You do not have to go far in the performing world to come across somebody who tells a new singer to ‘sing from the diaphragm.’ Diaphragmatic involvement during inhalation (breathing in) is significant, but there are some very damaging teaching methods that involve singing or supporting with the diaphragm.
What is the diaphragm?
The diaphragm is a sheet of muscle encasing the inferior (bottom side) aspect of the lungs inside the ribcage. It is your diaphragm that actually allows for inhalation. The autonomous response for breathing causes the diaphragm to contract, decreasing the air pressure in the lungs. This causes air from outside of the body to rush into the lungs.
How do muscles work?
Skeletal muscles (responsible for all bone movement) simply contract (shorten) or relax (lengthen to neutral state). When a muscle contracts, a bone will move. When your biceps shorten, your forearm moves towards your shoulder. When it relaxes, the arm straightens – assuming that there is no triceps involvement.
How does the diaphragm relate?
Since the diaphragm is a skeletal muscle, it works in the exact same way that all of your limb muscles work. It contracts to increase the space in the thorax, which reduces air pressure in the lungs. When exhaling, the diaphragm is RELAXING. It is not pushing, nor squeezing the lungs. Therefore, diaphragm engagement mostly occurs when you inhale. Your goal is for your abdomen to feel relaxed, and for your breath to feel silent, but full – a little bit like you are happy to see someone and you have taken a quick, but full breath in surprise. Your External intercostal (rib) muscles and diaphragm both contract to increase the thorax volume, which allows air to rush in.
Do not misunderstand what I mean by ‘contract’. It should not feel like lifting a weight. Unlike your arms, the diaphragm and external intercostal muscles do not have to put much effort into opening the thorax.
So how does ‘singing from the diaphragm’ not work?
When you sing with effective technique, the diaphragm is being gradually relaxed. You are not contracting it or forcing it inwards, you are merely controlling the rate of relaxation with other muscles. Imagine a trampoline: When you stand on it, there is resistance. When you push into it with your legs, you are slowed down. This is because of the springs around the outside of the trampoline.
Now imagine that your diaphragm is a much stronger, upside down version of this. Pretend that the fully contracted diaphragm is like the trampoline when it is flat. Your abdominal muscles, particularly the obliques and internal intercostal (rib) muscles are slowing down the rate of relaxation of the diaphragm. So they are acting as the springs, which slow the trampoline’s progress downwards.
So the truth is this: You CANNOT sing from the diaphragm. You can prepare to sing by contracting the diaphragm AND the external intercostal muscles. They prepare you by increasing thoracic volume, which causes air to rush into the lungs. In order for you to optimize this, your abdomen must be relaxed for good diaphragm contraction and your posture must be open for proper rib expansion.
You CAN however, sing from your internal rib muscles, obliques and surrounding abdominal muscles. I would only add a disclaimer that rectus abdominus involvement (the abs or squeeze muscles) should not be gripping as if you were doing a crunch or defacating, or you will make it difficult to release the next breath.
Punching the solar plexus: A warning sign
A common habit for some teachers, as outlined in an article by David L. Jones, is to push their fist into the solar plexus area. The intention is to ‘support more’ from the diaphragm. The initial satisfaction of a louder volume will probably be applauded by any listeners who are not keyed into good technique. All you are really doing by pushing from the solar plexus is forcing more air through the vocal cords with the illusion that the force is ‘healthy’ because it is not going through the throat.
On the contrary, overtime, this force will wear on the vocal cords and will cause degeneration of the instrument, locking of the breath mechanism and long-term habits that will be very difficult to remove. If any teacher ever lays their hands on your solar plexus forcefully then this is a warning sign to change.
Here’s an extract from our main article on breathing and support (which we will link at the end).
How support looks:
Watch the singer in the following video. You will see the abdomen ‘kick upwards’ at the very start of the note. It is sustained right through the entire note. A good support will result in this kind of longevity:
What causes everything to ‘lift up’ from the lower abdomen?
I want you to look at the picture below. When we are focusing on keeping our ribs expanded, our external obliques will contract – we will feel this sensation in the back as well as the sides. From the front, you will notice a sheet of white tissue that goes around the lower abdomen like a V. This is the aponeurosis of the external oblique. This is a bit like a basket that contains all of your abdominal material. When the external obliques are correctly tort, they will pull upward at this aponeurosis, which is what causes that ‘kick’ in the lower abdomen when correctly supporting.
But Pavarotti mentioned singing from the diaphragm!
Anyone who disagrees with my initial sentiment that you cannot ‘sing from the diaphragm’ may point me towards the following video:
It is important to remember that tenor Luciano Pavarotti uses the word ‘diaphragm’ fairly loosely here. By his description of Dame Joan Sutherland, his indication to the chest and abdominal area suggests that the instrument was well supported. If you have ever seen a clip of Dame Joan Sutherland singing, you will notice an excellent posture with a strident chest and a lot of activity occurring in the chest and abdomen – particularly a slight bounce or tautness during coloratura passages. I believe Pavarotti is referring to the entire instrument: An correct, free posture to release the diaphragm and ribs, and powerful external muscles to control the stream of air as Sutherland sang.
Please refer to my article on breath and support for exercizes that properly work on diaphragm release (inhalation) and muscular support (when singing).
Thanks again for joining me and I look forward to revealing next week’s singing myth.