- 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?
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.
2. Support from your pelvic floor.
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!
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.