Bel canto breathing

Nevertheless, if one takes the trouble to read about the teaching of the older masters, whose pupils certainly knew how to sing, he finds little disagreement in regard to the matter of breathing. Most of the old teachers had not a great deal to say about it.(ed.: !!!) They seemed to believe that if one systematically practiced drawing in deep breaths and letting them out slowly, turning every bit into tone, the power to breathe in just that necessary way would eventually be acquired (ed: hence starting so many vocalization books with sustained tones). Curiously enough we find some rational and careful observers, who are not tied to any pet master’s theory, thinking just the same thing in our own day. Most of them have come down the Garcia line.

It would be interesting to know how many teachers of the present time have ever made attempts to proceed empirically and at the same time systematically. Take this matter of breathing. The right way to find out how best to breathe in producing tone is not to decide first how you should breathe and then make tones accordingly, but to make tones till you find out how they can be made best.

Suppose a teacher of singing should take a sound, healthy, well-developed, athletic young man of some seventeen or eighteen years with a good natural voice, strip him and stand him up and say to him, “Sing this note as clearly and as gently and as long as you can, but without straining.” Then when the young man sang, suppose the teacher should carefully observe the play of his form, the movements of his abdomen and chest, and find out how that youth, having no theories and no intentions about breathing, inspired and expelled air in the formation of tone.

Suppose the teacher were to continue that process with fifty or a hundred young people, would he not be likely to have a far sounder basis for the foundation of a belief as to the right way to breathe in singing than by reading the arguments of theorists backed by diagrams (not always correct) of the skeleton and lungs?

It is safe to say that the teacher who tries this sort of empiricism will learn that the abdomen is not forcibly pushed forward in inspiration. He will also learn that in expiration the abdomen does not protrude, as it is made to appear to do in a misleading diagram in Lamperti’s recently published and generally excellent book, “The Technics of Bel Canto.”


Henderson, William James. The art of the singer: Practical hints about vocal technics and style. C. Scribner’s sons, 1906.