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!