How to sing with the diaphragm
Essential Vocal Concepts | Singing | Singing Technique

How to Sing with the Diaphragm – It’s NOT what you think!

This is one of the most misunderstood concepts of singing that’s caused a lot of confusion and harm to so many voices.

Most people, maybe you are one of them, start out singing with the “commonly-known” knowledge that you have to sing with the diaphragm. So, you pushed your stomach like crazy like most people and end up straining the voice most of the time.

I have come to realize that conventional wisdom is wrong most of the time. It is suited for the general public to easily grasp a hold of the knowledge of professional areas they know nothing about.

So today, let’s talk about the issue of How to Sing with the Diaphragm and clear out all the misnomers and myth surrounding this practice, so you can sing with a completely free and full voice.

You don’t have to be a Body-builder to sing well

Have you ever heard voice teachers say that you have to work on your abs in order to have enough “support” for singing.

The truth is – you have more than enough abdominal strength than you ever need to support your voice. In fact, too much!

Dr. Hubert Noe of Vienna, one of the leading vocal scientist in the world, says, “The large body muscles are needed for much more power demanding task than singing.” (Dean Kaelin. Teaching Great Singing, Salt Lake City: deankaelin.com. pg.119.)

According to Dr. Noe, if doing one sit-up requires a person to lift 50 kg of upper body weight, a strong forte sound only requires 0.5 kg of air pressure on the delicate vocal cords(folds).

Do you see my point? In term of muscular strength, the body could easily over-power the vocal folds with excessive air pressure to a degree that it could, at best, cause strain on the voice, or at worst, cause permanent vocal damage.

So what should you do with the diaphragm when you sing? RELAX!

That’s right. You heard me right! Relax!

Listen to what the greatest tenor since Caruso – Beniamino Gigli, has to say, “As soon as I commence to sing I forget all about the diaphragm and ribs…” (E. Herbert Caesari. The Voice of the mind. London: Robert Hale Limited, 1971. pg. 27.)

If the great old-school Italian operatic tenor didn’t do much with his diaphragm when singing, how should you sing in pop, contemporary or whenever genre you’re in?

As soon as I commence to sing I forget all about the diaphragm and ribs..

Beniamino Gigli 
Legendary Italian Tenor

7 Reasons why you should relax those diaphragms

It is said again and again that “support” is so important for singing.  In Italy, it’s been said traditionally that “He who knows how to breathe well, knows how to sing well.”

Sadly, there are different schools of singing methods that conflict with each other, even in Italy.

Listen to what the legendary English voice teacher – E. Herbert Caesari, has to say about the statement above, “…less than a half-truth. It borders on stupidity…Good singing includes very much more than mere breathing capacity or efficiency.” (E. Herbert Caesari. The Voice of the mind. London: Robert Hale Limited, 1971. pg. 185.)

Here are the 7 reasons why you should relax instead of tighten those diaphragm and ab muscles:

  1.    Vocal folds are too delicate to handle strong air pressure.
  2.    Sound is produced by the vocal folds, not the diaphragm.
  3.    Muscular coordination and balance are more important than brute force.
  4.    It takes much less air pressure than you think to produce a big sound.
  5.    Why push more than you have to when you can sing easy
  6.    The diaphragm is used mainly for inhalation, not exhalation.
  7.    Your main focus should be on vocal fold maneuver, not the diaphragm.

Your vocal folds have the size of a quarter or dime, which is much, much smaller than those abs you got down there. You think if they were to compete, which one wins? Give those vocal folds are rest and relax those abs when you sing, okay?

To convince you even more about relaxing those abs when singing, let me give you an illustration:

Imagine you driving a car – what would happen if you focus all your attention on how you step on those gas petals (diaphragm) instead of monitoring on where you’re going with the steering wheel (vocal folds)?

You’d crash the car! You see my point?

It borders on stupidity…Good singing includes very much more than mere breathing capacity or efficiency.

E. Herbert Caesari 
Legendary Voice Teacher

So what do we do with the diaphragm other than relax?

Okay, I must confess, when I said “relax the diaphragm” when you sing, I meant relax it mentally.

The vocal folds still need air pressure in order to create sound.

So many people tense their abs so much that they actually working against themselves while singing.

So, what should you really do with the diaphragm?

If you just relax and don’t DO anything with it deliberately, it will work by itself.

If you would just focus on making a full and round sound at the vocal folds, observe what the stomach would do.

They will work by itself and give the vocal folds the air pressure they need without overpowering them.

Why is this so crucial for the diaphragm and the stomach to work by itself?

Because every pitch you sing requires a different level of air pressure. It flat out impossible to know how hard to push for each note.

So the solution is – you let the vocal folds decide how much air pressure they need to produce the sound you want.

You don’t have to tell the diaphragm what to do. It will go on auto-pilot while you sing.

Final Conclusion on using the Diaphragm for singing

Let me sum it up for you – there are basically two camps on this teaching:

  1. Conventional BOTTOM-UP approach to diaphragmatic support – you push hard from the diaphragm to sing every single note.
  2. Correct TOP-DOWN approach to diaphragmatic support – you focus on producing the sound you want at the vocal folds level (your throat), and the diaphragm and stomach will work by themselves.

