much like putty when you first take it out of the package.
At first the putty is hard, but after working it with your hands for awhile it becomes more
malleable. Your diaphragm is like that putty.
Your intercostals muscles on the other hand, have to be exercised every day. Below is
an exercise to not only strengthen your intercostals muscles, but to strengthen your
abdominal muscles and make your diaphragm more resilient or pliable. You need to do
twenty of these exercises a day; five at a time, then take a couple of minutes break. You
can do more if you like. When I started I used to do eighty a day. It’s always a good idea
to do them first thing in the morning as they wake you up and immediately get your
lungs filled with air. Not only is this an extremely healthy thing to do, it gives you a nice
positive outlook on the day. Lastly, you get the exercises out of the way. Remember that
the intercostals muscles are “the Power of the Voice”, so if you want to have a strong
voice, then do these exercises faithfully. Like any other exercise you need to do them on
a consistent daily basis. I still do them every morning at the gym, after more than thirty
four years.
The Intercostal Muscle Exercise
Stand erect, relaxed
Put your index finger half-way between your navel and your rib cage, in the middle of
your solar plexis. Note**your finger is only there to help you stay mentally focused on
that point. I’ll explain more later.
Purse your lips, as if sucking through a straw. You want to do this to control the amount
of breath you are taking into your lungs. Do the exercise fairly slowly; if you rush
through it you are defeating your purpose. By pursing your lips you will only be able to
take in so much breath at a time.
With your finger in the middle of your solar plexis, imagine the air that you are sucking
in through your pursed lips entering “beneath” your lungs and filling up an imaginary
“inner tube” around your waist, almost as if your finger is the stem of the inner tube and
the air is going to the bottom of your stomach or the top of your groin. Here’s where
your ability to visualize comes into play as a singer. Obviously your breath is not going
to the bottom of your stomach, but you want to imagine that it is. I try to visualize the
breath filling up the inner tube as if it’smoke, and like it has weight to it-that it’s sinking
right to the bottom of my stomach. Once again we all know that air isn’t heavy, we’re
trying to “trick” our bodies into doing what we want it to do. Your stomach should start
to come out on it’s own. You do not want to push it out. I also use the sound of the
breath going through my pursed lips to gauge how fast I’m taking the breath in. It will
feel as if you’re filling up your midsection with air from the bottom up. When it feels like
it’s filled up to the bottom of your rib cage, stop and hold your breath.
Now you want to exhale your breath in 3 expulsions. Keeping your finger in the middle
of your solar plexis and your lips pursed you want to blow out. The first two expulsions
of breath will be short. Make them three seconds long but no shorter. The last expulsion
of breath will be until all the air is emptied from the lungs. When you expel your breath,
you want to imagine that the muscle directly under your finger is being pulled right to
your back bone. Essentially what you’re trying to do is to empty your lungs of every last
bit of breath so eventually when you are singing the “muscle memory” you are
developing will kick in and your muscles will contract as you empty your lungs of air.
Your finger is only to help you stay mentally focused on that spot. You can’t “push” a
muscle to strength. However, you will find that by the time you get to that last expulsion
of breath you’re going to be dying for a breath. Don’t be a wimp! Do this exercise like
you mean it. Eventually, after doing this exercise over time, whenever you sing the
muscle will automatically contract (muscle memory). You don’t want to try and
contract these muscles when you sing-they will do it on their own if you have been
exercising them.