The Mystery of The Diaphragm: Part 1

After looking at the position and stability of the ribcage, and specifically the sternum, in my recent blog about posture, the second element in the riddle of how to sing effectively with less air pressure is the (thoracic) diaphragm.

Oh, the diaphragm ! Students come to me with some really weird ideas about this muscle and its role in the body, breathing and singing. There is SO much myth and incorrect information about this, we need to look at exactly what it is and what it does to understand why there is so much confusion about it.

If you have ever heard any of these phrases:

“Sing with a strong diaphragm”

Support the voice with the diaphragm

Use your diaphragm”

“Sing from the diaphragm”

…. then I hope you are sitting comfortably!

Let’s start with what the diaphragm is and where it is; it’s a kinda-dome-shaped muscle that is attached to the last rib and forms the floor of the ribcage. It literally separates your bodily innards into two sections : lungs and heart above (housed within ribcage) and guts, digestive, reproductive and other bits below (‘diaphragm’ from the Greek meaning ‘partition’).

Have a feel of where your ribcage ends and poke your fingers underneath the last rib – that’s your diaphragm in there. It attaches at the back to the spine, which is what gives it leverage to move. It’s higher up in the body cavity than most people imagine.

Okay, so here is what we know about muscles: they contract to create force and movement – this is their active phase. Then they relax back to their resting state.

And…. here’s what we know about the diaphragm: it contracts (pulls itself downwards) so we can inhale, and relaxes (moves back up) on the exhale.

And here’s what we know about singing: we sing on the exhale…

Add to this the indisputable anatomical fact that the the exhalation of air is caused by the recoil action of the lungs and tissues lining the ribcage.

So, the facts are …. you do not use your diaphragm to breathe out.

You do not have a ‘strong diaphragm’ when you breathe out.

So, you definitely do not sing with or from your diaphragm. You only ever sing with your vocal cords.

(To be fair, I think we can safely assume Jennifer knows this …. what a voice!)

In conclusion, your diaphragm is basically doing nothing of active use when you sing …. so what is ? And why has it come to pass that generations of singers and teachers believed it to be the diaphragm, causing Emperor’s New Clothes-style confusion and propagation of a totally wrong idea that still survives today?

I will answer these questions in the next instalment. Stay tuned for part 2 (dons Miss Marple hat #stylishlymysterious).

For more info and practical application of the techniques and ideas discussed in this blog, please contact me or visit

©️Fiona Wallace 2018

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