Breathing: What the Singer Should Remember

  1. Avoid, at first, any ‘systems of breathing’ (in practise and in print) that require mechanical, or methodical practising; most of them run contrary to nature.

  2. Do not pump yourself full of air when about to sing. It will not give you a longer breath, nor will the tone be stronger or carry better.

  3. If you make a habit of taking in a lot of air, of holding it and hoarding it, you will eventually weaken your breathing organ and, in consequence, your throat as well.

  4. Learn to discriminate: the work done by the organ of breathing must be extremely thorough and intensive – the consumption of breath extremely small. (‘I take no more breath for singing than I do when smelling a flower.’ – Mattia Battistini, one of the last great exponents of bel canto.)

  5. Learn, therefore, to distinguish carefully between the breathing organ and breath. Remember that the old concept, of the pressure of breath as the motive power in giving voice, has been disproved by modern science.* The singing mechanism is not a wind instrument. Remember instead that ‘the vocal folds are capable of vibrating independently of the current of breath’. Therefore, notes or phrases that end unevenly or explosively have been wrongly produced.

  6. Above all: do not breathe in deliberately. Aim first at breathing out properly and, because of the law, the ‘tonic regulation of the breath’, you will find that breathing in follows automatically and correctly.

  7. Remember that a properly functioning larynx to a great extent trains and regulates your breathing; therefore, the tone must be well ‘placed’.

  8. Breathing exercises without the voice have a limited value; do not waste too much time on them.

  9. A system of breathing that in time distorts the figure, instead of improving it, is always wrong (e.g., chronically protruding stomach, hollow back, curved spine).

Husler, Frederick, and Yvonne Rodd-Marling. “Singing: ThePhysical Nature of the Vocal Organ.” (1965).


*blogger’s note: The neurochronaxic theory of voice production was highly popular in the 1950s when this book was written. Introduced by Raoul Husson, these theories have largely been discredited in favor of today’s myoelastic and aerodynamic theories. For more information, click on this link.

Listen My Children, and you will hear…

It would be wrong to think that the ear is the only useful tool for working with the voice, but worse not to make it our primary diagnostician, constant guide and ultimate authority in the normal course of training. The voice exists primarily as sound heard by both the singer and those listening. The only difference is in perspective. For the teacher or audience the sound is received externally, for the singer internally (‘primarily’, before the singer has time to ‘put it together’). For those who are not used to an aurally based analytical process, the prospect of relying on their ears may seem daunting if not impossible. Indeed, it is fraught with dangers, typically arising from a lack of objectivity or an over-eagerness for results.

When as teachers we first meet a voice we have to assess its strengths and weaknesses, which may or may not be immediately obvious. In any sung sound we can learn to detect aurally exactly what produces it, what’s working and what is not, what is under-working and what is over-working. This isn’t important either for an audience or for the singer; at least to begin with, when such analysis can be counter-productive. But it is of prime importance to a teacher of singing who, without being able to hear how the sound is being produced, cannot help the singer to correct it.

Outlines of an aural picture

Throughout the whole vocal apparatus, movements and their combinations are reflected as an ‘aural picture’, providing a teacher with necessary information and the singer, in due course, with self knowledge. Logically, the clearest sound evidence of a voice’s working order is to be discovered at its source, at the larynx, where all the movements involved become sound. Ironically, it’s from this somewhat divided realm that our ears get their first useful clues about how to proceed towards wholeness. The outer registers (tensing and stretching) provide the greatest sound contrasts. We could begin by describing these sounds simply as hard and soft, because of the relative absence or presence of air in them. Since every voice is different, however, and every singer may have his own idea of what sounds hard or soft (or rich or warm, thin or round) a teacher must appeal to the singer’s impression of his own sound if such descriptions are to be aurally useful. Whatever the teacher’s and pupil’s perception, the important thing to determine in each individual case is how well the folds stretch and tense, and to what extent these activities support or are at odds with each another.

Put simply, we have three main sounds: that described variously as ‘head voice’ or falsetto, ‘chest voice’ or ‘chest register’ and a mixture of the two, which we call ‘mixed voice’.

Harrison, Peter T. “The human nature of the singing voice: exploring a holistic basis for sound teaching and learning.” (2006).

A Self-Supporting Mechanism

It is generally recognised that healthy vocalisation demands a strong, flexible breathing system, but what tends to be overlooked is that muscular events that happen in the throat (both intrinsic and extrinsic to the larynx) influence how the breathing system itself operates. Many voices suffer from imbalance between these two main spheres of activity.

Just like the adverse effects of poor body alignment on emotional expression, muscular imbalance in the throat can lead to the perceived necessity to devise special breathing techniques (of support and control) which impede the natural coordination of the vocal system as a whole. This imbalance causes unnecessary muscular struggle. In other words the perceived need for support comes through imbalance between what should be mutually dependent and supportive spheres. If we can view the voice, and work with it, as a natural balance of forces we can avoid misplaced effort and instead realise and experience the voice (muscularly at least) as self-supporting. It follows that the more precise and efficient the work done within and around the larynx, the more precise and efficient will be the body’s response.

