Breath Support and Nature’s Laws

The foundation of tone production is breath support. In this all teachers are in agreement, though there is much dispute as to manner in which this support is to obtained. However, there are some thoughts on the subject that are easily understood and should always be kept in mind by teacher and student. The first is that the voice is one of the instruments which Nature has fashioned, that when we sing we are doing something that Nature intended us to do, that the machine is all prepared within us and that we need only learn how to use it. This idea is not impressed on many students; in fact, they receive a very different idea, for instance, that until they have gone through some long process of long development and muscular training that it is quite impossible for them to produce a good tone. 

Now this is fundamentally wrong, a mistaken attitude towards the voice, one reason why so many study so long and ardently and in the end sing so poorly; it makes the pupil pay too much attention to muscular development, with the likelihood of acquiring great tension in the muscles where all should be elasticity and ease. A man or woman may have magnificently developed lungs and sing very badly, and he may have weak lungs and sing well; it all depends on how he uses his breath. But many pupils work away on heavy breathing exercises with the idea that if the lungs are sufficiently developed this of itself will enable them to sing well.

No idea could be more erroneous. If the lungs are not healthy and well developed the voice will not grow and the results will be non-satisfactory, but no matter how healthy the lungs, or how strong the breathing muscles, if the pupil does not learn how to use them properly, they will not do anything for him. Having well developed lungs is like having a fine violin. Here is the instrument. The question is, “Can you play on it?”

Develop your lungs by every means in your power, for they furnish the very foundation of your voice; but never forget that lung development is not singing; it merely furnishes you with an instrument that you may use for singing if you have the talent and the patience. Above all, in your breathing exercises keep your muscles elastic; don’t grow rigid and strain. If in your breathing you train yourself to set the muscles and stand tense all over, you are making a bad beginning for good tone production. Remember, too, that the tone is made by the outflowing of the breath, by the even steady outflowing column of air, so in the exercises always exhale slowly.

A few simple exercises are all that are necessary, and the very best exercise to develop the lungs for singing is actual singing. Exercises in which breath is held a long time in the lungs, then expelled violently, may be good for the development of the lungs themselves, but they have nothing to do with singing. Easy, quiet, deep breathing, the body erect but not stiff, and the breath slowly and evenly exhaled, is quickly mastered; may be practiced anywhere and is always beneficial. All out-of-door exercise is good – running, swimming, rowing, riding – anything that builds up the body and increases the lung capacity is good for the voice, though of course violent sports in which there is liability to strain are not good.

Vocal development is a process of long growth, and the attempt to expedite the process by continuous heavy practice of violent breathing exercises is perfectly useless: the lung capacity may be increased, but if the understanding of how to use this capacity be not there, matters are at a stand. In fact, there are innumerable cases where having fine lung capacity and not knowing how to use it was the worst kind of handicap for the student; for if the breath is not properly used, the greater the lung capacity the more likely that the throat will be forced.

Don’t forget that Nature provides. Anyone in normal health who has reached eighteen years of age has breath enough in his lungs to make a good tone if he can find out how to use what he already has; and the student learns what breath control means, not by breathing exercises but by correct singing. Singing is not exactly like anything else in the world; it is only to be understood by singing. Many forms of breathing exercises are beneficial to the lungs and help the pupil in preparing and developing the instrument, but no one has any idea of what breath control in singing is like, except the good singer.

It is an altogether mistaken idea that the young pupil in beginning to sing should make any attempt to control the breath. He should leave it alone. The more he seeks to control the breath the more sure he is to stiffen the muscles, and when the muscles are rigid it is impossible to make a pure tone. 

This feeling of so many pupils, that they must control the breath, arises from the failure to remember that to sing is a natural function, one of the spontaneous acts of Nature whenever she is left to do as she wishes. Everybody with any experience in singing has observed innumerable instances of the truth of this. People singing about the house in pure joyousness many times give out tones that they cannot, to save their lives, reproduce when they go to the piano to practice. Why? Because when they are singing for the joy of it they relaxed the tension unconsciously and gave Nature a chance to produce a tone under favorable conditions, and so were producing tones in accord with the best modern teaching; but when they went to the piano they were trying to do something, they did not quite know what , and the first thing was to take a big breath and then let it out as slowly as possible. This is wrong. This does not have anything to do with breath control; it is simply stiffening the muscles and holding the breath back so that it cannot perform the function Nature intended. The resulting tone is laborious for the maker and not pleasing to the listener; for there is one great fact in tone production from which there is no escape – the tone sounds the way it feels. If it comes out easily without any straining of the muscles you don’t have to tell people, they know it as soon as they hear it. On the other hand, if you have to use a lot of muscular effort to get the tone out of you, that is precisely the way it sounds.

Tone is made by the free outflowing of the breath. If the tension on the muscles is relaxed so that the breath can flow out easily through the throat, the tone will be comfortable and sound pleasant. Relax the tension on the breathing muscles about your waist, let the breath come out of itself, get yourself and your theories of muscular control out of the way, and give Nature a chance to show you how she intended the apparatus to work; then you may learn to sing. The basis of all good tone is the even, steady, quiet outflow of the breath.

When you have felt this times enough to recognize it, then you know something of the original action of the breath in singing, and in time may learn the laws under which this action takes place and may discover how to govern the action – in short, may learn to control the breath. But if you seek to control the breath before you have experienced the sensation of free breath flow, you are trying to control something which you do not possess: you are sitting in the wagon trying to drive the horse before he is harnessed.

The error is widespread, and its effects are far-reaching. Pupils are laboring earnestly to control the flow of the breath, and yet are all confused and feel that they are not accomplishing their purpose, and the fact is very simple – they are trying to take the second step before they have taken the first; trying to control the flow of the breath before they have any conception of what breath flow means. This, too, because their mistaken idea prevents them from doing the one thing needful – relax the tension on the breathing muscles and let the breath come out of itself. The breath always does this when it gets a chance, in obedience to natural law, just as water runs down hill, but students forget, or never knew, that singing is a part of natural law, and that all they need is to relax the tension and let Nature show them the way.

The more earnest and conscientious the student the more trouble he is apt to make for himself in trying so hard to do for himself what Nature would do for him so easily if he would permit it, but many times it is a question of two or three years’ work to bring about this state of mind in which a pupil is willing to relax. The singer never gets the best out of his voice until he learns this great lesson – relax the tension on the muscles and let the breath come out freely. If you learn this, then in time you may gain breath control. Keep before your mind that to sing is something that Nature intended and for which she made full provision; relax the tension, surrender to Nature’s laws and let her show you the way.

Hackett, Karleton. “Breath Support.” The Etude August 1907: pages 540-541.