High Breaths and Singing

Lifting the Chest During Inhalation

Holding your hands up in a "T" will make it harder for you to lift your chest during breathing, forcing the breathe down. Photo © Katrina Schmidt

When speaking of breath support and inhalation, you may hear the term, “high breath.” Most people intuitively have an idea of what that means but not an exact understanding, which can cause inaccurate conclusions. Since breath support is so important in singing, every aspect of it should be thoroughly understood. Here is all you need to know about high breaths, and why you should avoid them during singing.

Definition: The lungs expand when breathing, like a sponge taking in water. Since air takes up space, the body must make room for the added volume somehow. Luckily, the whole mid-section of your body is extremely flexible. Room can be made for the lungs in three main ways: raising the chest, expanding the rib cage, lowering the diaphragm causing the stomach to bulge out, or a combination of all three. A high breath is exactly what it sounds like: the opposite of low. Out of all the options, the highest one is allowing the chest to rise to make room for air. Hence the term “high breath” is used when making room for the lungs by allowing the chest to rise. Many will also refer to a “high breath,” as a “shallow breath.”

Is a High Breath Always Bad? Nothing is wrong with taking a high breath in some circumstances. However, singing is unique. Many people take it for granted, thinking it a simple act requiring little of the body.

But, good singing is just as demanding as a yoga class. Singing in an opera is very similar to running a marathon. For your daily activities a high breath is most likely sufficient, but singing requires more of your body.

Shallow Breathing: Singing requires more air than normal speech. Raising the chest does not create as much room for the lungs as lowering the diaphragm and expanding the rib cage.

The more your mid-section expands the more air you take in. Raising the chest during inhalation means your breath is “shallow.” Though a singer should take a “full breath,” the lungs should never feel over-stuffed.

Low Larynx and a High Breath: A high breath causes your voice box to rise. Muscles connect the shoulders and voice box or larynx. In singing, you want a lower larynx, which allows you to avoid the feeling of choking when singing. Since the chest and larynx are connected, raising the chest automatically raises the larynx. Though some people manage to sing well enough with a high larynx, the sound is much brighter, more forced, and generally less pleasing.

Low Breath: The opposite of a high breath is a low one, also referred to as a diaphragmatic breath. Low breaths are more complex than high ones. They involve lowering the diaphragm, which means all the viscera or organs in the abdominal cavity must go somewhere else. Where? The stomach stretches out for the viscera, which makes room for the diaphragm and the air that is being sponged into the lungs. In addition, the entire rib cage expands during a low, deep inhalation. One of the benefits of a low breath is how relaxing it is.

We naturally breathe low on our backs and often when sleeping. Taking low breaths makes it much easier to overcome stage fright, as well.

A Note on Chest Posture: The proper posture for singing includes a high chest. It sometimes helps to imagine a string attached to your sternum and the ceiling. I also have beginners breathe into the chest, taking a high breath, and hold it for a moment. Then, I ask the singer to exhale without lowering the chest. Finally, they are instructed to take the next breath using the diaphragm. Keeping that high chest posture makes it almost impossible to raise the chest during inhalation. Especially if the chest is as high as it will go naturally, even those extremely uncomfortable standing and taking low breaths are more likely to have some lowering of the diaphragm during inhalation.

Be careful to never stand in a way that causes tension, however.

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Schmidt, Katrina. "High Breaths and Singing." ThoughtCo, Aug. 22, 2016, thoughtco.com/high-breaths-and-singing-2994138. Schmidt, Katrina. (2016, August 22). High Breaths and Singing. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/high-breaths-and-singing-2994138 Schmidt, Katrina. "High Breaths and Singing." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/high-breaths-and-singing-2994138 (accessed September 20, 2017).