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.
THE INTERCOSTAL MUSCLES
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 breath.
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.
Lifting The Throat/Diction
Everything in the voice stems from having the throat,chin, and face relaxed. Whenever you see a singer with their veins bulging out of their neck or their face turning purple, you can almost guarantee that they are headed for serious vocal problems.
The vocal chords or “folds” are located in the Adam’s Apple or thyroid cartilage, which is more predominant in males than in females. The Adam’s apple is the hard shell that protects the vocal chords from injury-like a shot in the neck. The vocal chords are the most delicate stringed instrument in the world-more delicate than a violin string. You have two of them. They are attached at one end and open at the other, much like a tuning fork, and face with the open end forward, and are situated inside the Adam’s Apple. The way they work is this: Breath comes up from the lungs and when it passes between the vocal chords they vibrate together to create “sound”, which is really only vibrating breath.
When singers tense the muscles of their face, neck, or chin during singing (usually the result of “pushing” the voice) that tension is transferred directly to the vocal chords and they become too taunt or too tense. They strike each other far more forcibly than they were meant to and swell up along the inner edges. The swelling acts like a weight, and slows down the frequency of vibrations. If your vocal chords have to vibrate at 1,000 times per second to hit a high “C” (I’m taking a guess here as to frequency of vibration) and suddenly because of that “weight” on the vocal chords can only vibrate 800 times per second, you have a problem, but being human, what we usually do is to push even harder to force the note to happen. The vocal chords strike each other even more forcibly and we end up with hoarseness. This is the first sign of vocal abuse. If you go down town at the end of any weekend night and talk to the singer in the band, nine times out of ten they’ll be hoarse. Not only singers get hoarseness however. Teachers talking all day, foremen screaming down the line, mothers yelling at their kids, or anyone that abuses their voice can have this happen. It’s caused by vocal abuse!
Now, say that singer doesn’t allow the vocal chords a chance to heal. Eventually the body sets up a defense mechanism to protect the vocal chords because the body is always trying to protect itself from anything bad happening to it. If you decide to use a screwdriver all day long and have never used one before you get blisters on your hands. If, however you decide to take up a trade which requires you to use that screwdriver everyday your hands develop calluses. It’s your body’s way of protecting your hands. In the case of your vocal chords, initially you get swollen vocal chords and then you develop these things called “nodes” or “polyps” Nodes are like little pimples on the inside of the vocal chords. Once you get the node it prevents your vocal chords from vibrating correctly and you lose the bottom and top part of your range and are left with three or four notes around middle C.
Even if you go to a surgeon and they remove your nodes, they will keep coming back because you haven’t gotten rid of why they are there in the first place-vocal abuse. Years ago doctors used scalpels to remove the node whereas nowadays they do it with laser surgery, but it is still not recommended to do so. Even the simplest of operations can go astray. Julie Andrews, one of the most celebrated singers in the world, had her nodes removed at Mount Sinai Hospital and never sang again. Rod Stewart, who has had operations on his throat numerous times, developed a tumor from constantly developing nodes.
When man was first put on this earth he crawled, but over time we’ve evolved to the point where now we walk upright, so we can never totally relax the muscles in our neck. However, we can alleviate much of this tension by incorporating the act of yawning into the act of singing, because when you yawn your throat is in it’s most relaxed state. If you look at what happens when you yawn, the uvula (the little punching bag hanging down at the back of your throat) moves upwards towards the nasal passage and the pillars of the throat (those two vertical muscles at the back) move outwards. You feel like you have a lot more room at the back of your throat-because you do! Outwardly on your face the cheeks move up towards the eyes and the mouth becomes wide. By incorporating the act of yawning into the act of singing we’ve taken the tension from around the vocal chords or larynx and put that tension at the back of the throat, away from the vocal chords. If you ever watch anyone who really knows how to sing like Barbara Streisand or Tony Bennett, they usually have a pleasant expression on their face. This is because when you smile and elevate your cheeks it helps to lift the back of your throat somewhat (although there is more to it than this). This is called singing in “dummy face”, which means that just like a ventriloquist’s dummy, nothing from the upper lip upwards should move.
A popular misconception taught by a lot of voice teachers is to get students to open their mouths.
“Open your mouth! Belt it out!” they’ll command.
This is incorrect and once again not based on science or the anatomy of the body. Remember that sound does not travel on breath-it travels on sound waves. By opening your mouth and dropping your jaw you cause tension around the vocal chords. If you don’t believe me, try this: Put the palm of your hand flat on the front of your neck over the Adam’s apple and drop your jaw. How do the muscles in your neck feel? Tense? Damn right! Not only that, but if you drop your jaw and open your mouth you will be unable to lift your throat with that act of yawning or “dummy face” as I described above.
Another commonly taught technique nowadays is mouthing the lyrics to get diction, ie making a round shape with your mouth to pronounce the vowel “O”. Once again, this is incorrect and has no basis in science. If you go to any voice specialist they will tell you that your vowels are formed by the position of the tongue. It has nothing to do with the shape of the mouth. For instance, your tongue troughs upwards on the outer edges on the vowel “O” and arches up ¾ of the way back on an “A” vowel. Your consonants are formed with the tongue and the teeth, with the exception of “p”, “m”, “f”, “w”, “b” and “v”, all which require for the bottom lip to slightly touch the upper teeth. The reason it feels like you have to move your mouth when you sing is because when the tongue changes shapes to form the vowel it requires muscles in the tongue to go into that shape. The muscles of the tongue are connected to other muscles in the head and it feels like you have to move your mouth, but in reality diction has nothing to do with moving the mouth.
If you needed to move your mouth all over the place for diction, how would a ventriloquist speak? No one talks like that. When you see a newscaster on TV do they look like their mouth is contorting into all sorts of different shapes for good diction?
Bad diction is usually the result of two things. Firstly, the singer does not stay on the vowel when they’re singing. Only vowels resonate, consonants are gone in a thousandth of a second. You can’t make a consonant loud or long. It’s a percussive sound that is just “there”. In classical music it’s a big no-no to go to the consonant as it kills the resonance. You always hold notes on vowels, because only vowels can “resonate.”
The most common reason for bad diction however is dropping the final consonant on the word. If you take the word “dog” for instance, and drop the final consonant, it becomes “daw” not “dog”. Consonants surround the vowel to form the word. To pronounce the final consonant is a matter of thinking it. I know that sounds too simple, but if that wasn’t the case, you wouldn’t be able to talk. When you talk you don’t think of what position your tongue is in to create the sounds, you just think the words and your body produces the sound. This is because you’ve learned since you were a small child to talk. When you “will” yourself to talk many things are happening in your body to create that sound. The vocal chords are going into a certain position, as is the tongue, and air is coming from your lungs, across those vocal chords and then resonating off your hard palate. If I were to ask you to say the word “dog” ten times in a row, you wouldn’t suddenly be silent on the seventh time you said it! Once again, this is because you have willed yourself to say it, or willed yourself to talk. When you drop that final consonant on the word it’s because you weren’t thinking clearly about that final consonant. If you were thinking about that final consonant (which forms the word) your body has to produce it!