If you’re still not getting it, let me tell you – you should use the second one.

It’s a much easier way to sing, and you actually get more power out of your voice with very little effort.

Try it and experience this wonderful feeling of ease while you sing. You don’t have to push too hard.

If you are really having trouble with breathing while singing, or that you can’t shake off the old habits of manipulating the abs, Roger Love has a great online vocal program that addresses this issue of breathing for singing. I recommend you read this review.

If you have any questions you would like to discuss, comment below and I’ll be more than happy to answer your questions.

To great singing,

Rex

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8 Comments

  1. The second approach you brought has less to do with breath support and more to do with vocal cord coordination and balance. This is what SLS teaches. You should make reviews of very famous SLS courses. Seth’s and Brett’s. You almost forgot reviewing them.

    1. Nithin,

      I am an SLS guy. I can tell you that SLS has its weakness, which is weak head voice. I’m in the process of finding out remedies for this weakness in the system.

      Rex

      1. Are you developing your own program? I’ll be honest with you , the very famous speech level singing program , the success program .. it has smoothened my connection between my c2-c6 but when it comes to singing I couldn’t use that higher range. Also my voice sounds like two different voices when comparing my lower and higher registers. There is also many programs by them called mastering mix . I am really tired of trying another program by them because now I feel that SLS programs is best suited for someone who wants to learn that technique and teach singers than use it for better transformation as a singer. I want to spend my hard earned cash wisely from now. Right now I have ken and Robert lunte on my mind . I would go either one of them .

        1. Nithin,

          No, I’m not developing my own program right now. I think there are enough options for students to choose from in the market. No need to create another one for now!

          Ken’s vocal method is a little harsh for me – a little dangerous! I think Robert Lunte’s program is the most well-rounded singing program out there.

          1. Interesting you should say that about Ken (Tamplin). Even in his own singing he comes across quite harsh to me. His students though sound awesome!
            Right now I am torn between Robert Lunte, 30day singing and starting with a personal vocal coach – albeit that would be the most expensive option for me!
            What’s your advive Rex? I am not a beginner but due to having had a break from singing coaching part of me feels I want to go “back to basics”!
            (Thank you for your balanced reviews btw!)

          2. Christina,

            Maybe you should check out John Henny’s singing program – New Science of Singing 2.0. It approaches the training for singers from a vocal science point of view. Really fascinating! Here’s my review. So awesome!

            Rex

  2. Unfortunately I must disagree. The precise reason you find a weakness of the SLS approach in regards to head voice is BECAUSE they use a “top down” approach of “sing first, breathe second”.

    This is backwards to how the voice works. The larynx is a responsive organ; it is passive not active. It cannot make sound without air pressure. Air first, sound second.

    By assuming the glottis can “find” or “tell you” the right pressure it needs is phonation in reverse. You must make the sound first, then guide what you are hearing to achieve the correct or target sound.

    Hoping the note will tell you what it needs is disobeying the first pillar of success – visualization. You must hear the correct note in your head first, make the sound, then correct it by manipulating what is needed, be it tonality, pitch or compression. Or leave it alone.

    But you are always monitoring the sound as you sing.

    You are correct that it does not take a lot of air to sing with a strong or projected sound, but there has to be pressure; at the body and vocal fold level.

    It’s all about balance. Now, again it is correct that you don’t need to be a body builder to have great support, but those core muscles around the diaphragm have to be trained for stamina. Strength is easy as anyone can yell; doing it over and over without tiring for two hours takes strength of stamina.

    Caruso stressed the strength of the exhalation muscles – NOT the diaphragm. Inhalation does not need to trained as the body does that naturally, it is the exhalation that must be controlled and efficient.

    The problem with SLS is that is believes that subglottic pressure is damaging. If that were so, there would not be anyone opera with a career longer than 10 years. They would shred their voices in a very short time.

    The entire premise of “sing from the diaphragm” is flawed because it stresses the use of a muscle you can’t control during exhalation directly. You can however, control it passively by using the muscles around it.

    Balance. SLS does not stress balance. It stresses using the vocal fold actively instead of passively or at the minimum ahead of the breath.

    Breath first, sound second. The two go hand in hand, in concert with one another; but there is ALWAYS more breath pressure than glottal pressure.

    This is why SLS fails one you blend out of modal voice. Strong, full head voice needs subglottic pressure. Relying on the folds just creates a thin, overly bright sound devoid of any depth.

    Even Seth Riggs has started to stress core support in his teaching and it’s about time.

    Kevin Richards

    1. Hello Kevin,

      It’s an honor to have you here. Thanks for taking the time to share about your take on Breath Support!

      We obviously disagree on this topic, but that’s okay. Every time I take the focus off of what’s happening at the vocal fold level, I pump too much air which causes my larynx to rise. I’m not opposed to breath support. It’s how you activate and approach breath support that matters. For me, breath support is more passively activated. That gets me into balance between air vs. vocal folds.

      Different methods work for different people. Totally appreciate your opinion. Come back and we can discuss more on singing!

      Thanks again!

      Rex

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