Are you singing efficiently?

Words by: Karen Claypool



Reading Time: 7 min

Singers are told time and time again how important their breathing is. And although breath control is extremely important, having too much air can cause just as many (if not more) problems as not having enough air.

Many singers work on taking deeper and longer inhales (which is definitely important) but in my experience, most of your breath work should focus on your exhale - after all, sound production occurs on the exhale, so it is the most important part.

The primary muscles responsible for breathing are the diaphragm and the intercostal muscles. Every breath you’ve ever taken is triggered by your diaphragm - however, you cannot control it independently as it has no nerve endings! So, if you've ever heard a teacher say "sing from your diaphragm" or "control your diaphragm" - you literally can't. What you can do though is control the muscles that are connected to your diaphragm to help it along. 

This is where many people experience issues, as you need to now control a thing that controls another thing that does the job you're needing... As a result, some find their breaths getting shallow over time if they don’t do focused breathing exercises to target the right muscle groups. You might be taking shallow breaths if you notice your shoulders rising or your stomach sucking in when you inhale. This is a sign that you could benefit from strengthening the respiratory muscles. Strong respiratory muscles will provide you with more air when needed, and (most importantly) more control over the pace of your exhale!

Your diaphragm muscle is located underneath your lungs, and it contracts downward to trigger your inhale. When you inhale, your lungs fill up like a balloon (with practice, your belly should push out and “inflate” like a balloon when you inhale, and your shoulders should stay down). Then, your diaphragm releases and puts pressure on your lungs causing you to exhale, and the balloon deflates.

Here's a quick overview of what's happening in the respiratory system when we sing:

Inspiration Expiration
As the diaphragm contracts downwards it generates a partial vacuum in the thoracic (chest) cavity.
This forces the lungs to increase in volume (they get bigger), which decreases the pressure causing air to flow in from the outside world. This is a pretty cool concept to be aware of in general as it helps us to realise that we don’t actually need to add effort onto the in-breath, we can just relax our core muscles, allowing the diaphragm to contract back down, letting physics do the work for us.
The out-breath is a little different as we want to decrease the volume of the lungs (make them smaller), which in turn increases the pressure. We do this by releasing the muscles holding the diaphragm, allowing it to relax, in turn releasing the thoracic vacuum. This is what causes the change in pressure, forcing the lungs to get smaller and allowing air to move out of the body. Depending on your vocal aims, you can choose to allow this air to flow freely (for respiration), or to have it interact with the vocal folds in order to generate sound.

We can control how the diaphragm releases onto the lungs during our exhale by controlling the other muscles that interconnect with it. As before, it is just easier to say that you're controlling the diaphragm directly, but just know that in actuality you're passively controlling it via the use of your other muscles and pressure systems. Broadly, this process is known as "breath control". When we don't practice breath control, we might push all of our air out at once (creating a very breathy sound), or our air may exhale at an inconsistent pace, equally, we may find it incredibly hard to find the release and inadvertently hold onto all that air and pressure (also known as "tanking"). 

Singing through a straw into a bottle of water is a great way to practice consistent exhales, because you can see your airflow visually. If you notice a big change in the size or frequency of bubbles coming out of the bottom of the straw, then you may be experiencing some inconsistencies in your airflow. In general, eruptive bubbling is a sign of far too much flow and intermittent bubbling is a sign of inconsistent control (so the breath starts and stops a lot). We want to aim for a nice steady flow of bubbles without being too vigorous. 


Try these two drills to help build core respiratory strength:

With Straw Without Straw

Start with your SOVT Straw outside of your water bottle. Seal the straw within your lips, and blow some air through. Once you've got a good feel for that, you're going to puff the air through the straw in bursts.

  • 4x Short Bursts
  • 2x Long Sustains

In essence, there should be 4 quick succession puffs of air through the straw, followed by 2 longer breath sustains. 

