Singing with your Diaphragm – What Does That mean?

What they say…

“Sing with your Diaphragm.” If you’ve been in any kind of group singing environment, you’ve probably been given this advice. If you asked what that means, you likely got a response having to do with somehow pushing upward from your abdomen, or holding your abdomen tight, or even (as one person described it) pumping your stomach.

This advice lacks understanding of what’s happening in your body when you produce sound. First of all, poor technique still uses your diaphragm, as does any expulsion of air from your lungs. More importantly, though, tightening, pressing in, or pumping your stomach are all examples of straight-up bad advice.

What they mean…

Most who offer this advice are simply passing it on, with only a vague (if any) understanding of what it might mean. By the time you finish reading this post you will no longer be one of those people. And you’ll recognize misinformation when you hear it and steer clear. So let’s get started…

You probably know your vocal cords vibrate to create sound. But what else is going on when you sing? How does the vibration occur?

The three main parts (other than vocal cords) of your singing instrument. 

  • The ribs (a cage of bones protecting our lungs)
  • The diaphragm (a sheet of muscles inside the lower part of the rib cage)
  • The lungs (the sacks of air above our diaphragm and inside our ribs)

Each body part plays a roll in both breathing and vocalizing. Let’s talk breathing first…

The steps of an inhale:

  1. Ribs expand.
  2. Diaphragm flattens and its muscles become engaged (active).
  3. Lungs are stretched downward (by the diaphragm) and outward (by the ribs), thus creating a vacuum inside them.
  4. The vacuum created causes air to get sucked in through the mouth or nose.

The steps of an exhale:

  1. Ribs go in.
  2. Diaphragm goes passive (relaxes) and moves upward to is domed resting place.
  3. Lungs are pushed up (by the diaphragm) and in (by the ribs).
  4. The air inside the lungs gets pushed out.

Here’s what it looks like:

Sing with your diaphragm, of course!

But you still don’t know what that means. I’m getting there…

Your diaphragm has two primary functions. The first is breathing, as you learned already. It lowers and contracts to help pull the lungs open for an inhale, and returns to its domed, passive position for an exhale.

Its second function is regulating your air. You think about singing a pitch and your diaphragm decides how much air to send up to your vocal cords to create it. It does this automatically, based on your intention. This is great news, because we singers have enough other things to worry about. But there is one catch…

Active vs. Passive Muscles.

You probably noticed that I used the words active and passive a few times when talking about the diaphragm. What do these words mean in this context? An active muscle is engaged and ready to perform a function. A passive muscle is at rest and not ready to perform anything.

That means that in order for the diaphragm muscles to perform the function of regulating your air, they must be active. Do you remember when the diaphragm is active?

That’s right. During an inhale, when the ribs are out and the diaphragm has flattened. When in this position, you can intend your pitches and your diaphragm will press against the bottom of your lungs to send the needed amount of air up to the vocal cords.

Is this really that different than letting your diaphragm go passive and push an indiscriminate amount of air out of your lungs?

Yes!!! With multiple exclamation marks!!! Yes!!!

Letting air just flow out unregulated is undesirable for many reasons. Some examples:

Strain. Pushing too much air through your cords will unnecessarily over work them. If you find yourself putting tougher songs earlier in a set because your voice gets too tired to sing them later in the night, you are likely putting too much strain on your instrument.

Tension. Your body will try to do what you tell it to do (with your intention) even if you’re working against it. In this case, your throat will attempt to hold back the extra air that you are forcing through your folds. This creates muscle tension, which can lead to more strain, fatigue, and rob you of agility and a resonant tone.

Pitch. I haven’t talked much about vocal cords here, but as you sing they are working hard to create the pitches you request of them. If you push too much air through the opening they’ve created, you can force the opening bigger and alter the pitch.

Progress. You can still improve your skills while singing with poor technique, but you are significantly limiting and slowing your advancement. If you batter your cords and throat each time you sing, you’re stepping backward by requiring a recovery period. If you do this repeatedly without allowing for recovery, you will eventually deal with vocal nodes. In contrast, when you work with your body, each time you practice or perform you’re maintaining and strengthening your muscles, and continually honing your skills in a forward trajectory. 

Hopefully, I’ve convinced you to choose good technique and allow your air to be properly regulated. But how do you do that?

Remember two things…

  1. The diaphragm is the sheet of muscles capable of automatically regulating your air.
  2. A muscle has to be active to perform any function.

So your job, as the singer, is to keep your diaphragm active. How?

(drum roll, please)

By keeping your ribs open while you sing. When your ribs are open, you diaphragm is engaged. Then, it can press against the bottom of your lungs to send up air as needed.

When people tell you to sing with your diaphragm, what they mean (or SHOULD mean) is, “Sing with your ribs expanded.” The concept is that simple, but it takes a little time and intention to get good at it.

A specific exercise regimen aimed at developing this skill is a part of my self-directed Singer-Athlete Workout Series, which you can check out by clicking HERE.

But here is something you can try right now…

Rib Cage Stretch: Stand with your weight even on both feet, your arms at your sides, and your palms facing forward. Raise your arms and bring your palms together in front of you with your arms at about a 45 degree angle from the floor. You should feel a stretch in the sides of your back and shoulder blade area. This is where your ribs expand the most. Try to hold your ribs in that open position as you lower your hands. After a few seconds, relax your torso.

The first few times you do this, you may not feel a whole lot going on. If you repeat it often, you should begin to feel a good-sized drop when you finally relax your torso. As you begin to feel it, see if you can create and maintain that openness while you practice singing.

And here is a more advanced rib cage exercise called Palm Presses:

I hope you found this helpful and will never be tempted by bad breathing advice again! Please, feel free to share your thoughts, your experiences, or anything else that this post inspires. And share this post, too. More later…

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