Breathing for (folk) singers.


Singing. Needs breath. Inextricably linked, really. But a tricky subject.

There’re loads of views on what's best. Here's my tuppence worth by way of introduction before I summarise some recent newsgroup contributions.

I'll use a perhaps controversial start point. The purpose of singing a folk song is to tell a story. Which means your audience needs to be able to understand the words. Which means you need to be audible and to articulate clearly. And phrase things appropriately. All of which needs plenty breath. And practice.

I have lots of trouble learning words and I see no point in going to all the bother if people have trouble in making out what they are. Which means appropriate breathing. Having control over the air supply. Having plenty air both to create a loud enough sound and to keep going to the ends of coherent phrases. And this requires being relaxed, having decent lungs and decent posture. Oh, and knowing the song well enough - and understanding it well enough - to be able to present it expressively.

There are things we can all practice to make it all work on the night. Like taking some aerobic exercise, learning the song thoroughly, practicing singing long phrases, always assuming erect posture - especially around the larynx and the supporting column of air coming up from the chest - whilst remaining relaxed.

The edited postings which follow (mostly) expand on the above themes, but sometimes go off at a tangent or even contradict them in some way. They certainly contradict each other at times. Take what works for you.

General approach

Basically the breath supports the sound you make, but to get oomph it's a combination of all sorts of things. Yes, breathing exercises are good. Yes you should breath down, using the diaphragm to pull air down in to the lower part of your lungs to maximise lung capacity. The more confidence you have, the easier you'll find projection, so keep practising and keep on singing in front of people. Good posture's important - as is relaxation. One little trick for projecting is to look at the point you want your voice to travel to. Don't look at the floorboards just in front of your feet. Target a point on the back wall and sing to it (without pushing your voice so it goes harsh and loses pitch.) Your brain is a miraculous tool, it will calculate the amount of oomph needed and produce it. Picture the sound coming from the front of your face, somewhere close to your eyes.

There's an old music hall expression, 'tits and teeth to the gallery'.

The Artisan workshop

This section is straight out of the Artisan voice workshop - so anyone who wants to attend a workshop should note that they're doing a weekend in York in November 2004, so contact Jacey privately if you want details: artisan at artisan hyphen harmony dot com.

Breathing for singing is all a matter of practice. You have to train your lungs to breathe down (using the diaphragm and concentrating on expanding the lung area downwards and outwards - in other words, not expanding the lung cavity by raising the shoulders, because there's really not a lot of room for air up there and expansion will be limited.

Any woman who's done breathing for childbirth will know what I mean. The upper lungs are good for shallow quick breaths but the real capacity is downwards. Sometimes we don't use that area much unless we do aerobic exercise.

Aerobic exercise is good. Swimming is especially good for developing all the breathing muscles you need for singing.

Basically, you need to strengthen the diaphragm and the chest muscles so that you can control air in and air-flow out - especially the air-flow out because if you need to sing over the end of one line and into the next in order to make sense of the phrasing you might need to use every last drop of air in your lungs and you don't want the last note to wobble and fail.

F'rinstance... (keeping it seasonal)

In 'Silent Night' - many people sing 'Round yon virgin >breath< Mother and child' But it makes a lot more sense to sing over the two lines and sing 'Round yon virgin mother and child' because the subject of the sentence is 'virgin mother'.

First of all - when doing any breathing exercises take it easy until you get used to doing them. If you feel dizzy or uncomfortable - stop. If you have any breathing problems of any description - asthma or anything talk to your doctor before embarking on anything that upsets your status quo.

Feel free to do a few general warm ups and stretches before you start as you would before any exercise class.

There are many different exercises for developing breath control. Breathing in - holding your breath for a steady count of five - and breathing out again is one of the simplest. You can gradually increase this to ten. When holding your breath don't bottle it up by clenching your throat and clamping your lips together, keep your throat relaxed. Your lips slightly apart and hold that breath in with your diaphragm. Simply keep it in there because you are not going to let your lungs squeeze it out.

Another good one is to stand relaxed, arms by your sides and then as you slowly breathe in raise your arms keeping them straight but not rigid until at the full lung stage, your arms are up, vertical, with the backs of your hands touching or not quite touching. (It doesn't matte if they don't touch as long as you get to the stretchy stage of being on the borderline of where you can go - each person is built differently and this is not a competition.) Hold for a few seconds then slowly and evenly breathe out while lowering your arms. During this exercise there should be no tension in your shoulders or neck. Repeat five times, daily or twice a day.

You can do a similar exercise but instead of starting with your arms by your sides, start with your arms stretched in front of you at easy shoulder height with palms together. As you take a steady deep breath in, bring your arms outwards at the same height until you are standing with your arms spread wide (crucifix style) with longs full to capacity. Stretch your hands backwards (slightly) and hold it for a few moments, then bring your arms back to the front as you exhale steadily.

