How To Sing Without Your Diaphragm
 Vocal Coaching: Train With A Legend | April, 1984 | Updated: June, 2007

There are many misleading and confusing terms that are used to refer to the process of singing. Last month, I talked about the term "open throat." Open throat means singing with a relaxed neck. It does not mean singing with your throat opened. The laryngeal muscles are extremely active during the process of phonation. When you sing, they are responsible for the vibration that produces the sound. An "open" throat would be incapable of singing at all.

The other much used and often misunderstood term (and the subject of this discussion) is "sing with your diaphragm." I often hear this term and have always wondered how such a vague, meaningless statement could be in such wide usage usually by people who don't understand it. I hope to finally clear up this confusion here.

First of all, what is the diaphragm, anyway? To answer this question as clearly as possible, I will quote men with whom I have trained and worked. Bernard U. Taylor, a famous voice teacher in the city of New York for many years (and my voice teacher's teacher) states, "the diaphragm is the partition between the chest and abdominal cavities. The diaphragm is active during inhalation (it descends), but only partly so during exhalation. When it relaxes, the air leaves the lungs. The abdominal muscles which are very powerful, actually do the work of providing breath pressure for singing. There should be no pulling in of these muscles nor pushing out, but there should be a feeling of resistance. The same sensation felt while grunting, humming, etc."

William Vennard states that, "...the contraction of the diaphragm causes it to lower and partly flatten, increasing the capacity of the thorax. It is the muscle of inhalation. The contraction of the abdominal muscles decreases the capacity of the entire trunk, including the thorax, except in certain functions. They are the muscles of exhalation. They are resisted and steadied by the diaphragm, but it only causes confusion to think of this muscle as being the active factor. The diaphragm does not support the tone."

Many people believe that if you can learn to control the action of the diaphragm, you can learn to control the entire breathing mechanism and therefore control the action of the larynx. The problem is that that is not how the normal function of the body proceeds. When you sing, you are exhaling air. And since the diaphragm (as we have just learned) is hardly active during exhalation, how can you "support" something with a relaxing, partially inactive, involuntary wall of muscle? It makes no sense at all.

Another factor is also involved. As Dr. F. Bradnitz, a noted authority on the voice and author of many clinical books, states, "True, a smooth control of expiration depends to a certain degree on the slow relaxation of the diaphragm. But another factor prevents a conscious control of the diaphragm. Of all the muscles of the human body, the diaphragm is the only one without a sense of position. Even with our eyes closed, we are always aware of the position of all parts of our body. In breathing we feel the action of all parts involved. We are aware of the expansion or contraction of our chest. We can feel the bulging of our belly and our flanks. But we cannot become aware of the position of our diaphragm while breathing." For this reason it is more precise to speak of abdominal control because diaphragmatical control is a concept which does not coincide with the facts.

So, as you can see, although the diaphragm is an integral part of the breathing process, no one actually "sings" with their diaphragm.

In general, talking vocal technique can be as tricky and combative as talking politics and religion. And as with the latter subjects, discussing vocal technique takes too much energy and everyone (students and teachers) always thinks they're right anyway (including me). This is why it is extremely important for teachers to use precise terms when describing vocal function. Vocabulary should be chosen to be as accurate as possible. Ambiguous terms will only lead to future misunderstanding. There is no possible way to go home to practice a lesson when the body is incapable of doing it to begin with. I am always very cautious about using a term for which I do not have a satisfactorily precise meaning. Terminology should describe function as simply and clearly as possible. This way the learning process is made much easier for everyone. See you next month.

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