How Should I Think About Breathing?

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A celebrated soprano recently posted her tips for vocal technique with a considerable foray into breathing. Because of the particular industry trade of her name, this post was shared in many singer forums and pages. In this blog, she enumerated many things that the singer must DO when thinking about their breath and especially their support (a word I loathe in no uncertain terms). Were a singer to take even HALF of her advice, they would become so tied up in ‘doings’ that all communicative ability would be severely diminished, and the singer would resemble a breathing machine, not an expressive human artist.

Singers LOVE – no, ADORE – this level of control in the singing act, because it gives the ego the satisfactory feeling that something is being ACCOMPLISHED. When you give singers a checklist of all these things to DO the mind rejoices! But what does this do to the body, especially after these breathing mandates are usually accomplished in the first 2 lessons?

The body and the mind, while functioning as a gestalt, still may not be on friendly terms when concepts of doing or end-gaining, (to borrow F.M. Alexander’s term) are introduced. The singer will leave no stone unturned in the attempt to accomplish these highly mechanistic maneuvers, and feel that they have failed when they are not able to succeed in what the teacher assures them that they MUST feel.

Let’s also set aside the tenuous idea that singers actually engage in the very behaviors that they describe. In almost all cases, singer’s sense of what they SAY they do in singing and what they ACTUALLY do is imprecise.  Their kinesthetic sense or somatic map is faulty.

To connect these ideas to an older historical tradition, a story is in order:

Towards the end of the nineteenth century a wealthy young British ear, nose, and throat doctor travelled to Italy.

He wanted to get the most old-fashioned advice that he could find on the speaking and the singing voice. This gentleman’s name was Dr. George Cathcart, and he went to Naples, Italy to study with the teacher Domenico Scafati. Scafati was himself one of the last pupils of the celebrated castrato Girolamo Crescentini, who had delighted Napoleon and his court. Crescentini also left some of his wisdom in print form, available here.

This is the report of Dr. Cathcart on his lessons with Scafati:

As far as breathing was concerned, this was learned unconsciously. Signor Scafati did not trouble the pupil with any directions to hold back the breath during the elementary stage, well knowing that by the time all sense of “push” had disappeared the tone would have become balanced, and there would no longer be any waste of breath…

Signor Scafati [said] that all efforts to control it consciously…invariably led to the voice being stiff and throaty.

Well – this is interesting advice to our modern, mechanistic age. Scafati asserted that he was repeating Crescentini’s teachings. Among Crescentini’s other pupils were famous names such as Catalani, Colbran, Grassini, Garaudé, and Pasta. From 1816 Crescentini taught voice at the Royal School of Music in Naples, where Scafati would have studied with him.

Similarly, in the 20th century, scholar and singer Stefan Zucker described his lesson with Tito Schipa:

The routine began with scales [on the five alphabetic vowels, Italian a, e, i, o, u] with him (Schipa) at the piano. If the student ran out of support before a scale was over, Schipa didn’t seem to notice or care. He never mentioned breathing or placement…He didn’t interfere.

Adelina Patti remarked on breathing:

Je n’en sais rien. [I know nothing about it].

Etelka Gerster, a Hungarian soprano, and rival to Patti, was a student of Mathilde Marchesi. What did she say on the topic?:

What is all this trouble about breathing? My teacher told me nothing about breath…I breathe naturally.

Sir Charles Santley in his book The Art of Singing (1908):

I have heard the most amusing instructions for breathing, but, of all, I think ‘abdominal breathing’ is the most comical. I have in vain tried to discover whereabouts in the abdomen there exists a store-room for breath; wind there may be (ed. HA!), perhaps, but not available for breathing purposes.

So what do we do with this contrasting information?

In my own teaching, I stand on the side of the Old Masters. The natural sound of the human voice is the most useful guide for teaching it. These celebrated singers of the old tradition worked to keep their natural sounds into advanced age. Many of them accomplished this very feat – vocal decline in the old Italian tradition was almost UNHEARD of. They were encouraged to find the core or ‘center’ of their voices, and over time with practice these sounds would develop and grow. One of the old Italian sayings was:

Cerca la qualità e la quantità verra. [Search for quality, and quantity will come].

If you read their writings (and truly READ them and not re-interpret them with a 21st century mechanistic pedagogical worldview), you will come to realize that these singers had TOTAL belief in this system of working. The obedience to Nature was at all times paramount. Anything that attempted to RUSH or expedite this process was shunned as working against Nature.

