In my post from 2/7/10, I published a list of things that people do that may be damaging to their voices. I'll admit that I was aiming with some of the items on this list to get people riled up, in the hopes that they would come to the defense of their beliefs by commenting on my piece. (I'm not above such incendiary methods of upping traffic on my blog!)
Leave it to my long-time dear friend (and frequent duet partner) Toni Schiavone to call me on my audacity! Thanks, Toni, for forcing me to put my money where my mouth was and explain why I consider #4 and #7 on my list to be detrimental breathing fallacies. (I'll offer explanations of the other 8 list items in later postings.)
Over and over again in my teaching I see people interfering with their breathing by doing something conscious in an effort to enhance it. These efforts almost always backfire, either because 1) they ignore that the respiratory system works as a coordinated whole, not in parts that can be tweaked individually, or 2) they are based on anatomical misconceptions, or 3) they create new tensions while trying to improve the breathing. Two of the most prevalent, as well as the most harmful, breathing mistakes are belly breathing and breathing/supporting from the diaphragm.
In belly breathing, the singer attempts to bring air into what he or she thinks to be the lowest part of the lungs, causing the belly to expand. A brief consideration of your own body will show the fallacy behind this practice: With your fingers, find your lowest pair of ribs in the front. Your lungs lie completely above this level. Below these ribs lie your liver, stomach, small intestines and other digestive organs. There is no way to bring air into these abdominal organs--nor would you want to do so. A small amount of expansion does take place in the abdomen upon inhaling because of an increase of pressure in the abdominal cavity, but none of the expansion is due to an intake of air into this cavity. Trying to breathe into your guts is not only futile, but it also inhibits breath from coming into your actual lungs, which are located much higher than people generally believe (all the way up to just above your collarbones, in fact).
"Breathing from the diaphragm" usually involves a misunderstanding of where the diaphragm is and/or how it works. This muscular organ slices across your torso horizontally all around the bottom of the ribcage, dividing your torso into a chest cavity above and an abdominal cavity below. (It's like a floor for the lungs and a ceiling for the liver and stomach.) You cannot feel the diaphragm from the outside by touching any part of your body with your hands, nor can you feel the diaphragm moving, because there are no sensory nerves associated with this organ. (You can feel other parts of your body, principally your ribs, move in response to diaphragmatic movement.) What most people are feeling when they "support from the diaphragm" is actually a tensing of the abdominal muscles, which lie in vertical sheets from the bottom ribs in front all the way down to the pelvis.
Free, healthy breathing involves unrestricted swinging motions of your ribs: up and down like the handles of a bucket on the inhale and exhale, respectively. Tune into this gentle, easy movement as you sit breathing quietly. When you are able to discern the up-and-down motion of your ribs, try doing what you think of as "supporting from the diaphragm, " and see what effect this has on the freedom of your ribs. Most people in trying to breathe from the diaphragm will actually either push or tense or even pull in their ab muscles in the area of the solar plexus, thinking mistakenly that this rib-restricting tension will help their breathing.
It is quite possible that readers have different definitions of "belly breathing" and "diaphragm support" than the ones I've written about here, and are perhaps not creating interference in their respiratory systems. I am happy to continue this discussion with anyone who is interested or curious or confused.