Category Archives: The Thinking Singer

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.


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. . I modified them, of course. (plagiarism: bad)


The Thinking Singer: Proper Posture

Kids, this is a fact: singing is an unnatural act. Don’t be fooled by how effortless many of your favorite singers perform. They practice to appear effortless: it’s all part of the show.

Of course, as in many things in life: the more you do, the easier it becomes. So, just as athletes diligently exercise to train for a competition, singers carefully prepare their bodies for a performance.
Why, you may ask?
Another fact: you use your entire body when you sing. People often make the mistake of thinking that singing only entails the use of the vocal folds. That is so far from the truth. Singing begins with posture; is fueled by the air we breathe; gains clarity with the use of almost every part of our bodies from the shoulder up. When you sing, YOU become the instrument.

Isn’t that grand?

What, then, does this mean? Singing is an art. It’s not magic, and it definitely is not instant brilliance. You may have been given the gift of singing but that won’t take you far unless you nurture it. Caring for your instrument – you — is most imperative. This means you have to know how your instrument works; and once you do, be dedicated to its upkeep. You need to be patient and persistent. You need to be a thinking singer.

So, let’s begin. Let’s learn how to sing.

Thinking singers start with posture. Check yourself, please.

Let’s tackle each one.

  • Are both your feet planted steadily on the floor?
    Both feet must be planted firmly on the floor. It all starts here. How can you keep your spine straight (the next step) if your stance is unbalanced?Many voice teachers and singers, and even theatre performers and dancers, attest to this: plant one foot slightly forward but keep the balance. Why? This enables your body to lean slightly forward, keeping your spine straight and relaxed. This also benefits you psychologically because leaning forward makes your energy flow forward where the audience usually is. It places you in the position of giving – and don’t singers ‘give’ themselves every time they perform?
  • Is your spine straight?
    Imagine ballerinas when they stand. They keep their spines erect, their shoulders down, BUT their chins tucked in. They were trained to imagine a cord pulling them up from the very top of their heads. Therefore, it is essential that you be vigilant in keeping your frame always upright.Another benefit of a straight spine is this: it helps your diaphragm do its job. Although the deal with this thing, the diaphragm, will be tackled further in my succeeding articles, this much I can say now: it acts as your natural girdle, supporting your lungs (among other things) as you sing (as well as giving you that hourglass figure).
  • Are your shoulders relaxed?
    You might be wondering why the shoulders get a double mention. This is why, and it’s a hard and fast rule: everything from the shoulders and above must be relaxed. If your shoulders are tense, then your neck gets tense. If your neck gets tense, then your jaw gets tense. If your jaw gets tense then – well, you get the picture. Everything in our body is connected to everything else so once you neglect one part of your body, the others also suffer.All this tension from the shoulders up is also a no-no because — where exactly are your vocal chords? Right. To put it plainly: somewhere in your neck. How can the little muscle do its job if its residence is stressed? It can’t.

So, there it is. Your first step unto the proper path of singing. Like I said, it is an unnatural act. Everything one does is deliberate and well-thought out. No magic here. No accidents or instances of chance. Now that you know how to achieve proper posture, constantly check yourself. It’s your body after all — no one else can do it for you. That is the thinking singer’s burden. But don’t be daunted. It is also what will lead you to excellence.