Judy Rodman - All Things Vocal Blog

Training & insights for stage and studio singers, speakers, vocal coaches and producers from professional vocal coach and author of "Power, Path & Performance" vocal training method. Download All Things Vocal podcast on your fav app!

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Why You Should NOT Sing From Your Diaphragm

This is the last place you want to sing from!!
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You hear this phrase a lot in vocal lesson circles... "Sing from your diaphragm." The two big problems with this mistaken directive are:
  • You can’t! You can’t consciously make the diaphragm do anything… it is operated by the automatic nervous system, not the conscious mind!
  • ... and you shouldn’t! It's downright dangerous! Yes, the diaphragm it is the major organ of breathing.  But if you try to power or 'support' your voice from the diaphragm, you’ll end up sabotaging its operation, and say goodbye to your breath control!

So what & where is the diaphragm?

The diaphragm is a very large, thin, dome-shaped sheet of muscle that you can imagine as a mushroom cap. It is located between your chest and your abdomen, separating them. It has connections to places in the upper and lower spine, as well as the clavicle. But the most important thing you need to know about your diaphragm that its edges are connected to the bottom of your ribcage. That’s where you can make conscious choices that affect the diaphragm, as we’ll talk about in a moment.

Here's a great video by 3DYoga.com of the diaphragm at work:

What happens when you try to sing from it?

OK, let me explain with some imagery. Let’s imagine you have this horse you want to ride. You somehow communicate to the horse something you've heard ... that it should run from its hamstrings. So the ever obedient horse starts to think about and focus effort on its hamstrings instead of just letting them work, as they naturally will if the horse just stretches itself out to run. What's likely to happen in this situation is that the horse will over-concentrate on its hamstrings, over-tensing them. The horse will become uncoordinated and use much more effort to accomplish much less... oh, and in its frustration it will have totally lost sight of where it’s supposed to be going and why it's running in the first place!

Like trying to run a horse from its hamstrings, powering your voice from your diaphragm is going to cause problems. The tensed ribcage will drop a bit, which leaves your diaphragm with too much slack. You sabotage both the quality of your inhale and control of your exhale! The more you try to work your voice from your diaphragm, the less coordinated your breath and the worse your vocal issues become. Your jaw and tongue, neck and shoulders will probably tighten - at least to some degree - against excessive air pressure. With all that stuff going on, there's no way you can focus on the message... the what and why you're using your voice to make sound!

So why has this counterproductive suggestion become so universal? Well, as happens in politics and sloppy science, if you say or hear something enough times, it can become accepted as unquestioned fact. Very few people even know what the phrase means. Even many pro music folks don't know what or where the diaphragm is! Most of the time, when someone uses the phrase "Sing from your diaphragm" they mean you shouldn't breathe by raising and lowering your shoulders. They usually mean sing from the middle of your stomach. But powering from the diaphragm causes a squeezing there, which drops the ribcage, allowing the slackened diaphragm to rise too far and deliver too much uncontrolled breath to the poor vocal cords.

4 things to do instead:

1. Widen your ribcage with tall posture.

    Your ribcage hinges on your upper spine. By standing or sitting flexibly taller, with your head level and balanced over your tailbone, you will open the bottom of your ribcage, and therefore stretch your diaphragm wide, instantly increasing your breath control.

      2. Support from your pelvic floor.

        Tense your saddle area for power, much like riding a horse downhill. Your legs and feet can also be used as part of this equation; for instance, press your heels into the stage floor and it’s the same as using your saddle. With this low power center, you literally power your ribcage and throat open!

        3. Don't push... Pull instead!

        Instead of pushing for power, PULL your voice from a spot above and behind your head. This will encourage your top vertebrae to move back slightly, which again straightens the upper spine and opens both the ribcage and the throat. Try consciously backing off your volume to learn this sensation.

        4. Articulate richly

        The most powerful vocal performance comes from clear articulation and rich resonance, not the excessive breath pressure shoved up from an uncontrolled diaphragm!
        These things will allow your diaphragm all the space it needs to relax and contract, its dome moving up and down in the chest for inhaling and exhaling. But like a well-stretched trampoline, the taut diaphragm will also be able to control its movements, only allowing as much breath pressure up as your automatic nervous system dictates to give your vocal cords what they need. In effect, you support your voice from tension you apply at the saddle, control your voice by keeping your diaphragm widely stretched, pull the heart in like a magnet and deliver a clear message. That, my friend, is true vocal power.
          Centered in the pelvic floor, this breath support/control balance will unlock all kinds of vocal freedom, improving control, precision, range and tone. You will immediately feel a decrease in vocal fatigue, tension and strain. When you habitually come from this low power source, you can sing or speak as long as you need to, and never get vocally tired!

