There have been a handful of “gamechanger” implementations in my teaching over the years, and the practice of pausing and breathing mindfully with my students is quite possibly the most profound. Not surprisingly, the choice to take a moment at the top of every lesson and simply breathe came about as a result of noticing the tremendous impact that mindful breathing had on my personal life; naturally, it made sense to bring this practice to my students. Thankfully for us all, the benefits of mindfulness practices, and breathing specifically, are part of the mainstream cultural conversation these days; clearly these practices are beneficial for all humans. For the singer, however, these practices are doubly impactful, as our vocal instrument is entirely dependent on breath. My own experience from bringing mindfulness, breathwork, and meditation tools into my work with singers has been so powerful that it eventually led me to create guided meditations specifically for singers and a variety of other holistic tools utilizing breathwork, visualizations, and the like. Some of my guided meditations are published on the meditation app Insight Timer, and more recently, I built my own app for vocalists called “Vocal Master”, which, as of this writing, is in the app review process. (Once Vocal Master is published it will offer libraries of breathwork practices, guided meditations, affirmations, and other holistic resources for singers, along with warmups and the more traditional fare).
But back to the breath, and why we need to simply breathe with our students before we complicate it with breathing techniques for singing. Here are some of the reasons I share with my students:
None of us breathe correctly.
We are a culture of people deeply disconnected from our natural breathing patterns. We are oxygen-deprived and we suffer numerous physical and emotional challenges and even ailments as a result. The subject of breathing related to our health is an enormous one: if you’d like to explore it further I recommend journalist James Nestor’s book, Breath (2020), which explores what current science and ancient practices both tell us about this extraordinary part of our physiology.
Mindful breathing helps us become more present.
Even taking 3 breaths in which we are fully present (this is essentially what “mindful” means) helps us to slow down and bring our awareness into the moment in front of us. When we breathe with intention we have an opportunity to stop and set aside everything that happened before the lesson and everything coming afterward– tasks, worries, expectations, challenges, performances, you name it– and be present for the beautiful gift of working with our voices. This is not only helpful for the student but it’s helpful for me! I also become more present. I release the lesson that happened before the current lesson, I release the busyness of my morning, or the text message I received in-between clients. In this way, I see breath as a portal of sorts: pausing and breathing with intention acts as a doorway into another space, where we both slow down, connect to our bodies, and focus on learning, which leads me to the next reason. Note: any voice teacher who has been teaching for any period of time knows that sometimes the student needs to talk first. Sometimes (often!) the student needs to unload something they are carrying, or process something out loud before they can be present for singing, thus the part-therapist aspect of our jobs as teachers and coaches. In these cases, the 3 mindful breaths can happen after the talking. Or sometimes, breathing mindfully can help us release something without the need to process it verbally, and this is a powerful thing to experience.
Mindful breathing helps the brain focus.
I don’t need to say much about the importance of focus in the learning process. And I doubt I really need to say that we, as a culture of people, are all suffering from a lack of focus. Distractions tug at us all day long, left and right. Social media is designed to distract us and shorten our attention span. Improving one’s focus is no longer just something beneficial to people with an official ADD diagnosis, but something essential for all of us to attend to. We all need to either improve our focus and/or keep it sharp. For our students, their ability to focus well impacts not only how they learn in the lesson, but how they practice and how they perform. More on that in a minute.
In addition to the quality of our focus, how and where we focus our attention while working with our voices is so important. In my somatic approach to teaching voice, most of the time I find it helpful to shift the student’s focus out of analytic, critical awareness of the sound and into the feel of singing, which leads me to the next powerful effect of practicing mindful breathing in the voice lesson.
Breathing mindfully helps bring one’s awareness into the body.
