If you are a singer and aren’t familiar with your diaphragm, you need to make its acquaintance now (and no, I don’t mean your birth control of choice).
And if you are an actor and think that diaphragms are only for singers – you’re wrong. You need the same skills in speaking that a singer utilizes – volume, focus, control, pitch (inflection).
Your diaphragm is what gives you breath control.
Both the air you are taking in and the air you are pushing back out.
Easy way to check and see if you are breathing correctly – take a deep breath.
If your shoulders go up – you’re doing it wrong.
Diaphragmatic breathing, or “belly breathing,” involves fully engaging the stomach, abdominal muscles, and diaphragm when breathing. This means actively pulling the diaphragm down with each inward breath. In this way, diaphragmatic breathing helps the lungs fill more efficiently.
During diaphragmatic breathing, a person consciously engages their diaphragm in order to take deeper breaths. A person will notice their stomach rising and falling. They will also feel an expanding or stretching sensation in the stomach, rather than solely in their chest and shoulders.
As a French horn player, I had to learn a lot about breath control – the French horn is one of the windiest of wind instruments – you have to push a lot of air through all that tubing to get the sound to come out; and you have to keep that air going.
My French horn teacher would have me lie on my back and he would put a bunch of (heavy) books on my stomach and have me lift them with my breathing.
So when your musical director or director director tells you to sing/speak/breathe from your diaphragm that is what they are talking about.
Diaphragmatic breathing is also why your posture is so important. Slumping (forward or backward) makes it difficult to engage the muscles needed. Sitting up straight gives the muscles the room and support they need to get the job done.
So when you are asked to sit up straight, or even stand, during rehearsals, the director is not just being mean.
Some people can do what is called circular breathing. I wish I knew how to do this – because you can just keep singing – and I know it can be done because I worked with a guy who could do it. It is amazing and just a little bit scary.
So, get to know your diaphragm and make it your friend. It can be a big help to you.
(Actually this applies to the other kind of diaphragm as well – but that’s a whole other blog.)