You'll a lot of disagreement amongst singers, pedagogues and scientific types throughout history about breathing techniques and the use of tummy muscles in singing. In this post I'm going to look at the first phase of things - the in-breath. How you get your breath has a pretty important knock-on effect on the sound that will come back out shortly afterwards.
At Vocalese, I frequently bang on about using "zippy" muscles, and "nice deep breath" - well, for many of you, these terms may mean not very much. Let's see if I can't shed a little light...
Some people who know or claim to know what they are on about put forth that you should relax your tummy to breathe in, letting it expand naturally as you inhale. Others would have you raise your ribcage to allow the lungs to expand outwards rather than just downwards...anyway...If you have two experts with diametrically opposed opinions, can't they both be right?
I guess it boils down to what you want to achieve and what works for you. It also helps if the person offering their thoughts on how it should be done can also rationalise, explain and demonstrate both the method and benefits of their particular breathing technique. If they can't, then it's just possible that you might take their advice with a few grains of sodium chloride and run for the hills. For the main, I teach what I truly believe to be a good, simple and reliable method which does seem to benefit all who try it. There are of course differences and nuances depending on what you are singing and the quality of voice you are using, but by and large...
So, are we standing comfortably?
Just take a second to think about how the diaphragm moves when you breathe in. Your diaphragm is a muscle. It contracts and pulls down to a flatter shape when you breathe in, creating a reduction in air pressure in your chest cavity causing you to inhale, and relaxes back to a dome shape when you breathe out. For a visual idea of exactly what happens, have a look at this rather good YouTube video. The ribcage does expand a little with the lungs but the overriding movement is downwards. Thus, it would make sense to make some room for this diaphragmatic descent by relaxing the muscles of your lower abdomen and allowing a bit of displacement of the squishy bits below the ribcage level. This is perhaps the most natural breathing. When you are asleep, this is how your body breathes.
A lady who writes very easy to understand things about singing, Janice Chapman, calls this SPLAT breathing - Singers Please Lose (or Loosen) Abdominal Tension, which simply means relax your tummy and abdomen to breath in.
Try it - a self-conscious breath is often one that ends up with high ribcage and tension all around the shoulders and neck. When you think about it, you may well end up this way. Try again and this time try very hard to leave your ribcage relaxed and hanging naturally from your skeleton. Maybe visualise breathing to the bottom of your lungs. You should notice a slight expansion of your lower abdomen as you breath in.
It's always good to compare good vs evil, so try a few breaths, deliberately lifting your ribs and shoulders up in preparation for bench-pressing a small elephant or having a panic attack and notice the tension and discomfort. This is not conducive to a good sing.
By the way, do stand well clear of hard objects when you do exercises that interrupt your natural breathing pattern. Not that this will happen to you, but it would be a shame to get a concussion through passing out just because you wanted to make sure you were getting oxygen into your system in a nice effective manner!
A nice side-effect of this kind of exercise is that it is very relaxing, especially if carried out in a peaceful environment.
So, in case you have read this far, I shall continue this line of thinking later with subsequent stages of breathing for singing, but for now, just be aware of SPLATTING when you breathe in, and enjoy the almost "nourishing effect" of a nice deep and low breath. Plus, other people will appreciate a better-oxygenated, calmer and more grounded YOU!