Breathing and Capacity for Skilled Action

The first prerequisite in educating the singer in proper vocalizing, then, is to restore the conditions of coordination in the torso and body that allow breathing to occur naturally and easily. In order to breathe properly, the singer does not have to involve himself in any direct attempts to improve his breathing, since the whole point is that the flow of breath occurs entirely as a result of the natural support of the body. In fact, such concern will only complicate matters, since it will invoke the wrong tensions that interfere with this natural support.

But how is this coordinated “use” to be applied to singing or vocalization? The most obvious solution seems to be to make sure to leave the breathing alone— that is, maintain the improved conditions— while vocalizing. This is in fact the theory on which most vocal and breathing exercises are based. In practice it is not so simple. The moment the student thinks of leaving himself relaxed during vocalization or while breathing, he invariably brings into play the wrong habits.


The persistence of such harmful habits when we speak or sing can be easily observed, and it is what complicates the matter of improving the singer’s breathing. It is comparatively simple to improve his breathing by making changes in his coordination; he can feel the increased freedom in his back, chest, ribs, and diaphragm, and he can see how easily the air comes in and out as a result. As soon as he begins to vocalize, however, he at once brings into play these wrong habits. In spite of whatever improvements he has made, the fundamental cause of his problem remains untouched.


Like the other skills we have looked at, coordinated vocal control is not the result of deliberate muscular effort or mechanical training, but occurs naturally and effortlessly so long as we understand our inherent design and learn to act without interfering with this design. Many acting and vocal coaches insist that, to produce sound , we must learn to build strength and to exercise the breathing muscles, even when the students who implement these techniques are clearly straining their voices and building up tension in their bodies. At the root of these techniques is the belief that, to produce a full voice, effort is somehow required, even though the greatest singers— not to mention young children and animals— produce sound effortlessly. Real expertise in vocal production, as in other skills, emerges from a process of learning not to interfere with, and intelligently managing, the body’s inherent capacity for skilled action.


Dimon, Theodore. The Elements of Skill: A Conscious Approach to Learning. North Atlantic Books, 2003.