The Breathing Cycle and Breath Support for Singing

Welcome to part two of our blog series on vocal technique. Today, we’re focusing on the breathing cycle. Controlling your breathing while you sing is absolutely essential, and proper breath support is a huge part of it. Read on and learn more!

Missed part one? Click here.


The techniques described in this article shouldn’t be practised in isolation, but rather used as an addition to singing lessons. Even a handful of lessons can be enough to make a huge difference and keep you from hitting a wall or, worse, damaging your vocal cords.

Breath Support is Key

Proper singing without any issues requires control over your breathing. Here, breath support is the name of the game. Managing your breathing is done from your sides, which are in contact with your diaphragm, but more on that in a bit. Singing with breath support will not only help you make it to the end of a phrase without gasping for air, but help you hit higher notes, shape richer sound, create more volume, and sing clearer and in a more controlled manner. It’s the most efficient way to sing since you’re essentially getting the biggest effect with the least amount of effort, and it’s also the safest way (see the bit on vocal cord polyps). But breath support isn’t a standalone concept. It’s part of a bigger whole, namely the breathing cycle. Your breathing cycle consists of four phases, each of which affects the next phase that follows. In other words, the way you inhale affects the way you exhale, which in turn affects your next inhale, and so on. What proper breath support entails is explained below.

Dynamic Breath Support & Blending = Flowing Vocals

The First Phase: Breathing In

The first phase of the breathing cycle is the inhale. You can breathe in either via the nose or the mouth, where the former is generally the best option during the day since the nose serves as a filter, helps warm up cold air, and humidifies dry air all at the same time. When you’re exercising or singing however, it’s basically impossible to avoid breathing in through the mouth, which takes much less time. It’s also better to breathe in through your mouth when you’re singing because it’s much quieter than breathing in through the nose, since air entering via the nose is forced through a kind of labyrinth, creating audible friction in the process. The downside to breathing in through the mouth is that the air is barely filtered or warmed up, which is why singing outside in cold weather can pose a health risk. In spite of the drawbacks, your mouth is still the best and most artistic option when it comes to the inhale. It’s also automatically put in the right position for singing when you breathe in. Make sure to open up your throat so there won’t be any breath noise.

Don’t Inhale Too Deeply

Breathing in deeply isn’t the same as breathing in a lot of air, so how deeply should you inhale when you’re singing? While you don’t need much air to sing, you actually do want to breathe in quite deeply. The trick is to make sure that you don’t take in too much air. After all, the more air you take in, the greater the pressure inside your body will be, and the greater the force and speed at which that air wants to escape your body again. That last bit is what you’ll want to prevent since singing is all about controlling your exhales. That’s where giving yourself breath support comes in, which gets harder the more air you take in but that’s something we’ll tackle in more detail later. Back to pressure. High pressure forces air into places where you don’t want it to go, like your throat, which leads to strained vocals. The less air you inhale, the lower the pressure inside your body will be, and the less effort it takes to use breath support to ensure a controlled exhale and, ultimately, supple vocals. That being said, you do need to draw in enough air to make it to the end of the sentence. This is what’s known as breathing balance: finding the optimum internal air pressure so your vocal cords can vibrate effectively and you have enough oxygen in your lungs to sing entire phrases.

Different Types of Breathing

Let’s stick with the inhale a little longer. Breathing in fills your lungs with air and expands them, and this needs to be done as efficiently as possible. That’s to say: with as little effort as possible to take in the optimal amount of air. In general, there are three distinctive ways of breathing, each of which makes your lungs expand differently. The first is clavicular breathing. This is done by raising your shoulders, giving your lungs room to expand at the top. Since that’s where the lungs are the narrowest, there’s actually not much intake capacity to be gained here. Raising the shoulders also requires a lot of energy, making clavicular breathing the least efficient way to breathe. What’s worse, it also creates a ton of muscle tension around the throat, which is important to keep as relaxed as possible. In short, clavicle breathing is useless for singers. As a matter of fact, it’s a symptom of hyperventilation. A better way to breathe would be costal breathing, also known as chest breathing. This is done by expanding your rib cage, allowing the middle of your lungs to expand and take in much more air than clavicular breathing.

Diaphragm and Breath Support

The third and most efficient way to breathe is diaphragmatic breathing. This is done by pushing the sides of your belly outwards. Your sides are connected to your thoracic diaphragm: the large, C-shaped muscle that separates your chest cavity and your abdominal cavity. Expanding the belly flattens the diaphragm, allowing the lungs to expand at the bottom where they’re the widest. This is why diaphragmatic breathing draws in the most amount of air with the least amount of effort. It’s the best starting point for anchoring breath support, which is the second phase of the breathing cycle. A diaphragmatic inhale with the aim of breath support is done as follows. First, breathe out and get rid of as much air as you can and notice how your belly contracts as you do this. Then, allow your abdominal muscles to relax so that your belly drops and air automatically flows in. There should be no need to voluntarily draw air in here. As you feel the air enter, you expand your sides, which marks the starting point for singing. The goal is now to keep your sides wide while you sing the rest of the phrase. Not sure what part of your sides you should be focussed on? Try coughing or laughing and you should feel the muscles used for breath support. By the way, supporting our breathing is something we all do naturally, but simply ‘forget’ to do the second we start singing. Costal and diaphragmatic breathing are the most used ways to breathe while singing, and some singers will even combine both ways. If the performance requires dancing and singing at the same time, then costal breathing is the way to go since keeping your sides wide is next to impossible while you’re moving your body.

