My thoughts on breathing...
A bit more information as it occurs to me about how breathing impacts your health and well-being. If you have questions or want me to address a particular topic, please don't hesitate to contact me!
This month I have a guest blogger...Dr. Rachel Goldenberg, who I will be joining forces with to provide a program of combined physical therapy and singing for better lung health (more info here). Dr. Goldenberg is a professional voice teacher, with a special interest in using singing as a platform for improved lung health. Dr, Goldenberg has recently published a literature review on singing lessons for respiratory health in the Journal of voice (click here to view). I'm thrilled to be working with Rachel and hope you enjoy her blog!
Singing for Better Respiratory Health!
by Rachel Goldenberg, D.M.A.
At first, singing seems simple, something that’s fun, makes you happy and distracts you from the daily grind. However, as a random nurse practitioner I met at my very first medical conference exclaimed: “Of course! You’re going to teach us how to breathe!”
I’ve found that although singing is indeed a happy, fun and energizing activity that distracts and heals you, it is also a useful physical therapy. Below, I share some of my most frequently asked questions:
1. Why sing?
Singing is the product of many interactions between the physical (the brain, ear, breath, larynx and articulators,) and the creative (musical notes, rhythm, instrumentation and poetry.) When we sing, the breath passes through the larynx to create sound waves. These sound waves are then filtered in the vocal tract to produce vowels, while the articulators such as the jaw, tongue and lips make consonants. When we breathe in a mindful way to facilitate all these interactions, we develop a useful skill for people with compromised respiratory systems. Understanding the connection between body and breath through the physicality of singing and the rhythm and notes of the music enhances your physical and emotional wellbeing.
2. How is breathing for singing different from everyday breathing?
When the lungs change shape, the resulting internal negative pressure causes air to rush into them, like a vacuum. The lungs are attached to the ribcage and the diaphragm, so movement of either of these structures allows the breath to come in. Breathing when we are resting does not require much movement and generally relies on the natural elastic recoil of the lungs. Breathing for exercise and singing is much more active. When we inhale to sing, we allow the diaphragm to descend and the abdominal wall to relax. When we exhale, the abdominal wall (and pelvic floor) contracts, pushing the internal organs up against the relaxing diaphragm, in turn pushing the air out of the body. By using the large, strong abdominal muscles to move the air, we control the exhalation and are better able to meet the demands of the music.
3. How is breathing for singing different than the breathing exercises I learn in physical therapy?
There are many areas of overlap, which is why an integrated program of physical therapy and singing classes is helpful for respiratory patients. Breathing exercises are part of most singers’ practice regimes. We reinforce these concepts about breathing by applying them to the task of singing a song. Because you are subject to the demands of the music, you may either have a long time to consider your breath between phrases or you may have to inhale quickly. You may also have to exhale for a long time and vary the amount of breath pressure you use (higher and louder notes require more pressure). Either way, you give your breathing apparatus a workout you can’t find elsewhere. I’d also like to think that singing is fun and more interesting than simply doing breathing exercises.
4. What are the other benefits to singing besides learning to breathe?
There has been a marked increase of research about the use of singing for respiratory diseases and ailments. One of the most commonly reported physical benefits is an increase in maximum expiratory pressure, likely the result of strengthened breathing muscles. Study participants also report increases in breath control and reduced breathlessness. They feel more confident and aware of their body, and find singing to be an enjoyable activity with few risks and little cost. They enjoy the socialization with other singers and the singing teacher. The overall quality of the voice, particularly speech, also improves, enhancing the ability to communicate effectively.
5. I’d really like to try singing, but I have the worst voice in the world. In fact, my choir director in elementary school told me to lip synch at the concert.
This isn’t a question but it’s something I hear ALL THE TIME and it’s unfortunate these kinds of experiences hold people back from enjoying singing later in life. Singing is a physical coordination between the brain, ear, breath, larynx and articulators. Usually, people are only legitimately tone deaf if there is a physical disruption in one of these elements (but I’m not going to let breathing be your excuse because I have lots of tools to work around that one!) Even if you don’t have the most beautiful voice in the world, that doesn’t mean it isn’t worthy of being heard. My goal is not to have you sing on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera (unless you want to) but to help you develop an instrument with which you can express yourself. Most voice teachers have stories of students who can’t sing a note in tune at first but with efforts on both sides, they overcome this challenge. It’s usually a matter of ironing out the coordination.
6. What types of music will we sing and will I have to sing publicly?
In our group singing class for respiratory patients, we begin each hour-long session with physical and vocal warm ups, including breathing exercises. Then, we’ll sing all kinds of songs, usually in English to help you develop your instrument. Some songs will be familiar popular tunes, while others will be new. I am always open to suggestions. We’ll conclude each session with a short cool down. As for public performance, this is a group class so you’ll likely sing in front of each other at some point. However, most of the time, we will be singing together. If you’re feeling particularly confident, we can discuss performing opportunities.
If you have further questions about the program, please reach out to either Jessica or myself. I look forward to hearing from you!
I'm a physiotherapist who is passionate about educating anyone and everyone about the impact breathing has on our health.