Theodore Dimon on Breathing

TedDimon
Theodore Dimon, author and teacher, is the founder and director of The Dimon Institute and an adjunct assistant professor at Columbia Teachers College.

 

To say that Theodore Dimon is an influence on my understanding of the singing voice would be an understatement.

Dr. Theodore (Ted) Dimon is the founder and director of The Dimon Institute and an adjunct assistant professor at Columbia Teachers College. Dimon’s pioneering work covers the study of the human mental and physical ‘operating system’ as a holistic entity and how it works in activity. Based on a multi-disciplinary approach that includes work in neuroscience, anatomy, evolution, physiology, psychology, philosophy and mindfulness, Dimon’s work provides a new approach to human functioning and behavior leading to foundational principles applicable in the fields of health, education, and child development.

He has written five books including Anatomy of the Moving Body; The Body in Motion; Your Body, Your Voice; The Elements of Skill; and The Undivided Self.

His book The Elements of Skill, has been one of the most influential books on my work in the studio since I read it two years ago.

A recent blog post on breathing caused me to reach back into this book again to pull more ‘pearls of wisdom’ on the extent to which we go to interfere with the natural process of inhalation and exhalation. Dimon’s assertions track RIGHT ALONGSIDE the writings of the Old Masters, and he presents their wisdom with a modern physiological insight.

How did these Old Masters get such great singers? They understood at a fundamental level these principles of the body and the voice.

Dimon elaborates on the start of the process of training breathing in a singer (all bold highlights are mine). He begins by an assertion of our interference with this natural process:

Nature has constructed us in such a way that in order to breathe normally, we do not do anything to the air; it simply comes in and out through the nostrils and mouth as an indirect result of the fact that our bodies automatically increase and then decrease the space inside our chest cavities. This means that the quality of breathing depends on whether the bellows is working properly— on its not being distorted in shape, and its opening and closing fully. If we want to breathe well, we do not need to do anything to get air into the body, but simply to secure the coordinated, reflexive working of the system on which the movements of breathing depend.

This is where our habitual tensions come into play. When we interfere with our natural support by tightening the neck muscles, pulling back the head, raising the chest, and narrowing the back, then the ribs will not fully expand and contract. On the other hand, when we restore the lengthened support of the body, the ribs can move freely and the bellows can open and close properly. The breathing, in other words, will operate to best advantage when we are properly coordinated in an overall sense.

His thesis made, Dimon goes into further exploration of beginning the process of breathing. It’s important to become aware that interference with breathing complicates the matter, as we will instinctively want to employ incorrect muscles and tensions in the singing instrument.

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.

It is here that many singers and teachers will nod in agreement (hopefully). But the larger question remains “How do we now coordinate this breathing with singing?” Can we use the efficiency of the body’s natural response in the singing act? Many pedagogues of the Old School thought so, as referenced in my earlier blog. MANY 20th and 21st Century pedagogues, however, would disagree with this. Because they do not believe that singing, especially in an operatic manner, is natural, the body must be given props and support to enact its function; ignorant of the fact that many of the singers that sang the operas of Verdi, and Wagner were trained in ways that ignored direct control of the breath:

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 reason for this oversight is that the singer does not connect the muscular condition of his body with what he is doing in action. Breathing is a result, a natural effect, of the bellows-like movements of the ribs. Air comes in and out of the lungs purely due to reflex expansions and contractions of the ribs, whose working depends in turn on the lengthened support of the trunk. But thinking about breathing or vocalizing (as the singer must) is another matter entirely. The singer then sucks in air and pushes it out by gasping, arching his back, and interfering with the bellows. In other words, anything he does that involves the choice, the decision, to breathe or speak— even when he is trying not to tense his body— activates the wrong habits associated with breathing and vocalizing and thus brings into play the wrong movements.

[…]

The intention to perform the action— even when that intention involves a desire to perform it correctly— invokes the very habits that interfere with breathing. Concern about breathing actually violates the principles on which breathing is based.

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.

