by Koichi Nakamura
If you were in school choir, your teacher may have encouraged you to “sing from your diaphragm, not your throat” or to “take a deep breath and support your voice with more air. ” Breathing is one of the important skills in singing, but breathing techniques doesn’t always solve singing problems. On the contrary, sometimes encouraging people to take in or use more air just makes things worse.
Do you often feel out of breath when you sing? Have you been told it’s because you are breathing wrong?
Many things in life are based on cause and effect, including your singing. Let’s look deeper into what might be causing you to lose your breath.
Why do I lose my breath when singing?
During normal speech, the vocal folds (or cords) inside your voice box (or larynx) constantly vibrate to produce sound. For this to happen, the “closer” muscles need to bring your vocal folds together so when the air from your lungs passes through, the folds vibrate efficiently.
An opposing coordination to speaking is exhaling. When the “opener” muscles spread your vocal cords apart, air is free to pass from your lungs through this opening and out your mouth. This is great for breathing but terrible for singing!
Some people sing like they whisper: their vocal cords close sufficiently to make sound but not enough to stop additional air from leaking out. The cords can’t resist the air sufficiently to make a clean, clear tone so instead the singer sounds breathy.
To get more sound out of these loosely closed vocal cords, the singer would have to push out an excessive amount of air. With so much leaking out, they run out of air quickly…even if they take a huge breath before!
Think of a car with a hole in the gas tank. No matter how much you fill up the tank, the gasoline will quickly leak onto the street (and you will run out of gas again!) if you don’t patch the hole.
Most people think they didn’t take a big enough breath, but actually, lack of vocal fold closure and resistance is often what causes singers to run out of air. It’s not about how much you take in, but how efficiently you use it.
Singers sometimes use a breathy or husky effect to add style and emotion. This can be ok as long as it is a choice. However, if you can’t control the breathiness in your voice–if it characterizes your singing–then this becomes a technique issue.
Chest Voice/Speaking Voice
After years of teaching, I’ve discovered that lack of chest voice is the number one cause of singers losing their breath.
So what is the chest voice anyway? Basically, it is the sound quality of your natural speaking voice. Put a hand on your chest and say AH. Did you feel vibration in your chest? Did your voice sound more spoken? That’s your chest voice.
Due to physiological and cultural influences, some females sing quietly in their lower range with a soft, breathy tone. Singing without the chest voice quality usually results in a breathy, weak sound because of the lack of vocal fold engagement. Moreover, when your folds aren’t resisting air properly, then you have to push out extra air to produce more sound. Thus a singer without enough chest voice often runs out of breath.
Your voice is unique. There could be several reasons why you lose your breath when you sing. If you are not sure, please take a singing lesson with one of the IVA Certified Voice teachers so they can explain and provide tools necessary to assist your singing.
What Should We Do
Let’s jump into how you can sing without running out of air. First, be sure that you are taking enough air with a low, satisfying breath. If you are inhaling with a shallow “high breath” (where you try to fill your upper lungs by raising your chest and shoulders) you might not take in enough air for what you are about to sing. Or most of the air will be quickly expelled as your ribcage collapses when you begin to sing. [Learn more about “high” vs. “low” breathing in this video.]
Let’s say you have taken in enough air, but your singing sounds breathy and the air leaks out quickly. One of the best exercises to treat breathiness is humming with a “creaky door” sound.
This exercise requires your vocal folds to vibrate with the minimum amount of air necessary. When practicing this exercise, most singers report a sense of vibration on their lips. If you can’t feel this “buzz”, check that you are in fact singing an M and not an NG and that you are using enough chest voice.
Another great technique to treat breathiness is applying the “Cry” voice quality. Yes, singing with the sound of a cry or sob. At first, this might sound odd, especially when singing a song, but use it as a temporary tool to produce a clearer, less breathy tone.
The “Cry” helps you to engage the inner muscles surrounding and inside your vocal folds, causing them to vibrate with increased tension and preventing you from releasing extra air (that you can’t afford to lose!) The “Cry” also helps you connect your registers so you sing with one seamless voice minus “breaks.”
Make sure you practice any new techniques at a medium volume under the care of a certified voice teacher.
So far I have addressed the issues that might cause a singer with a healthy voice to run out of air. However, if your voice isn’t healthy, it could be a whole different story.
In the last few years, you may have heard news of celebrity singers going under the knife for a nodule, polyp, or hemorrhage. These pathologies usually prevent the natural vibration of the vocal folds, resulting in excess air leaking out. Sometimes, in extreme cases, you can hear this rough vocal quality even when the person speaks. [Click to hear an example]
At SWVS, we always ask new students in the first lesson whether they suffer from any health conditions that might impact their singing. Most students have relatively healthy voices, but some have dealt with or are dealing with nodules or polyps.
Others don’t have this amount of vocal damage but still suffer from vocal fold swelling caused by allergies, acid reflux, or excess throat clearing. Because swollen vocal folds cannot close properly to produce vibration, air leaks out in the resulting raspy tone, causing the singer to run out of air prematurely.
Usually, we cannot fix this with better singing technique until the student first consults with a medical professional. If you have any concerns about your vocal health, book an appointment with your doctor, who may refer you to an ENT (Ears Nose & Throat) doctor to check things out.
So how can I know why I am running out of air when I sing? Is it due to shallow breathing? Or a breathy tone quality? Or light chest voice? Or voice pathologies or swelling?
On your own, it will be very difficult for you to self-assess because you are so used to your voice and its sound. You will save yourself a lot of time and frustration if you seek out a certified singing teacher for help.
At SWVS, we are trained to listen to your voice and quickly assess where you need to focus for improvement. If you lose your breath when you sing, we can help you find the cause and then prescribe strategies to alleviate the problem. We look forward to assisting you however we can to expand your vocal abilities.