Elaina Robbins, Soprano
Disclaimer: The following article contains my thoughts and opinions. This is not to be construed as medical advice or the only way to think about these concepts. There are as many ways to teach voice as there are voice teachers, and all of them are valid.
If you’ve ever been in a choir, signed up for an online singing course, or watched virtual singing lessons on YouTube, you might have heard the advice, “sing from your diaphragm.” While this phrase is often bandied around, a lot of folks actually have no idea what it means. While teaching my Fort Wayne voice lessons or online students, I’ve had people tell me the diaphragm is located near the pelvis, is positioned vertically through the torso, or even floats freely through the body. No wonder these people have trouble breathing for singing—they don’t know what equipment their body has or how to use it!
That’s why I decided to write this article. In it, you should learn exactly what the diaphragm is, where it’s located in your body, how it moves, and how you can breathe from your diaphragm and sing from your diaphragm. I hope this solves the case of the mysterious diaphragm for you once and for all and lets you breathe easily!
What the Heck Is a Diaphragm Anyway?
The secondary definition of diaphragm from the Oxford dictionary is simply “a thin sheet of material forming a partition.” This gives us a really good idea of what the anatomical diaphragm is. It’s a big, flattish muscle that separates your torso horizontally into two parts. On top, you’ve got your lungs and your heart; underneath are all your gooey digestive organs (viscera).
"Lynch - Drawing Anterior chest landmarks - no labels" by Patrick J. Lynch and C. Carl Jaffe, license: CC BY. Green and red lines added
The Function of the Diaphragm
Ask any first grader what organ is responsible for breathing, and they’ll likely tell you it’s the lungs. The problem is that the lungs are not made of muscle. They’re basically empty air sacks that have to be inflated by the muscles of inspiration (inhalation). That’s where the diaphragm comes in.
The diaphragm is our largest inhalation muscle, which is why if you’ve dabbled in an online singing course, this is the one you’ve probably heard of. When your diaphragm is at rest, it’s kind of lumpy, like a flattened “m.” When you activate your diaphragm by inhaling, it becomes flatter and wider, moving downwards to expand the lungs. In the image above, the red line shows the diaphragm at rest and the green line shows the diaphragm in action.
Engaging the Diaphragm When Breathing
This may all seem well and good in a picture, but you can’t exactly see your diaphragm when you breathe. How can you be sure this is happening? The answer is that when you breathe “from your diaphragm,” or fully engaging your diaphragm, you get some helpful external movement as well. Your belly moves! This happens for a few reasons:
Because you have this helpful physical cue of belly movement during diaphragmatic breathing, some people actually call this type of breathing “low breathing” or “belly breathing.” Just remember that your belly is not filling with air—the belly movement is just sympathetic movement as your lungs inflate.
Now, how can you work on engaging the diaphragm when breathing? In my virtual singing lessons and Fort Wayne singing lessons, my students focus on using the senses of sight, sound, and kinesthetic awareness (body awareness/feeling) to improve their skills. Here’s how this applies to the diaphragm (although, since breathing is silent, sound doesn’t come into play here).
Sight: Work on breathing in front of a mirror. Is your belly moving?
Engage Your Diaphragm, Relax Your Chest and Shoulders
Diaphragmatic breathing engages the lower torso, but you may notice that when you breathe, your chest and shoulders move too. In my Fort Wayne singing lessons and virtual singing lessons, my students learn to breathe exclusively from the lower torso without engaging the upper torso. There are a few reasons for this:
The moral of this story is simple: in addition to working on breathing from your diaphragm, work on relaxing your chest and shoulders when you breathe. Your voice will thank you!
How to Sing from Your Diaphragm
Now that we’ve covered inhaling, it’s time to talk about the diaphragm’s role in singing. When you sing, your muscles of inhalation don’t just zoom back to neutral. Students of my Fort Wayne singing lessons know that singing is a form of exhalation, but it’s a controlled form of exhalation. That’s why, when you sing, your diaphragm doesn’t get to relax—it has to stay engaged.
In both by in-person and virtual singing lessons, I call this concept “fighting the collapse.” A more common term for it is “breath support.” By preventing all your air from rushing out at once, you’re supporting your voice as you sing.
Physically, it’s pretty easy to tell if you sing from your diaphragm. After getting a good breath from your diaphragm, start singing. Does your belly immediately zoom in? If it does, can you try and keep it suspended as you sing instead?
Learn How to Sing From Your Diaphragm and More with Fort Wayne Voice Lessons
Sometimes the concepts are easy enough to grasp, but putting them into practice is a little more challenging. If you need help to learn how to sing from your diaphragm and a pre-recorded online singing course just isn’t cutting it, consider signing up for my Fort Wayne voice lessons or online voice lessons. I’d be happy to help you figure out how to sing from your diaphragm and much more!