For vocalists who are not easily connected to their bodies and the myriad physical sensations of singing, a simple breathing practice can be extended into kinesthetic practice of specific parts of the body (for example “now focus your awareness on your ribcage and notice what you feel”, or “for the next breath gently rest your awareness on the sensations you notice in your throat”, etc). One caveat: breathwork is very powerful, and even the act of simply breathing slowly and consciously and connecting to the body can sometimes bring up emotion or stored memories for the practitioner. It is helpful to be prepared for that possibility and to create a safe space for those kinds of experiences, reminding our students that this is natural and one of the ways the breath works in the body. For those students who may have suffered trauma of some kind, we can assist by encouraging them to reach out for additional support from a qualified therapist. (For more on trauma and the body, see The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D.).
Breathing mindfully helps us relax.
I feel certain we all have an understanding of why relaxing the body (and mind) is beneficial to singing and working with singers. This effect of focusing on the breath, particularly the exhale, which is connected to the parasympathetic nervous system, can help vocalists calm their bodies and their minds. When practiced over time this is a wonderful tool to quickly dial in a state of relaxed focus, or flow, not to mention assist our students who struggle with anxiety.
Breathing mindfully helps the singer to connect more deeply and intimately with the motor of the vocal instrument.
How wonderful for singers that, in addition to all of the ways it benefits their lives and health, practicing breathwork brings them into a closer relationship with the power source for the human voice! No matter what your approach to teaching breathing for singing, a simple conscious breathing practice before working on other breathing techniques can, in my humble opinion, only enhance them.
There are numerous applications beyond the lesson. Or, put another way…
Mindful breathing is a gateway drug.
For myself and the vocalists I work with, simple intentional breathing creates a foundation upon which other powerful habits and practices can be built, such as more extended breathwork and meditation, disciplines that combine breath and movement (such a yoga, Tai Chi, and Qi Gong), and mental practice. Additionally, there is no magic to the number 3; I tend to start with it because of its simplicity and most everyone, even the most distracted or resistant student, feels like they can practice 3 breaths. I never begin a warm up with a student before taking at least 3 deep breaths together, and usually we spend even more time. I find it saves time in the long run and helps the lesson run more efficiently, for all of the reasons mentioned above. High-performance coach Brad Stulberg, in his fantastic book The Practice of Groundedness, recommends that his clients start with 5 mindful breaths 3 times a day and grow it from there. You can adapt this practice however it makes sense for you and your clientele. Most people will want to add on after they have experienced the benefits, both to their singing and their lives! For assistance with building a conscious breathing habit I recommend my students schedule reminders on their phones or, if they would like less engagement with technology in their lives, put up sticky notes all over the place.
3 Specific Areas in which 3 Mindful Breaths can be utilized outside of the lesson:
The practice room
Practice is more effective and efficient when we are in a state of relaxed focus, the aforementioned “flow state”.
Performances of all kinds
Whether in the studio or on stage, giving our students the gift of grounding breaths, relaxing breaths, or any breathing that balances the nervous system and calms the body (see Box Breathing for a wonderful example) is giving them one of the most powerful tools they can access for performance. Even the simple 3 Mindful Breaths Practice before walking on stage is helpful. And 3 Mindful Breaths in between takes in the studio can pull a singer out of their head and into their body, into the emotional content of the song, or wherever they want to be. In this way, the practice can be utilized as a sort of reset button.
Meditation, Visualization, and Mental Practice
Breathing with awareness is at the heart of most meditation practices and is the first step in relaxing the body and mind to prepare for visualization work, or mental practice. These things are additional tools that all performers can benefit from enormously, and they are built upon a mindful breath. Or 3.
Like everything, breathing mindfully gets easier and more powerful as we practice it. When we work with it regularly, when we return to it daily, we find that we can learn to be more present in virtually any area of our lives. We learn to access states of calm, relaxation, and focus very quickly. We feel better. We are less reactive. We are more connected to our bodies, our instruments. When we teach our students to work with their breath in this manner, we give them powerful tools not only for singing, but for their lives.
About the Author
Laura Donohue is a holistic voice teacher, professional vocalist, and songwriter based in Nashville, TN. She’s also the creator of the Vocal Muse app.