What did Garcia have to say about breathing for singing?

Manuel Garcia Jr.’s treatise, written in 1841 (with an additional volume added in 1847) was only translated into an effective English translation in 1975 and 1984 (!). The volume is a collection of collated versions of the treatise that were edited and translated by Donald V. Paschke.

In Paschke’s two volume translation, Garcia’s treatise clocks in around 478 pages.  Of these 478 pages, only 3 (3!) pages cover any discussion of breathing. From a mathematical perspective that is 0.0062% of the entire treatise. Garcia’s theories were placed firmly within the mechanism of the coup de glotte and the registers of the voice in building the singing voice. Additionally, postural considerations were paramount for Garcia. The management of the breathing was largely a postural consideration for him, as evidenced below.

To give you an idea of what Garcia has to say on the subject, I’m reprinting the only three-page chapter on breathing:


Chapter IV


One could not become a capable singer without possessing the art of the control of the breath.

The phenomenon of breathing is composed of a double action; the first is inspiration, the action by which the lungs draw in the exterior air; the second is expiration, which makes them return the air received.

In order to inhale freely, hold the chest erect, the shoulders back without stiffness, and the chest free. Lower the diaphragm without jerking, raise the chest by a slow and regular movement, and set the hollow of the stomach. From the moment when you begin these two movements the lungs will dilate until they are filled with air. (ed.: postural considerations)

This double procedure, on which I insist, enlarges the envelope of the lungs, first at the base, then by the circumference, and allows the lungs to complete all their expansion and to receive all the air which they can contain. To advise the abdominal breathing exclusively would be to voluntarily reduce by one half the element of strength most indispensable to the singer, the breath. (ed. Garcia here was clearly opposed to abdominal breathing, tracking along with many of the pedagogues of the earliest times who attributed the chest as the power source of the voice. It is, after all, where the lungs are.)

When the lungs are filled gradually and without jerking, they can retain the air for a long time without fatiguing. This slow and complete inhalation is what the Italians call a respiro [breath], as opposed to a light hurried inspiration, which gives the lungs only a little supplement of air for the need of the moment. That half-breath they call mezzo-respiro.

In neither case should the passage of the air through the throat be accompanied by any noise, under pain of spoiling the effect of the song and making the throat dry and stiff. (ed.: Here Garcia repeats the mandate for silent breathing. Any noise in inhalation is to be strenuously avoided.)

The mechanism of expiration is the opposite of that of inspiration. In consists of exerting a slow and gradual pressure on the lungs filled with air. Jerks, sudden movements of the chest [coups de poitrine] , the precipitous fall of the ribs, and the abrupt relaxation of the diaphragm would let the air escape instantly.

In fact, the lungs, spongy and inert masses, are enveloped in a kind of cone (the thorax), the base of which (the diaphragm) is a wide and convex muscle arising from the edges of the chest and separating the chest from the abdomen. A single fissure a few millimeters in length (the glottis), placed at the summit of the cone, serves as a passage for the air.

In order that the air may enter the lungs, it is necessary that the sides of the chest separate and that the diaphragm lower; air then fills the lungs. If, in this situation, one allows the ribs to fall and the diaphragm to rise, the lungs, pressed from all sides like a sponge in the hand, immediately give up the air which they had inhaled. (ed.: This ‘rapid collapse’ that Garcia describes is mostly evidenced in ‘over-breathers’ as they want to unburden themselves from the surplus of air.)

It is necessary, then, to let the ribs fall and to relax the diaphragm only so much as it is necessary to nourish the tones.

One can, by subjecting the lungs to a special exercise, develop their elasticity and power to a very high degree. This exercise is composed of four different operations successfully practiced:

  1. First, one inhales slowly and during the space of several seconds as much breath as the chest can contain;
  2. One exhales the air with the same slowness as with which it was inhaled;
  3. One fills the lungs and keeps them filled for the longest possible time;
  4. One exhales completely and leaves the chest empty as long as the physical powers will conveniently allow.

These four exercises, very fatiguing at first, should be practiced separately and at rather long intervals. The first two, namely the slow inhalations and exhalations, can be practiced more regularly if one will nearly close the mouth in such a manner that only a slight aperture is left for the passage of the air. (Ed. quiet [s] or [v], perhaps?)

This is the physical means of obtaining the steadiness of the voice, about which more will be said later.

The breath, which holds the entire instrument under its subjection, exerts the greatest influence on the character of the performance and can make it calm or trembling, connected or detached, energetic or lifeless, expressive or devoid of expression.


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