You may find yourself exclaiming,“Oh no! Not another article about breathing?!” But hear me out. I gave this some thought. As singers the basis of our technique is breathing and there are many articles available on breathing technique. I scoured many and there are many varying thoughts. And the pros and cons of nasal and mouth breathing are very simplistic. What’s prompted me to write about the subject is the prevalence of articles I have come across in the fitness industry on breathing over the last few years and the things mentioned there that are never mentioned in the singing ones.
First let’s look at the health benefits of nasal breathing. It goes far beyond the warming and humidifying of air and filtering particles. Nitric oxide is found in the inside of the nose, which has anti-microbial properties and once inhaled into the lungs enhances oxygen uptake. The more you use your nose to breathe the more you stimulate the production of nitric oxide. Nasal breathing also stimulates the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve provides parasympathetic innervation to glands of mucous membranes of the pharynx, larynx, organs in the neck, thorax, and abdomen. It innervates skeletal muscles of the pharynx and larynx. It also functions in controlling heart rate and the digestive tract.
So here is how all this translates into 10 health benefits:
Mouth breathing really doesn’t have much going for it. It dries out the mouth. There is a tendency to over-breathe and to breathe higher in the body. It can lead to hyperventilation. There is an increased risk of asthma and cardiovascular disease. It can cause snoring and even sleep apnea.
In fitness, nasal breathing is encouraged more and more for improved athletic performance. But how can we use this in singing when we need to take in breaths quickly? The best advice is to inhale through the nose when you can: at the beginning or when you have a rest for 2 or more counts. Otherwise try to inhale through both the nose and mouth. The more well trained you are the easier it becomes.
With my beginner students (and even not so beginner) we start with humming exercises with inhalation through the nose. The mouth should never open during these exercises. It’s quite difficult for most of them at first, but it does encourage deeper breathing, which is always a problem with beginners (not surprising, when it is estimated that 80% of the western world breathes improperly).
Many of the health benefits attributed to singing can be directly related to breathing. If you are already an established mouth breather for singing and/or exercise, it’s time to rethink how you breathe and use your nose more. So let’s make sure you are getting the most out of every inhalation!
As singers we usually need to present a total package. Across all genres image and looking the part is important. Even in the classical world and opera in particular, there has been a growing trend in the last 10 years or so to have singers look the part of the young lovers they play, especially the consumptive ones. Singers, sometimes ones with immense talent, are passed over by directors due to their size. In our visual world with big screen broadcasts of operas, movie versions of musicals and images of singers constantly parading before us on our tv and computer screens, it’s no wonder that there is pressure for singers to slim down. Though I don’t agree with discrimination based on size, there is a more important reason for singers to be concerned with their weight and try to slim down.
Yes, it comes down to health. By being overweight you are at greater risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, type 2 diabetes and some cancers. You are more prone to acid reflux, joint and back pains, mood disorders and reduced energy levels. How can you effectively deal with the demands of a singing career if you are weighed down with health problems?
Let’s start with what is healthy body composition and how to measure that. There are a number of measurements that you can take with the aid of your doctor or a personal trainer. No one measurement is going to give you the whole picture, but together you can get a picture of where you lie. First of all we can start with the body mass index (BMI). This is a ratio of your weight to height squared (kg/m2).
Where you carry your fat also makes a big difference. Apple shape means that you are carrying more visceral fat around your middle that will constrain your thoracic cavity with the pressure of adipose tissue, which may make breathing more of an effort. It pushes against organs, which can prevent the free circulation of blood. It will also put a strain on your back making it harder to maintain good alignment. It puts you at greater risk of metabolic syndrome. If you take a measurement of your waist circumference a measurement of greater than 102 cm for men and greater than 88 cm for women puts you at higher risk.
Skinfold measurements are another way to determine body fat. This is taken by using a skinfold caliper to measure the thickness of a double fold of skin and underlying fat at various locations of the body. This is best done by a professional with experience of taking these measurements and compared to a chart.
So if you know you are in need of losing weight for your health it is important to undertake it in a healthy manner. No fad diets, no overly restrictive diets, no yo-yo dieting. These are not going to give you long lasting results and if anything, this approach could be detrimental to your voice. Some of these diets do give good short term results, but are not maintainable once you go back to normal eating patterns and in studies it has been shown that the majority of these people go back to their pre-diet weight and sometimes even gain more.
Healthy weight loss will involve a lifestyle change that you will be able to maintain even once you are at your target weight. This lifestyle change will have to include physical activity and nutrition. Neither one on it’s own is sufficient to bring you to optimal health. It is safe to lose up to 2 lbs a week. Eating a healthy well-balanced diet with no processed food is the best way. You may still need to have a slight calorie restriction to achieve your goals, but once you get to your goal, you will have already developed healthy eating habits that you should be able to maintain.
By eating healthily and being physically active with a proper balance of cardio, strength and flexibility training, you shall find that your voice will not suffer at all from your slow and steady weight loss.
Why have there been claims that heavier singers had more powerful voices and that they were ruined by weight loss? There are a number of reasons attributable to this. One is that it was rapid unhealthy weight loss that left hormone levels unbalanced, as well as insufficient nutrients for the body to function properly. Another is that not enough effort was made to develop strong core muscles. An overweight singer has to use more musculature to breath and keep the ribcage open against the pressure of the adipose tissue. As weight is lost, the muscles don’t need to work so hard and can lose their strength if not conditioned properly.
So healthy weight loss with no detriment to the voice is possible. In fact, the fitter you get the more you will find you have freedom in your instrument and the energy to keep up with all of the demands placed on you on a daily basis.
If you would like advice on how to achieve healthy weight loss contact me by clicking here, I’d be happy to answer any questions or sign up for the Fit Singer Boot Camp by clicking here. The next boot camp starts on November 30th, 2015.
What if I told you, you could have a great skincare and haircare product that is also useful around the house and you could eat it, too? You may have heard it before, but coconut oil has so many uses. It’s free of all the nasty chemicals that go into most products and as skincare this is especially important as our skin absorbs much of what is put on it. As singers we also want to avoid fragrances or any other chemicals that cause sensitivities that can affect our voices. You can make fancier versions of the face products with essential oils and cocoa butter, but I never seem to have the time and find that plain organic virgin coconut oil is just fine. So here are some of the ways that I use it. If you have different uses that I haven’t listed I would love to hear from you, so please feel free to comment below.
Sports (I’ve used coconut oil in triathlon – DO NOT use a bicycle chain lubricant)
And finally don’t let us forget that coconut oil is a great oil in the kitchen with many health benefits. Healthy doesn’t mean we should go overboard with it – we still should only be having 2 to 3 servings of healthy fats a day. Coconut oil is the best option as a cooking oil since it is stable at high heat and won’t break down into trans fats and other carcinogenic products. I use it in baking, including in my pie crust (the recipe was recently posted on my facebook page), since hydrogenated vegetable shortening is not healthy by a long shot and should be avoided like the plague. It’s also nice for spreading on toast.
The best thing about this is that it can save you a fortune! A 1.6 L tub costs only $25. How much do you spend on tiny bottles and jars or skincare products? And I’ve had better results with it than with all the products with their claims for smoother, younger looking skin and lessening the appearance of wrinkles. One more bonus: Carrying only one product will also save you a lot of space when traveling.
So tell me, what do you use coconut oil for?