Breathing for Singing: Resistance and Suspension

Singers often think that they can control their diaphragm movement and achieve great breath control, thus managing resistance and suspending breath. What most people don’t know is that the diaphragm is passive during exhalation. Your diaphragm moves down as you inhale and as your lungs expand to fill with air, but the diaphragm isn’t active when you exhale.

You control exhalation by controlling all the muscles that affect the movement of the lungs — the muscles between the ribs (intercostals), the muscles on your sides (obliques) and your back, and your abs. Knowing how to control the movement of these muscles controls your exhalation and allows you to sing long phrases.

Because your body is used to opening for the inhalation and then a quick exhalation, you have to resist the normal movement of your body when you’re singing. This resistance is a good thing. Think of resistance as a slow movement of the body back in for exhalation, or a friendly resistance to keep the body from collapsing.

One way to explore exhalation and resistance is to suspend the breath. If the normal movement of your body is to take a breath and gradually exhale, or allow the body to move back to its resting position. It feels like your body is suspended in motion: You’re ready to exhale, but the muscles just aren’t moving yet.

This feeling of suspension is what is meant by resistance. Your body wants to close, but you aren’t allowing it to collapse just yet. Resistance doesn’t involve tension; it’s more like hesitation. Notice the feeling of your body staying open as you take the breath and then wait.

You can practice suspending for three or four counts and then gradually exhale. The goal isn’t to figure out how to suspend for long periods of time, but to understand the sensation of the body resisting the normal urge to close after an inhalation.

Try this sequence to develop your ability to suspend the muscles of exhalation:

  1. Breathe in for three counts.

  2. Suspend for three counts.

    As you suspend, pay attention to the sensations in your body. Your body wants to close, but you make the choice to suspend and stay open.

  3. Exhale for three counts.

  4. Gradually move the exhalation number higher.

    Breathe for three counts, suspend for three counts, and exhale for four counts. Notice how your body adjusts to the slower exhalation.

You can exhale in one count or in ten counts, and the body adjusts the movement of the muscles. For today, you should try the sequence with three counts for each step. Tomorrow you can move the exhalation up to four counts, and the next day move the exhalation to five counts.

Explore this exercise slowly to develop control over the muscles. Moving too quickly doesn’t allow you to explore the sensations of adjustment in your body as the exhalation gets longer.

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