When you've finished, give yourself a shake and relax your arms and shoulders.

Both the hands up and the hands out exercise have the added advantage of opening up your ribcage.

On all of these exercises you can sing a long steady note as an alternative to exhaling. Try to keep is steady to the last as your lungs empty.

OK so far?

Right then, now practise. You don't have to make a big thing out of this - like setting aside great lumps of time - you can do it as you dodge about the house, just five minutes here and there.

Sing a line of some easy ditty (we often use Early One Morning because plenty of people know it.) Sing it in an easy, no pushing, no projecting kind of way.

'Early one morning, just as the sun was rising'

Now sing the first two lines together without taking a breath between, 'Early one morning, just as the sun was rising, I heard a maiden singing in the valley below'


When you can do that comfortably on one breath without worrying about it, add the third line.:

'Early one morning, just as the sun was rising, I heard a maiden singing in the valley below, Oh don't deceive me, Oh never leave me' And then, when you're comfortable with singing that on one breath - however many weeks it takes - add the final line. 'Early one morning, just as the sun was rising, I heard a maiden singing in the valley below, Oh don't deceive me, Oh never leave me, How could you use a poor maiden so.' You may never need to sing four lines without taking a breath, but knowing you can do it will give you the confidence to try it on two if necessary for the phrasing of the song.

One important part of getting the breathing right is knowing your songs thoroughly and working out in advance where you need to breathe and how much breath you need to take in at specific points. Some songs can be tricky and you want to be able to do them justice. After a while, taking that breath at that time will become a part of singing the song and you'll wonder why you ever worried.

Other related wisdom

To quote Isaac Guillory: 'Always play within your limitations, then no-one will know you've got any.'

Particularly important when you're singing to guitar - you've got to know your accompaniment so well that you can play it without thinking - sometimes even without being aware you are playing. Then you can concentrate on communicating the song with the audience.

And practice, practice, practice. An amateur practices until he can play it right, a professional practices until he can't play it wrong. (Quoting someone else, but can't remember who!)

With this professional it's more a case of "until on the frequent occasions when it's played wrong, the audience doesn't usually spot it."
"Played wrong" as defined by the only person in the room who knows what I really intended to play rather than what I actually did :)

Notwithstanding that Jacey is a member of a successful singing act ...

Throughout my early life as a chorister I was taught to breathe with my diaphragm and to keep the chest expanded, and in my experience it's not only perfectly possible to do, but produces the best tone. I have also read books suggesting the same, though unfortunately I don't now have copies of, or even titles of, the best, only one that's rather too idiosyncratically dictatorial and a little too close to pseudo-science to be recommended with any confidence, but, FWIW, it's "Singing - An Extension Of Speech", Russell A Hamar, Scarecrow Press. Notwithstanding my reservations, there are some useful tips in

The sound certainly originates in the voicebox, but volume and tone comes from sympathetic resonances in other cavities of the body, mainly the chest for bass and cavities in the head for treble. The situation is analagous to any other accoustic instrument, take away the soundbox of an accoustic guitar and your left with the sound that an electric guitar makes when you haven't turned the amp on.

I think it may be a matter of words getting in the way of meaning. What your description ('chest remaining expanded') sounds like - to me - is artificially holding your chest tense and 'big' even while exhaling.
If you keep your shoulders relaxed (down and back) and don't hunch forward, then what I mean by 'good posture' may be what you mean by 'keeping the chest expanded.' If we both stood in the same room we may be doing the same thing but using a different way to describe it.

There's an old music hall expression, 'tits and teeth to the gallery,' and this may cover what we both mean. It's like making yourself into a big target - in other words, giving yourself plenty of space to breathe. The general teaching of a large number of voice coaches I have worked with is that a sound produced has nothing much to do with what resonates. A very simple example is the sound you get blowing across the neck of a bottle. Low notes tend to resonate in your chest, mid range in the larynx/ mouth, high in the head/sinus - you can feel your chest resonated (with your hand) when you sing low - the vibration disappears when you sing high. It's not possible to keep your chest rigidly expanded, but it is possible - and desirable - to become conscious of breathing with your diaphragm first, so you fill your chest from the "bottom up" as it were, and similarly empty it from the bottom


I just remembered that some time ago I was accumulating stuff about voice production. Just search for "chest voice" or "head voice" - with the quotes - in Google, and you'll find loads to go at...


With thanks to: Chris Beeson, Dick Gaughan, Jim Lawton, Java Jive and especially Jacey Bedford and all at

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this page created 25th January 2004