This is great for feeling and working all of your respiratory muscles - and if you play with the resistance, you can make things much more challenging (kind of like lifting weights). 

Play around with tempo and quantity of bursts to suit. 

You can also add some buzzing sounds into the straw as well to train the respiratory system in concert with phonation. 

To work the respiratory system without a straw, we need to use an Active SOVT. I personally prefer opting for a voiced fricative "vvv" sound. It provides a good amount of flow whilst still giving some back-pressure.

Although, it's worth noting work without a straw will always feel easier than with a straw, and you'll also have less control over how much "weight" you can add.

The same basic process applies though, begin with:

  • 4x Short Bursts
  • 2x Long Sustains

The bursts are again quick and successive, and you should feel the belly bouncing in and out after each and every burst. 

If you just want to train the respiratory system without any sound, instead opt for an unvoiced fricative "ssss" sound. This'll ensure the vocal folds are not producing any sound, and will only let air out of the body.

Need some guidance? Checkout this video for a demo:

Many singers also practice “bending the flame”. This exercise requires you to blow on a candle flame, bending it away from you and back towards you without blowing it out. This is a really challenging exercise, and any singer who can successfully “bend the flame” likely has excellent breath control.

Breath Control Continued.

When we focus on breath control, we can strengthen the core muscles and learn how to slowly release the air in order to maintain our breath longer. Slowly releasing breath also allows us to sing higher notes more powerfully, because our vocal folds muscles are not fighting to keep the folds closed over immense air pressure too.

Your vocal folds consist of two flaps of tissue that sit in your larynx (or voice box) at the top of your windpipe (trachea). They are both surrounded in a “sock” of muscles that have 2 specific jobs.

First off, these muscles help the vocal folds shift into different shapes and sizes to hit different pitches. For high pitches they become long and skinny, and for low pitches they become short and fat.

Secondly, these muscles help control how close together the vocal folds are. When the vocal folds are further apart, we get a breathy tone. When they are close together, we get a more pressy/projected sound. When the vocal folds are closed together tightly, we can create a more tense/gritty sound. This tense sound can be great for adding some angst/urgency into our singing.

When we sing high notes, our folds are long and skinny, which makes it more challenging to hold them together over intense amounts of air pressure. When singing your high notes with a connected/powerful tone, we need to give them less air pressure! Therefore, controlling the exhale will prevent you from over breathing, and blowing out your folds on higher pitches.

If you experience tension or straining when you go to sing higher pitches powerfully, this is a sign that you are overbreathing. Having excess air can cause us to engage the muscles in our neck to help keep the vocal folds in place, which can lead to straining and even vocal injury.

Using your SOVT Straw is an excellent way to practice breath control and regulate your air pressure. When we sing through a straw, some of the acoustic energy travels back down to our vocal folds in the form of “backpressure”. This back pressure hits the vocal folds from above, and helps to balance out some of the air pressure from below; taking a huge muscular load off of the vocal folds.

This creates a sense of ease in singing, and generally helps singers find a level of air pressure that is more suited to their notes.

When you sit down to practise with your SOVT Straw, try singing the same vocal phrase on a variety of pressure settings. Pay close attention to how your voice feels, and choose the pressure setting that allows you to successfully sing the phrase with the least amount of effort.

Once you have determined the correct pressure setting for your voice and phrase, alternate between singing with and without the straw, trying to imitate the low effort feeling you get while on the straw, when you are off the straw. This hyper awareness should help you determine how much air pressure you really need to hit any given note when not doing SOVT! Any air pressure you deliver to your vocal folds above this minimum requirement is optional. Sometimes you'll make it harder to hit the note when adding more air pressure, which is not ideal, but you also might want to use more pressure for stylistic purposes, emotional context, etc. Remember: minimum effort at baseline, anything else is a choice.

Focusing on breath control and singing efficiently with your SOVT Singing Straw will make a huge difference in your singing voice. It will give you more control in your lower range, and more freedom in your high range.