The Second and Third Phase

Following the inhale, you enter the second phase of the breathing cycle: anchoring breath support. After breathing in through your belly and expanding it in the first phase, you want to tense your sides and keep your belly expanded so that your diaphragm remains flattened. Phase one and two combined usually only take a fraction of a second and prepare for the exhale with breath support, in other words, the actual singing. Your breath support can vary when you sing since you don’t need as much of it when you’re singing at medium volume and medium pitch. Very loud, very quiet, very high-pitched and very low-pitched singing is a different story and demands more control and therefore more breath support. More breath support means your sides will have to work harder to keep your diaphragm flat. Since you constantly vary the pitch and volume as you sing, you must also adjust your breath support in the process. Whatever you do though, never let go of the breath support before you finish the line you’re singing. If needed, just adjust things like the pronunciation of certain vowels or consonants, but let’s save that topic for a future article.


At the end of a long phrase or a drawn-out closing note, breath support usually isn’t enough to pull off something like a good vibrato that requires an extra burst of energy — in other words: air. To save some air so you can go out with a bang, you’ll need to contract your abdominal wall (the part between your navel and your crotch) in a controlled manner. Here, the trick is to not tense your abs but keep them relaxed with just the right amount of effort so that the airflow rocks your larynx back and forth. Your larynx is a lot like a suspension bridge, which also starts rocking a little when there’s enough wind. Just look up a video of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge on YouTube. It’s the same principle as singing with natural vibrato.

The Fourth Phase: Dropping Breath Support

The final phase of the breathing cycle takes place every time you finish singing a line. Here, the trick is to drop breath support as soon as you’re done producing sound, which sounds simple but is quite tricky in practice. A lot of singers tend to stop supporting their breath just before the last syllable. This has nothing to do with the length of the sung phrase, but is purely a mental issue. The solution is simple: just imagine the finish line is metres further than it actually is. Or remember the Lenny Kravitz line: it ain’t over till it’s over. When you drop breath support correctly, your belly will also drop forward at which point air will automatically flow in. This marks the first phase of the next breathing cycle, but it can only happen properly if you’ve properly concluded the fourth phase of the previous cycle. Releasing too soon will make you feel as if you’re short of breath and, as a reflex, you’ll take in too much air during the next first phase. This will then create a downward spiral where you’re losing air too quickly, gasping for more and more air in every fourth phase. To avoid this vicious cycle, it’s important to work on the four-one-two phase transitions until they’re one streamlined action. The duration of the third phase – the actual singing – obviously depends on the length of the line that you sing.

The Basics for Correct Singing Technique

If you’re struggling with your breath, then it’s crucial to determine which phase of the breathing cycle is the most problematic for you. While it’s not always easy, improving just one phase can have a huge effect on the rest of the cycle, potentially fixing other issues in the process. As should be clear by now, managing your breathing cycle is the foundation for proper singing technique, with breath support being a crucial part of it. As a singer, you’ll not only want to be conscious of your breath cycle and breath support all the time, but continue to do breathing exercises throughout the rest of your career.

This was part two in a series about proper vocal technique. The follow-up article will focus more closely on using breath support while you’re singing.

Good to Know

Avoiding Polyps With Breath Support

Proper breath support makes sure that air flows through your vocal cords in a controlled manner and at the right speed. Too little breath support or none at all will force the air out of your lungs too quickly, like letting go of an inflated balloon. When the air moves too fast, your vocal cords can’t do their job properly. To compensate for the ‘performance loss’, your body makes the muscles in your larynx push the vocal cords inwards, barring your larynx which affects your vocals. It can even get worse when the muscles around your larynx close your vocal cords completely and make them rub against one another. The mucous membrane that’s supposed to protect your vocal cords will then dry up, which reddens and irritates your vocal cords. Over time, this can cause every singer’s nightmare: polyps.

Being Aware

Some singers use breath support instinctively, but that doesn’t mean they can’t benefit from working on it during singing lessons with the goal of being fully aware of it and expanding the possibilities that breath support opens up.

Natural Vibrato

Since you’re keeping your throat muscles relaxed and your larynx free to move, singing with breath support produces a natural vibrato, which is the result of air flowing past your larynx at the right speed as it escapes, causing the larynx to rock back and forth.

Belting Out Songs Responsibly

Applying breath support correctly allows you to do pretty much anything with your voice without damaging your vocal cords. American vocal teacher, Melissa Cross ( has developed breath support exercises that are especially useful for hard-rock singers. While some of these exercises seem a little weird, they’re really effective at helping you growl, grunt and belt out songs without risking vocal cord disorders. Google ‘The Zen of Screaming’ and you should be able to find various helpful CDs and DVDs.

Final Note

Just to be clear, what I’ve been calling ‘breath support’ in this article falls under what’s known as ‘anchoring’ in EVTS (Estill Voice Training System). Catrine Sadolin, author of ‘Complete Vocal Technique’ (CVT) divides breath support into natural and active breath support.

See also

» Dynamic Breath Support & Blending = Flowing Vocals
» Singing Technique: A History
» Auto-Tune, Melodyne… Is Using Pitch-Correction Cheating?
» How to Record a Full Choir
» Mixing Flawless Vocals in 5 Steps
» Recording and amplifying vocals for beginners

» Microphones & Accessories
» Vocal Books
» Vocal Effects
» Speakers

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