          Bust the myth!

          Many vocal coaches, voice scientists and docs I respect are now trying to correct this mistaken belief about where we should sing from. No. Don't sing from your diaphragm. Don't support from your diaphragm. It can be downright dangerous for your voice! Instead, sing from your pelvic floor. Or to put it another way, sing your butt off so you don't sing your throat out! Your diaphragm can then operate automatically, and your horse (er... your voice, which won't get hoarse) will be so happy!

          If you need help with powering your singing or speaking voice in the healthiest and most effective way, try Power, Path and Performance training. You can take lessons with me in person (office, Skype or phone) or study a PPP course. Some students do both. PPP training teaches you to power your voice free of tension, but full of impact.

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          • At August 25, 2016 at 5:21 AM , Anonymous Ronald Calabrese said...

            Great advice, Judy. The most accurate indication everything is working well is the amount of excess breath you have at the end of a line. Singing Mozart is really helpful in gaining breath control because he requires long legato lines without a breath, i.e Il Mio Tesoro from Don Giovanni. If you force out excess air on any notes in the run, you'll surely run out before the end of the phrase, a very embarrassing development!

            Teachers frequently use descriptions of the proper sensation when trying to explain good production. Some of these descriptions are confusing when you've NEVER experienced the proper sensation. When I first started with operatic tenor music, I had considerable difficulty transitioning down smoothly from a high note to a lower note close to the middle of my range.My teacher told me to place the lower note in the same 'place' as the high note. I would frequently attack the high note with proper head voice and then drop the position sounding like a foggy voiced baritone on the lower note. Until I experienced "being on top of the high note" I didn't understand the meaning of the sensation. Listening to great singers in your voice range is very helpful. Jussi Boerling, the iconic Swedish tenor, was a master at keeping the lift in his voice as he transitioned down from a high note. All budding young tenors should listen to him daily!

          • At August 25, 2016 at 6:29 AM , Blogger Judy Rodman said...

            So good to hear from you Ron, and you inspired me to 'youtube' search for Boerling. I'm listening, with chills, almost in tears, to him singing 'Nessun Dorma' https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bUbA5y1hnFg OH my gosh that last high note is just stunning!

            You are so right... that lift in his voice stays constant. It's the same reason I've always loved Andre Bochelli. One of my pet peeves is the sound (and feel!) of pushed singing. Singers like this just resonate and pull the house down!!!

            And I totally agree with your thoughts... "The most accurate indication everything is working well is the amount of excess breath you have at the end of a line."

            Also the idea of 'always being on top' of a note, in a placement sense, unlocks all kinds of vocal beauty and ability. An interesting exercise for this which this I gleaned from a teacher named Melissa Cross is to have the student hold a pencil or pen crossways in the teeth. Then they are instructed to 'sing from above the pencil'. It works for all notes, yes, including the low ones. Thanks again sharing for your insights!

          • At December 21, 2016 at 6:07 PM , Anonymous Deborah J said...

            I have a strong chest voice and have for decades. It's from a background in R&B. The problem is I recently became aware of another part of the voice I DONT seem to have much of. This airy head voice, I cannot seem to tap into. It's like once I move from my power voice I start crackling in attempts to soften up top. There are times it comes, but I like much vocal training, so what I've learned has been online. I am enjoying even beginning to work it into my warm ups and venturing a little past my chest voice to incorporate those sounds.

          • At December 21, 2016 at 6:11 PM , Blogger Judy Rodman said...

            Deborah, that's great... because your head voice, aka 'head register' is important to the long-term health of your chest voice, especially on higher notes, which I like to call mixed voice. When you strengthen your head voice, you should be able to have a better mix in the middle of your range, and protect your voice from strain. If you'd ever like even one 1/2 hour lesson with me to personalize this with you, let me know! Thanks for your feedback here and please keep in touch.

          • At August 10, 2018 at 11:46 AM , Blogger Unknown said...

            Judy, you are so often right, so please do not destroy your credibility by claiming that you can not consciously breathe in using your diaphragm.

          • At October 15, 2018 at 9:50 PM , Blogger Judy Rodman said...

            I appreciate your comment but you misunderstood what I'm saying here. Please allow me to clarify. I'm not saying we don't breathe in from the diaphragm, we do. What I'm suggesting is not to sense powering the voice from there. It causes a loss of breath control and therefore vocal control as I've described in this post. Changing the sensing of where you power your voice from your chest area to your pelvic floor has made a huge difference in all of my singers and speakers voices. Please consider rereading with this in mind. It could help you.


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