The intrinsic musculature of the larynx cannot be felt. Precision in this sphere is therefore, first and last, a matter of aural perception. So crucial is our ability to hear (both as singers and teachers) that, in discussing basic principles at the beginning of their book, Husler and Rodd-Marling advise teachers that,

Our first task, therefore, is to reawaken the sense of hearing, to revitalize and re-educate it, until it is able to hear the various physiological processes as they occur in the throat and organ of breathing. It is the starting-point for all work on the singing voice. (my italics)

Harrison, Peter T. Singing: Personal and performance values in training. Dunedin Academic Pr Ltd, 2014.


Like a fine wine…

Singers and teachers should be encouraged to experiment during the course of their work, and to savour sound for the sake of it; they must enjoy learning to ‘taste’ tone with their ears, like a discriminating winetaster who, rather than being bent on discovering his favourite red, learns to distinguish different qualities and characteristics in wines which are equally enticing.

Harrison, Peter T. “The human nature of the singing voice: exploring a holistic basis for sound teaching and learning.” (2006).

Cultivating Listening Skills

Why is critical and functional listening VITAL to a teacher’s ability in training singing voices? Why do I think that listening, above all other skills, is the most important for the teacher of voice?

Firstly, teachers of singing have to be able to extend their listening skills beyond their aesthetic. A teacher training sounds they ‘prefer’ are merely laying a tonal template over the action of the vocal musculature. This is how we get the infamous ‘studio sound’ that Richard Miller cautioned against. For instance, a classical teacher needs to be alert to training a voice to ‘make classical sounds,’ or a jazz teacher teaching students to sound like ‘jazz singers.’ Style is man-made. Vocal function is NOT. It might be good to read those last two sentences over several times and absorb their meaning.

Voice teachers need to be able to hear dysfunction in a voice that is causing roadblocks to a liberated action of the voice and free expression. If a teacher accepts a vocal limitation as merely ‘a student’s unique sound,’ they are doing a disservice to that student.

Second, imitation of the voice teacher becomes something to be on guard for, especially if the teacher is ‘modeling’ improper vocal behavior. If the teacher’s voice or vocal behaviors are not free, the student is going to imitate what they hear and see. If I start singing phrases or notes with a tip of my head, my student is going to unconsciously mimic that behavior and take it into their technical arsenal, even if it was never verbally expressed to the pupil. This is one of the reasons why voice teachers MUST continue to study as well as their students – for all intents and purposes they become a vocal role model for the voice student.

There is only one satisfactory answer to the problems that relate to the acquisition of vocal technique built upon freedom, spontaneity, and artistic liberty: the development by the teacher of listening skills where all analysis and evaluation are predicated upon the healthy and free function within the larynx and body. In short, to develop skills of FUNCTIONAL LISTENING.

There exists currently a wide ‘gap’ of views on the acquisition of singing technique (directly traceable to the mid-19th century), which have muddied the waters of how the voice is to be trained. Teachers focus on experiences of the sound, extensive treatment and energization of the breathing apart from voice, the wearing of ‘singing belts,’ the kinesthetic experience of singing into imaginary ‘sound-boxes’ in the head, supporting the voice, vowel modification, and other such admonitions.

All technical training of the voice should be firmly ensconced in a rock-solid and unshakable understanding of the principles of CAUSE and EFFECT. The confusion of these two elements has caused encyclopedic difficulties in the training of singers and has been the cause of much loss of time and resources in voice studios everywhere.

Unless a training program of the voice is geared toward the freedom and functional ability of the laryngeal mechanism all spiritual, aesthetic, resonance-oriented, respiratory, and tonally preferential admonitions are for naught. Throughout all the training of a voice, freedom of the voice and technique should be the DIRECT purpose of study; not an IMMEDIATE AESTHETIC goal.

This is the psychological roadblock for all my classical singers.

Student: How do I get freedom into the rep I’m currently singing? I can feel that the music I’m singing is going against much of the free singing I’m doing here in lessons.

The following question would be answered rather simplistically by the suggestion “Sing different music!” or “Pick different arias!”. This rarely goes over well for those used to screaming their way through arias that other teachers have praised as ‘market ready.’ That pesky market once again! But I digress.

To listen functionally to a voice is to understand intimately the mechanics of the voice coupled with CAUSE and EFFECT. Without an understanding of how the voice ACTUALLY works the teacher is throwing darts in the dark. Some technical work will succeed due to its novelty in the mechanism, but after a while its continuation will fall on dry ground. Without knowledge of the mechanics with cause and effect, we have no roadmap for the journey and are merely driving around without an idea of where we are in relation to our surroundings. There’s enough pedagogical knowledge today (both historical and scientific) to shun teaching carried out in this primitive Lewis-and-Clark way.

Functional listening is two part: physiological, i.e., how the mechanism is working, and acoustical, i.e., how the voice sounds as a result of that physiology through the vowel qualities.

For the teacher to implement positive technical direction in singing, understanding how the mechanism works and the results in ‘sound’ become (or should become) must be the teacher’s foundational approach to training. Not aesthetic, not ‘intuition,’ not tonal preference, nor spirituality, nor pink clouds, nor resonances, nor ‘bonhomie,’ nor particularly interesting sound qualities. Those other qualities, while interesting and potentially valuable as correlatives, should still be built upon the primary aural qualities of the voice as revealed through application of functional principles. If the teacher is not able to HEAR how the voice is working from a neutral, disassociated place of non-judgement, then layering in these other qualities becomes merely a pedagogical ‘dodge.’

A good mantra for teachers to adopt who wish to teach alongside functional principles is “Muscle correctness before sound.” Or as Husler and Rodd-Marling state, “First HEAR, then know.”