How Should I Think About Breathing?


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.