This is why methods that strive to achieve releases and “freeing” in the breathing do not address the underlying cause of inadequate breathing, even though they appear to. Vocal exercises may temporarily improve the breathing or invigorate the tissues by bringing about some specific improvement in the movements of ribs and diaphragm. But ultimately they can only interfere with the process. Whatever specific results are achieved, the very fact of doing an exercise or breathing in a particular manner is itself an ideomotor stimulus bringing into play the very tensions that disturb the natural expansions and contractions and therefore the breathing. Most likely such approaches are not based on an understanding of how the whole mechanism works to begin with, and so do not recognize the dependence of breathing on the overall coordination. But even teaching approaches that appreciate the importance of bodily coordination overlook its intimate connection with action, by encouraging the pupil to release or change things while breathing. In attempting to help the student, the teacher may be well-intentioned; but the only way he knows to realize his good intentions is by giving the student something to “do,” and the student’s attempts to implement these instructions will only end up increasing the interference. No matter what you tell the singer to do or even to think, if he does it while thinking of breathing he will interfere by exaggerating or distorting the movements of the bellows.

To return, then, to the singer’s problem, how can he maintain the natural coordinations of the trunk during vocalization if the very attempt to do this makes him interfere? Put in terms of ideomotor action, how can he sing in a new way if the idea of doing so evokes the old motor pattern? The pupil must stop trying blindly to correct his actions. He must, in fact, stop entirely, and reconsider his problem. He knows that the breathing takes place automatically when he is properly coordinated. It is only when he attempts to speak or vocalize that he interferes with these coordinations. The question then becomes: What is required to make sound, and can it be achieved without this usual interference?

Two things are absolutely necessary to vocalization: the flow of air in and out of the lungs (which vibrates the vocal folds) and the closure of the vocal folds (which makes them vibrate as air passes between them). Breathing is a simple enough matter. A singer knows that air comes in and out of his lungs not because he chooses to breathe, but because the body is designed in such a way that the air automatically rushes in and out to fill the changing space. In other words, to get this flow of breath, he does not have to “do” anything at all; he simply needs to maintain the correct bodily coordinations, and the air will go in and out by itself. As for the sound, the student knows that if he simply brings the vocal folds together, the air, which is already flowing in and out of the lungs, will cause them to vibrate, and sound— like the breathing itself— will occur automatically.

The student now realizes that it is not necessary to think about breathing in order to produce sound; he only has to continue to think about the bodily coordinations that ensure the natural flow of breath, and then, when he closes the vocal folds, the sound will occur by itself. Without having to do anything more than think about his coordination and bring the vocal folds together, the student has in his control the elements that are required to produce sound. And he has done this without thinking about singing per se.

This means that the cause of his problem— namely, the idea or desire to sing— can be circumvented. He can sing without having an idea of, or association with, singing as he normally conceives it. The sound is then produced with remarkable effortlessness and seems to come from the entire body and not from the throat. He has achieved his end without having the idea of vocalizing, thereby circumventing the usual habits and interference associated with vocalizing.

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.

A few final remarks regarding the practical demands of speaking and singing: We’ve seen that, in order for the singer to breathe properly, there must be as little interference with the breathing as possible. It may appear, then, that the principles we have been considering will not be of much help to the singer, who must by definition impose a deliberate control on the natural breathing cycle while vocalizing, in order to get breath as the music demands. How then do the principles we have been considering help the singer perform a demanding vocal repertoire?

The act of vocalizing— no matter how complex the specific demands placed upon the voice— is first and foremost the result of coordinated movements of the body as a whole. Any skills involving deliberate use of this system— even when they may place unusual demands on any part of it— must be built on the coordinated whole. This means that the singer must cultivate specific control based on the primary principles on which the breathing and sung tone rest, and then build upon this foundation in order to acquire greater control. The idea that one should first begin by singing, and then attempt to improve upon this by making specific corrections, is putting the cart before the horse. Proper coordination is the foundation upon which all skill is built and should serve as the basis for all subsequent development. If such a foundation is weak, then specific efforts at vocal and breath control will be misdirected and lead eventually to weakened breathing and vocal distortions. Far from being inapplicable to the unusual needs of the singer, the principles involved in normal breathing are all the more important precisely because the singer’s intensified demands require the maximum efficiency of the coordinated whole on which the specific functions are built. These principles apply equally to public speaking and voice for actors, playing wind and brass instruments, and learning to breathe in general.