Most modern systems of singing now emphasize and prize sheer volume or CUT of tone, rather than purity, not realizing that pure tonal qualities in and of themselves are more penetrating than false, loud tones.

To give a singer a shopping list of mechanistic ‘doings’ does not serve anyone, despite a well-meaning singing artist’s intentions. Shopping lists are for grocery stores, not human beings. It is merely application of a band-aid that must be reapplied when the voice falls apart.

To sing in the way of the old masters, we must disabuse ourselves of much of our modern mechanistic pedagogy, and return to observance of Nature.

This is how great singing came to be in the first place, lest we forget. 

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9 thoughts on “How Should I Think About Breathing?

  1. I love what you wrote about needing to put our 21st-Century mindset in abeyance when consulting the wisdom of past ages. And how refreshing to read that all that belly-breathing nonsense is literally just a bunch of flatulence!

  2. Justin, this is such interesting perspective and I totally see what you are saying – the more we try to “do” the less we really accomplish. I believe it because I have experienced it personally. I am definitely not trying to be combative in any way, just hoping to learn… how does that singer sound so good?! To me the tone sounds free and easy, and she looks completely at ease physically in the clip attached to the blog. My brain wants so desperately to reconcile this.

    1. Hi Emily!

      Thanks for commenting!

      To elaborate on a response to your comment, I would come back to the assertion that singers often misconceive their physical actions when they are singing. For example, much of the advice on SINGING (not musicianship) that was given by Maria Callas in her master classes at Juilliard were of dubious value. What she was technically prescribing for students were behaviors that she herself may not have used herself – Perhaps she THOUGHT she was doing those things because she had been taught them by Elvira de Hidalgo. Many are the prescriptions for singing that are dispensed by celebrated singers which contain dubious and often dangerous value. A case in point is Jerome Hines’s book “Great Singers on Singing.” The advice proffered by these great singers is almost always difficult to intepret, and in most cases is highly personal to the singer dispensing such dogma.

      A voice that is in a high state of efficient, balanced function has habituated responses that give the singer a sense of freedom. In the same way that a person just starting an exercise program is going to struggle with 10 pushups, a physically fit person may not even break a sweat after those same exercises. When the muscles of the body, suspensory mechanism (or elastic scaffolding of the throat), and vocal folds are in a balanced equilibrium, the system requires little to no air to keep it functioning for protracted periods of time. We would consider this balance evidence of an elite singer. They have brought these systems into a coordinative unit, and their singing gives us that impression. This also gives credence to the fact that almost all the Old School singers said that they sang on “minimal breath.” Such was their efficiency!

      I ask my students who come to me wanting to work on their breathing (because they are running out of air) “If I cannot run very far or long as a new runner, is my breathing the crux of my problem, or the general muscle tonus of my body?”

      I would be in grave error to think that I could become a better runner by focusing solely on my breathing as the central issue of my problem. Muscle tonus, on the other hand, WILL determine the oxygen depletion of the body in more strenuous exercise. For this reason alone, systems of breathing that willfully engender active tension, holding, flexing of any kind will rapidly deplete and divert the very oxygen the singer is trying to use to sing with. By ‘supporting,’ or ‘controlling’ the air muscularly, they lose the VERY thing that they wish to gain: efficient, balanced phonation.

      The Old Masters knew this from empirical observation, so they did not overly stress active or direct control of the breath. The voice would FIND its own ‘support’ through singing itself. The tone led the breathing. As Lamperti said, “Your voice starts first, then your breathing.”

      Direct control did (and still does) lead to throaty and stiff vocalism. The singer will feel support, but the source (the larynx) cannot sustain this physical imbalance for long, and will present sounds that are stiff (lack of facile movement) or throaty (throat constriction). The range of the voice will be limited, and the vocal folds themselves will either squeeze to hold back the onslaught of breath, or the folds will atrophy and the resulting tone will be breathy.

      1. Thank you, Justin, for taking the time to explain this so thoroughly! I think I finally understand this academically, now I just need to find a way to experience it.

  3. Keep breathing, folks. It’s the key to a longer life. Use breath/AIR! for the oxygen it contains, and the energy it creates through oxygenation, SYSTEMICALLY, but don’t “blow it” on the vocal folds. They already know how to move to create a wave of energy through the surrounding air (SPACE), which is a medium for the propagation of said wave…i.e. a wave of vocal SOUND. Let’s all engage in “sound thinking.”

  4. A singer who has been trained in breath management will refuse to believe any if this until his voice it’s in serious trouble, sadly. But that doesn’t negate the fact that the old masters did not harp on breath.

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