Myth Buster-Vocal Edition: Sing from your diaphragm

It is so crucial that we stay educated and continue to follow research in the vocal education world. I want to make sure I have the best information to give to my students and to remember that every student is different. There is no “one size fits all” solution to vocal coordination.

There have been some myths that have been floating around for years. It is time to put an end to these myths and get back to the basics of vocal anatomy and pedagogy.

Myth #1: “Sing from your diaphragm”

I grew up hearing this statement and though I was clever enough to figure out that my vocal folds are not located in my diaphragm… others have not. Quick anatomy lesson:

Physically, it is impossible to sing from your diaphragm since your vocal folds (we don’t call them cords anymore)are located in your throat, specifically, in the larynx. Your diaphragm is located and connected to the base of your rib cage, like an upside-down bowl, under your lungs.It is used to push your viscera(guts), or as my voice teacher in college used to call them “beef and noodles”,down and out of the way for your lungs to expand. Then you use your abdominal muscles to maintain a feelings of the inhale position as you exhale creating the ability to sustain your breath through a piece of music. That is also why lifting your shoulders to breathe doesn’t actually work… Your lungs have nowhere to expand if the diaphragm is not allowed contract to and make room for them to take in more air.

So though you need your diaphragm to provide support in breath control, you cannot sing from it. Healthy sound comes from having an energized breathing technique. Your folds need a steady stream of air that matches the register you are singing in. A higher register requires a much different stream of air than a low register. That’s getting into the physics of sound and waves and a 40 page paper, so I digress.

Just know that you don’t “sing from your diaphragm”. Myth busted! Most of my students are beginners, but they have, so far, understood the concept of how breathing works, even if we are still learning how to do it, without using this phrase. It is a process that is not solved overnight or by practicing breathing techniques without adding vocalization. Singing technique is about coordination and if you don’t practice adding the vocalization and breathing together, then it’s a waste to practice breathing at all.

An old dog and a piano

Supplemental material for method books is a necessary in my mind. Yes the method works in general for most people, but I want each of my students to have a tailored experience that is directly relatable to them.

I have a student, we’ll call him T, had decided he wanted to learn to play the piano at the age of 61. Now others had convinced T that you “can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” And though he signed up for lessons, he struggled with this mentality. I have told him and will continue to remind him that if a person has opened their heart and mind to learning something new, then they will learn. He tried for a few months, but he struggled with the book we are using, believing that these unfamiliar songs were not teaching him anything. Though he saw the value in the exercise they provided, it was not meaningful and so he was not progressing as he had hoped he would. One day he came to lessons with a bunch of Easy Piano Books he bought online full of songs he knew and enjoyed. In his experience, familiarity with a song made it easier to recognize and correct mistakes better than a new piece that sounded like an exercise, granted, that’s what the new songs were 😉 I promised him that as long as we kept learning theory and exercises in the method book we could add some of these songs to the routine.

We discovered, though that the Easy Piano was still too advanced for a total beginner only five months into his lessons. I could tell that he was frustrated, as he really did want to understand the foreign language of music that he was only beginning to understand, and just like any foreign language, you can’t learn it over-night. We struggled to get his fingers to move and change positions to match what the song called for and to recognize the notes that were not addressed in the method book yet.

I wanted him to feel successful and to be able to play his favorite songs. So I took the piece, Let It Be by the Beatles, and using my music software, created a version that used techniques and hand positions that complemented what we were learning in his method book. He was thrilled that he could read the music and recognize the tune while also building his skills as a pianist. This also gave him more confidence to learn the new pieces in the method book and we were able to move on to more challenging lessons.

I now regularly arrange songs for him that range from the Beatles, Billy Joel, and his other favorite artists that go along with his lessons for the month and even rearranging songs he’s already done to create more depth to a song he can already play. And he can see his progress and be proud of what he has learned. Which is a foundation sometimes forgotten in music. Progress, not the end result, is the beauty in music. Feeling that you have accomplished something for yourself and not having to compare it to someone else.