Practice Strategies: Exhale to Inhale!

Sometimes you'll laugh and sometimes you'll cry
Life never tells us the when's or why's
But when you've got friends to wish you well
You'll find a point when you will exhale…

I’ve always been a fan of Whitney Houston’s singing, and recently as I was preparing some vocal exercises based on finding a full connection to the breath, this soulful song from the Movie Waiting to Exhale popped into my mind’s audio loop.

As a younger singer, I was often preoccupied with taking a “good breath”, and conversely, my attempted exhale was often way to forced, held, stuck or virtually non-existent. Through researching and learning about breath, I have found that one way to find a full-bodied inhale is to work at it by exhaling to the point where I feel “empty”. Playing with this exchange where the exhale is intentionally long and sustained helps the body to find that centering, luscious, energizing sensation of what is known as the reflexive inhale.

Inhaling is a reflexive action; we have been doing it since we took our very first breath! The principle muscle of the inhale is the diaphragm; that very large, domey-shaped muscle that literally separates the thorax from the abdomen. When the brain sends the message to “take a breath”, the diaphragm descends, pulling the lungs down, creating a vacuum so that air enters the lungs.

So why a full exhale to find this innately natural action?

Put simply, the exhale will bring about the natural intention of the body to take a breath.

Now I’m aware that I am simplifying things here, and I do not mean to underplay the very real skill that must be achieved for proper breath management in singing and supported speech. It requires much time and dedication for most singers and professional voice users to develop the skills and nuances related to support, thoracic flexibility, energizing different kinds of phrases, finding an optimal breath/body balance for each individual instrument, etc.

However, working on a very simple action that is both understandable and achievable allows one to participate in the body’s natural ability to exhale-to-inhale. Upon further application, a singer may choose to connect the action of exhaling with their intention of any breath concept they are currently developing. It can be combined with positive self-talk related to vocal technique, pre-performance mindset, setting the intention of a phrase or song, or really anything relevant to that individual’s practice. Furthermore, and possibly most importantly, this exercise may be used to Slow. Down. The. Mind. We are all aware of the challenges of creating space to set aside the normalcies of the day and simply focus on breath.

Steps for Exhaling Fully to Allow Reflexive Inhale in the Practice Room:

  1. Begin with some gentle stretches such as the “rag-doll”, bending side to side, and gentle neck rolls to warm up the body and mind for focusing on breath.

  2. Find a comfortable standing or sitting position. If standing, take some time to connect to the floor, feeling the feet, wiggling the toes, and unlocking the knees with gentle knee bends. If sitting, move forward on the chair so that the sit bones are more directly supporting your weight.

  3. Exhale. You may try [fff], [sss], or [ʃʃʃ]. When you feel “empty”, allow an inhale.

  4. After a few rounds of exhaling-to-inhale, start to pay attention to the how of your exhale and inhale. What breathing muscles do you feel releasing for each? What breathing muscles do you feel activating for each? Check in with alignment and body tensions. Let go of anything that is not serving the exhale-to-inhale action.

  5. Add your beautiful voice to the exhale. Sing a familiar vocal warm up pattern, or just let yourself sing whatever comes to mind. At the end of each phrase or pattern, move directly into the exhale without stopping the flow. Again, when you feel “empty”, allow an inhale and sing another phrase, or sing the pattern again, modulating up or down as you wish.

  6. Once the flow of breath exchange feels more connected to your body and instrument, gradually let go of the [sss], [fff] or [ʃʃʃ] and start to sing as you normally would, with the usual exchange of sing-inhale-sing.

Additional ways to incorporate this exercise:

  • Use it in the body of a song to explore how much breath your instrument needs for each phrase. Work slowly, extracting the breathing of the song from the tempo structure.

  • Use this exercise with spoken text, allowing the breath to become more connected to the words. Recite a line of text then exhale-inhale, repeat the same process with the next line or repeat the same line. Focus on the meaning of the words as you go deeper.

  • For auditory practice, try this exercise while hearing (audiating) each phrase in your mind. It may be helpful to close your eyes as you do this and place your hands on your abdomen and thorax. Is there a place in the phrase where your breath stops, tenses or gives up? Explore those points and see if you can play with a more energizing quality to the breath.

  • For expression, sit or stand in front of a mirror, and as you exhale-to-inhale, give yourself different attitudes or verbs to think as you engage in the action. Employ the imagination and encourage expression in the face. Add a gesture, and play with marrying your breath energy to a more full bodied expression.

  • Remember that exhaling in life is healthy! This action creates space for your thoughts and feelings. It can allow us to let go of unneeded things, to trust ourselves and find grounded joy!

Additional Resources:

BabyFace, performed and recorded by Whitney Houston. Waiting to Exhale, Exhale (Shoop Shoop). Arista Records, 1995.

Bunch Dayme, Meribeth. The Performer’s Voice: Realizing Your Vocal Potential. London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005.

Dimon, Theodore Ed.D. Your Body, Your Voice: The Key to Natural Singing and Speaking. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2011.

Farhi, Donna. The Breathing Book: Good Health and Vitality through Essential Breath Work. New York: Henry Holt and Company, Inc., 1996.

LeBorgne, Wendy. The Vocal Athlete. Plural Publishing, 2014.

McCoy, Scott. Your Voice: An Inside View, Mulitmedia Science and Pedagogy. Princeton: Inside View Press, 2004.

Nelson, Samuel H. and Elizabeth Blades-Zeller. Singing with Your Whole Self: The Feldenkrais Method and Voice. Lanham: The Scarecrow Press, 2002.

Studio Rendering Inc. “The Mechanics of Respiration”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hp-gCvW8PRY (accessed July 19, 2013).

Wall, Joan and Robert Caldwell. Breath. DVD. Produced by Pst…Inc. New York: Insight Media, 2005.

Blog Entry July 12, 2019

Ivy Walz, DMA