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

 

 

7 thoughts on “Theodore Dimon on Breathing

  1. Hey there Justin. Just got through reading this book myself; I was wondering: where do you stand on his directive that you “any manipulation of the ribs is gonna cause problems”?? It just seems to fly in the face of most schools, present-day and old, and how they talk of keeping that rib expansion open as much as you can. Cheers, Jeff

    1. I’ve been thinking about this A LOT lately because I wanted to cross reference these ideas of Dimon’s against some of the anecdotal evidence from the Old Guard. A couple of things leap out at me. In many many accounts of the older singers, remarks were made that singers were observed to “scarcely breathe.” Old Italian Scafati is remarked to have said from his student George Cathcart: “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.”

      Etelka Greater, a rival of Patti and student of Marchesi, said: “What is all this trouble about breathing? My teacher told me nothing about breath…I breathe naturally.” And likewise, Stefan Zucker outlined his work with tenor 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 herself, Verdi’s favorite soprano (so we know she was singing more dramatic repertoire) was asked how she breathed and she is reported to have said, “I know nothing about it.”

      Great baritone Mattia Battistini also remarked, “I take no more breath for singing than I do when smelling a flower.”

      British Bass David Franklin was 6’7″ tall. He underwent an operation in 1950, and was asked by a physiotherapist if she could test his vital capacity. Lest you think “diaphragmatic” breathing gives you more air, Franklin found otherwise: “Big as I am, and still with two lungs while most of her patients had only one, poor devils, and being moreover a singer with a big development of the diaphragm, she was sure that I should set a new record for the [Brompton] hospital. In fact, I did nothing of the sort. I came second to a little man who had only one lung to work with…[I realized] I had been drilled in low breathing. I did it with the diaphragm, and the top half of my lungs was unused…”

      Jean Baptiste Faure wrote in his book on singing:”It is a mistake to believe that you have to take very large breaths in order to sing. Speakers in a discussion – even if the discussion becomes animated and reaches fever pitch – do not take in larger amounts of breath. And yet their voices remain vibrant and strong. So when you sing, it is not the amount of air you introduce into the lungs that is most important, but it’s the discerning way you make use of it afterwards. Also, please realize that there is always a provision of natural air in the lungs. By taking in large breaths, we are acting as if the lungs were absolutely empty. This new amount of air that we then introduce proves to be much more than we need. Singers should initiate their sound with no more worry about breathing than a speaker has at the beginning of his speech. This may sound strange, but students who actually test this process will soon convince themselves of the uselessness of great intakes of breath.”

      Taken as a whole, this evidence seems to suggest an approach to breathing as suggested by Dimon. Modern breath techniques don’t track with much of the historical evidence from the singers of that time. It’s quite bizarre when you consider that many classical singers are still singing the same repertoire as these older artists, and yet share completely opposed views on the breath issue.

      Frankly, I tend to come down more and more on the side of these older singers and with Dimon, who clearly knows his physiology.

      Hope that’s helpful in establishing a context based on older writers and singers! Thanks for your comment.

      1. Oh, I almost forgot this quote on Kirsten Flagstad, the dramatic soprano:

        “You never saw her breathe – there was none of that heaving up and down. I remember thinking one evening during a performance, ‘I’m going to find out how she breathes.’ She was sitting on a bench and I had my arm around her – including a wine gum in my hand to give her when she got thirsty! – and I decided to feel how she did it. She just started singing – she went straight into it. And I thought ‘She hasn’t taken a breath!’”

