Breathing for Singing as First Cause

Many teachers of classical singing assure me that breathing is the sine qua non for singing and it must be addressed very soon in vocal training. I’m told that I must actively and directly control, manage, and/or spin the breath, and it requires a lot of conscious breathing work to sing classical music. Unfortunately for my colleagues, I disagree. The reasons for this are three.

One, because when a voice is damaged, or dysfunctional, no amount of breathing or breath management is going to work across a leaking or deteriorated valve. It would be similar to pushing more water through a leaky pipe. Eventually the pipe will burst.

Second, because of the obvious fact that many classical singers do not breathe well and yet sing beautifully, while other singers breathe wonderfully yet sing poorly. Had breath owned powers of vocal development and restoration that statement would not be true. The argument also raises the same question for an artist of the calibre of Maria Callas. Are we truly to believe that this great artist, who had been singing her entire life, simply forgot how to breathe and manage her breath? Clearly that cannot be, for when we listen to the registrational issues (balance of chest/head registers) that her voice demonstrates in arias such as this, clearly her issues were not breath-related. Perhaps the disordered function in her throat was the cause of her vocal decline and not her breathing?

Third, because the written evidence of breathing in the Old Italian School does not exist in terms of overt, mechanistic, activated, direct control. Extended tones were the first exercises in most every singing manual from the earliest times to the mid-18th century; good posture was paramount. Students learned to manage breath by singing and discovering how their body wanted to develop around those singing tones. A psychology and pedagogy of ALLOWING a response was paramount. The voice was allowed to develop from within, not from the machinations of direct man-handlings, that we have earned as pedagogical nincompoopery from the mid-19th Century.

Reinhold Ludwig Herman’s book, An open door for singers, hints to vocalists points to just such a reasoning of why I do not work extensively with breath-breath-breath in singers at the beginning of their study. He also raises valid points on the age disparity between the bodies of young students and their teachers. In all, his theories sum up pretty well how I feel about the faddism or fetishization of the breath, especially in classical singing. ONCE AGAIN, notice how the language of NATURE comes back in the paragraphs below. This point cannot be too strongly emphasized. Nature rules all in the act of singing.


Yet such is the state of perplexity now, that students are told to breathe with the abdomen, with the diaphragm, with their backs — with anything except their lungs! I have vainly tried to find a reason for such aberrations. I can surmise but two. First, the constant mistaking of cause and effect — or considering movements of the organs below the diaphragm, which ought to be the consequence of all natural breathing, as its primary cause. The order of things simply becomes inverted. Secondly, that all the “methods of breathing” have been invented and propagated by persons double and triple the age when vocal studies are supposed to be commenced. Any honest singer will concede that the body of the lithe eighteen-year-old girl is no more like that of the artist of forty or forty-five, than the pliant, tender spring-shoot of lilac or rose is like the hardened wood developed in time by nature to resist the force of the elements and the rigors of winter.

A similar difference exists between the physique of a young college-student and the mature man of middle age. Some people may refuse to believe in these changes in nature. I say: It is certain that we are powerless to resist these fibrous and muscular alterations that come with age and professional occupation. In May, the shoots of vine or creeper snap like glass at a touch, and wither in the breath of a gale ; after their change to woody fibre you can bend, twist, even use as a support those frail branches. In maturer years we carry heavier, less flexible abdomens, far more difficult to move by the rise and fall of the diaphragm than in the days when we were members of racing crews, or tossing the ball, or contesting among fleet-footed runners. If a singer’s chest has broadened out into a capacious cavity, which would need no special enlargement — if a teacher of riper age finds it more natural to press his breath out by the force of his abdomen, or of any organ except his lungs, do not let him exact the same process of breathing from bodies as yet utterly unfit for such pressure. I would counsel talking as little as possible about “breathing,” at first, though breath is the first and paramount necessity for any tone-work. But as long as the student cannot get rid of his laboriously acquired “breath” in singing, as long as he cannot employ and distribute the painfully stored-up air, you make his body rigid and unelastic. To teach a pupil to educate his breath-capacity without any due proportion of tone-work seems to me like teaching some one to drive a nail, giving him hammer and nail but only air to hammer on ; or to teach a person to plane a board, instructing him in detail in the motion of the tool, with never a board to work on. I have known a professor, in one of the greatest of contemporary schools for violin-playing, to instruct a boy in drawing his bow across the open violin-strings for seven months, without giving his fingers or his ears any relief from that single exercise. I have known singing-pupils who were kept on breathing-exercises for half a year and more without being permitted to sing more than an occasional scale, much less a word. I insist that breath-development should proceed parallel with tone-development. Whatever breath the tone requires should be forthcoming, and intelligently prepared. But to develop a breath which might do for Brangane’s night-song or Handel’s “Let the bright Seraphim,” before the pupil can manage the simplest portamenti (tone-connections), seems an utter waste of time and strength. For only the just proportion between sound and air-supply makes the tone beautiful. Too much air is quite as harmful as too little.

Herman, Reinhold Ludwig. An Open Door for Singers: Hints to Vocalists. G. Schirmer, 1912.

Leave a Reply