If you’ve sung in a liturgical ensemble for any length of time, you’ve probably heard about the importance of breathing properly from the diaphragm. It’s true – proper diaphragmatic breathing is the very foundation for good vocal production. Effective pitch control, dynamics, and supporting long phrases all require proper breathing.

There is another truth that I’ve encountered with liturgical ensemble singers – unless they’ve received formal vocal training, very few really know if, or when, they are truly singing from their diaphragm.

Over the next several weeks, our Tuesday CLEF Life installments will dive into the issue of singing with proper diaphragmatic breathing to help ensemble vocalists become aware of their own breathing while singing.

Let’s start at the beginning

When we were born, we entered life kicking and screaming, and some of us serenaded our caregivers with hours at a time of inconsolable crying. The screams and cries of a newborn are driven by strong diaphragmatic breathing. We actually entered this world with the proper breathing needed to effectively sing. Just watch a baby sleeping on its back, and you’ll see their tummy lift and fall with every breath as they inhale and exhale from their diaphragm.

Practicing proper breathing

Proper breathing also occurs naturally in adults when sleeping. In fact, we can heighten our awareness of breathing from our diaphragm by simply lying awake on our back and relaxing. Give it a try – while lying flat on your back with eyes closed, place both hands lightly on your stomach. While remaining relaxed, feel yourself inhaling and exhaling. Stay focused and don’t rush. Notice that your shoulders are completely still, and the only movement occurring is that of the rise and fall of your lower abdomen. Remember this feeling, for what you’re experiencing is natural diaphragmatic breathing.

Now sit up. Again, with eyes closed and in the same state of being both relaxed and aware, breathe normally. Do you feel any difference? Do your chest and shoulders rise and fall? Continue to breathe slowly and try limiting your inhaling and exhaling movement to just the lower abdomen region. Feel the difference? Breathing from the diaphragm is not natural when we’re upright; but with focused attention, we can limit the movement to that of just the lower abdomen.

Building awareness of proper breathing

Creating the awareness of where inhaling and exhaling occurs within our body is our starting point. Multiple muscles control the movement of the diaphragm, and like any other muscles within our bodies, we need to use them to strengthen them. If we really want to develop the correct breathing needed for effective singing, we must become precisely aware of when our diaphragm is properly engaged. We’ll discuss muscle development down the road.

Over the next few days, take time to increase your mental awareness of breathing from your diaphragm. Repeat the steps noted above for being more aware of your breathing. Practice sitting upright and controlling the source of your inhaling and exhaling. When you feel like you can better manage this controlled breathing, you’ll be ready for the next steps in developing the breathing support required for effective ensemble singing.

If you’re interested in reading a much deeper dive into proper breathing for singing, please read more from this article from SingWise.

Written by Steve Petrunak. Copyright © 2023, Catholic Liturgical Ensemble Formation.