The Thinking Singer: Your Thoracic Diaphragm

Thinking singers, before we move on to the next important step in singing, it is very pertinent that we tackle a certain body part essential in efficient breathing and beautiful singing: the diaphragm.


“Dia–whatta?”

There are several types of diaphragm:

  • The Thoracic diaphragm, a shelf of muscle extending between the thorax and abdomen
  • The Pelvic diaphragm, consists of the Levator ani and the Coccygeus (fancy names for pelvic muscles)
  • The Urogenital diaphragm, a layer of the pelvis separating a certain sac from the upper pelvis
  • The iris
  • The eardrum

In other words, any dome-shaped dividing structure may be called a diaphragm. Fortunately, thinking singers are concerned only with the thoracic diaphragm which separates the thoracic (with lungs and heart) and abdominal cavity (with the digestive and urogenital systems). Since it’s dome-shaped, its convex upper surface forms the floor of the thoracic viscera*, and its concave under surface the roof of the abdominal viscera.

*internal organs 🙂

“Are we there yet?”

Doubtless if you’ve had any voice training, you would have heard of the diaphragm. Usually, when asked, people would point to their stomachs when I ask them where the diaphragm is. There had been some instances where my female students would even refer to their pot belly. As you can see in the first illustration, the diaphragm is located under the lungs, extending across the bottom of the ribcage.

“Isn’t the diaphragm like the appendix — just another superfluous body part?”
Nope. Aside from its very important contribution in helping to expel vomit, feces, and urine from our body, it is also essential in efficient breathing: in order to draw air into the lungs, the diaphragm contracts, thus enlarging the thoracic cavity and reducing intra-thoracic pressure. In simpler terms, when we inhale and the diaphragm contracts, it allows more space for our lungs to expand.

This is the tricky part where singers often err. Inappropriate imagery or inadequte explanations cause bad breathing and singing habits. When I was younger, I used to think that when my teacher would say,”Contract your diaphragm”, it meant I have to intentionally tighten my abdominal muscles. Wrong. Since the diaphragm is located above the abdominal cavity, tightening the abdomen will not activate it. Just like a rubber band, the “contraction” of this dome-shaped fibrous muscle occurs when it expands. In fact, the outward manisfestation that diaphragm is working properly is the torso getting larger when one inhales.

Try watching a baby breathe while sleeping. Observe the rise and fall of the center of his torso. When he inhales, his center rises; when he exhales, it falls because of the recoil of the lungs and the tissues lining the thoracic cavity. That’s his diaphragm naturally at work. I was told by one of my voice teachers that, often, people lose this natural use of the diaphragm as we get older. Improper breathing techniques (“shoulders should rise when we inhale”, “push in your stomach”, etc.) and even infrequent cardio/aerobic activities are the main culprits.

Activating your diaphragm can also help your posture. Because of its location, this little muscle supports your lumbar vertebrae (back) as well as your costal cartilages (beneath your ribs). In fact, I’ve heard a ballet teacher refer to the diaphragm as ‘our body’s natural girdle’. She was 84 and had a better posture and stance than her students.

Things to Remember:

  • As thinking singers, activating your diaphragm is a crucial key in proper breathing. Practice inhaling and allowing your diaphragm (you know were it is now) to relax. When it’s relaxed while you inhale, it can tighten properly.
  • Tightening your diaphragm doesn’t mean pushing in your abdominal muscles. When your diaphragm expands to create space for your lungs, it will tighten naturally.
  • Your diaphragm starts relaxing when you exhale. This means that it goes back to its original dome-shape. This is actually where you will notice an outward sign: your abdomen sort of getting pushed in.
  • The diaphragm also helps give you good posture, and, if you read the first article of posture, you know that beautiful singing starts there.

Illustrations courtesy of the awesome wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diaphragm_(anatomy) . I modified them, of course. (plagiarism: bad)

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3 thoughts on “The Thinking Singer: Your Thoracic Diaphragm

  1. elementaryteacher says:

    Very interesting discussion and pictures.

    Eileen

  2. lizzie5apple says:

    Thanks, Eileen. 🙂

  3. […] Singing is an act born of physiological maneuverings that are both intentional and involuntary?  Any voice teacher/glee club moderator will tell you.  There’s breathing.  Most of the time, how well you breathe is anchored to how good your posture is.  If you’re standing, you have to consider your stance and how this affects your posture which results in efficient (or inefficient) breathing.  There’s how you open your mouth and how you utilize its parts (the tip of the tongue, the teeth, and the lips ♪).  Then there’s the mysterious and magical diaphragm.  Actually, there’s no real mystery or magic there.  Read about it here. […]

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