  2. Also, if you watch this clip of Pavarotti singing “Caro mio ben” with the SOUND OFF, you’ll notice he takes no visible breath before beginning to sing, lending to some credence to these older authors and Dimon’s assertions:

  3. Hey Justin, thanks so much for the response; really really appreciate it. And in regards to quantity, I agree- it seems that trafficking in more air is not only unsightly, but debilitating too. And I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately too, mainly thanks to Dimon’s book (and isn’t it interesting that, from what i can garner, he’s not even a singer???). But when i have been fully postured-up (for lack of a better), I totally see his wisdom- it’s like i don’t even think of breath. Weird thing is, i find it’s quite hard for me to reach that perfect posture; ie i definitely can’t do it every time. This makes me realize the wisdom/power of Alexander Technique lessons. (And one shortcut i have found: walking backwards a few steps, as it quickly puts you in tall alignment; then trying to keep that perfect alignment while standing straight. This is per thomas hampson).
    Speaking of, one of the things I’ve been going back to is something Hampson says a lot in his masterclasses (don’t know if you’ve ever seen some of them, but they’re pretty good), and that tracks with your comments above. He’s quite adamant that breath should “never be seen as gasoline”- we shouldn’t have the mindset of “filling up, then projecting out”. He says we should have the thought/tone in our head, then “breathe into that”. We never think about air for speaking; we should learn to second-nature our singing as well. It’s basically the concept of inalare la voce, but always with the preemptive thought/tone. And somehow, though i wrote it off at first, this split-second thinking before singing really makes a difference (he quotes Pavarotti as well, at some point, saying the same thing).
    BUT: to further throw a wrench into this, he’s also adamant that the ribs stay up, and that there always should be a feeling of ‘lift’.

    If you haven’t checked out yet, wanted to ask you one more thing: Dimon doesn’t really seem to care about any pelvic floor engagement, or even awareness. But, maybe it’s b/c i’m a lanky bastard with a low voice, some sort of awareness down there really seems to balance my tone and energy out. (and again, this is probably very alexander technique-y). Do you care/teach about that at all, or are you mainly concerned with just standing upright?
    Cheers, and thanks again Justin. Jeff

    1. How fantastic! Thank you so much for sharing your experiences, and yes to all you’ve written here! I believe the ribs will ‘lift’ provided the structural support of head/neck/back is well-organized and providing the proper stability. When the back is allowed to widen naturally, the sense of lift in the ribs is a natural result of it – but the widening is not an overt ‘doing.’ That’s where we tend to go wrong most of the time. “ALLOW” and “DO” are different in the body.

      It’s an interesting fact that the Old Writers had nothing to say on the breath in terms of ‘management’ or ‘control,’ (fairly recent pedagogical terms), but they DID have a lot to say about the posture and carriage of the body and face; avoidance of grimaces, ticks, and other affectations of deportment. It would seem that a calm bearing was essential for them – so much so that they actually WROTE about it. Breath management, however, is missing. My particular theory is that the messa di voce accompanied by good deportment took care of about 99% of the breathing – all done indirectly over time.

      I think we’ve become a collective of ‘over-breathers,’ frankly, which completely affects the source (folds), struggling against such pressurization. The admonition to not breathe is hard (for myself included), because one feels deprived of the inhalation, one feels one is ‘starving’ for breath. But over time, greater clarity comes into the voice as the folds become more adept at managing only the air necessary. Peter T. Harrison talks about this as well in his book, “The Human Nature of the Singing Voice.”

      I would say again that if the pelvic floor engages as a result of something – wonderful! But I’d be loathe to try to MAKE that happen directly. I like to say that “tone creates its own support.” I would also want to confirm that the engagement of those muscles was found in long work on the messa di voce too, as that masterful exercise seems to put the brakes on muscular grabbing while building intensity in the voice. Many find that their most intense sounds seem more intensely ‘concentrated’ through work in the messa di voce, and they will, as a result, begin to let go of any extrinsic compensatory muscular interference.

      Floor work, too, can often be revelatory in developing awareness of the singer in how they ‘use themselves’ in relation to their bodies as they make sound.

      Thanks so much for the terrific conversation!

  4. Same here Justin- thanks so much for gabbing with me. Am taking everything you said into consideration, esp the part about messa di voce (something i never think about or practice). All the best to you! Jeff

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