Breathing for Singing as First Cause

Many teachers of classical singing assure me that breathing is the sine qua non for singing and it must be addressed very soon in vocal training. I’m told that I must actively and directly control, manage, and/or spin the breath, and it requires a lot of conscious breathing work to sing classical music. Unfortunately for my colleagues, I disagree. The reasons for this are three.

One, because when a voice is damaged, or dysfunctional, no amount of breathing or breath management is going to work across a leaking or deteriorated valve. It would be similar to pushing more water through a leaky pipe. Eventually the pipe will burst.

Second, because of the obvious fact that many classical singers do not breathe well and yet sing beautifully, while other singers breathe wonderfully yet sing poorly. Had breath owned powers of vocal development and restoration that statement would not be true. The argument also raises the same question for an artist of the calibre of Maria Callas. Are we truly to believe that this great artist, who had been singing her entire life, simply forgot how to breathe and manage her breath? Clearly that cannot be, for when we listen to the registrational issues (balance of chest/head registers) that her voice demonstrates in arias such as this, clearly her issues were not breath-related. Perhaps the disordered function in her throat was the cause of her vocal decline and not her breathing?

Third, because the written evidence of breathing in the Old Italian School does not exist in terms of overt, mechanistic, activated, direct control. Extended tones were the first exercises in most every singing manual from the earliest times to the mid-18th century; good posture was paramount. Students learned to manage breath by singing and discovering how their body wanted to develop around those singing tones. A psychology and pedagogy of ALLOWING a response was paramount. The voice was allowed to develop from within, not from the machinations of direct man-handlings, that we have earned as pedagogical nincompoopery from the mid-19th Century.

Reinhold Ludwig Herman’s book, An open door for singers, hints to vocalists points to just such a reasoning of why I do not work extensively with breath-breath-breath in singers at the beginning of their study. He also raises valid points on the age disparity between the bodies of young students and their teachers. In all, his theories sum up pretty well how I feel about the faddism or fetishization of the breath, especially in classical singing. ONCE AGAIN, notice how the language of NATURE comes back in the paragraphs below. This point cannot be too strongly emphasized. Nature rules all in the act of singing.

 

Yet such is the state of perplexity now, that students are told to breathe with the abdomen, with the diaphragm, with their backs — with anything except their lungs! I have vainly tried to find a reason for such aberrations. I can surmise but two. First, the constant mistaking of cause and effect — or considering movements of the organs below the diaphragm, which ought to be the consequence of all natural breathing, as its primary cause. The order of things simply becomes inverted. Secondly, that all the “methods of breathing” have been invented and propagated by persons double and triple the age when vocal studies are supposed to be commenced. Any honest singer will concede that the body of the lithe eighteen-year-old girl is no more like that of the artist of forty or forty-five, than the pliant, tender spring-shoot of lilac or rose is like the hardened wood developed in time by nature to resist the force of the elements and the rigors of winter.

A similar difference exists between the physique of a young college-student and the mature man of middle age. Some people may refuse to believe in these changes in nature. I say: It is certain that we are powerless to resist these fibrous and muscular alterations that come with age and professional occupation. In May, the shoots of vine or creeper snap like glass at a touch, and wither in the breath of a gale ; after their change to woody fibre you can bend, twist, even use as a support those frail branches. In maturer years we carry heavier, less flexible abdomens, far more difficult to move by the rise and fall of the diaphragm than in the days when we were members of racing crews, or tossing the ball, or contesting among fleet-footed runners. If a singer’s chest has broadened out into a capacious cavity, which would need no special enlargement — if a teacher of riper age finds it more natural to press his breath out by the force of his abdomen, or of any organ except his lungs, do not let him exact the same process of breathing from bodies as yet utterly unfit for such pressure. I would counsel talking as little as possible about “breathing,” at first, though breath is the first and paramount necessity for any tone-work. But as long as the student cannot get rid of his laboriously acquired “breath” in singing, as long as he cannot employ and distribute the painfully stored-up air, you make his body rigid and unelastic. To teach a pupil to educate his breath-capacity without any due proportion of tone-work seems to me like teaching some one to drive a nail, giving him hammer and nail but only air to hammer on ; or to teach a person to plane a board, instructing him in detail in the motion of the tool, with never a board to work on. I have known a professor, in one of the greatest of contemporary schools for violin-playing, to instruct a boy in drawing his bow across the open violin-strings for seven months, without giving his fingers or his ears any relief from that single exercise. I have known singing-pupils who were kept on breathing-exercises for half a year and more without being permitted to sing more than an occasional scale, much less a word. I insist that breath-development should proceed parallel with tone-development. Whatever breath the tone requires should be forthcoming, and intelligently prepared. But to develop a breath which might do for Brangane’s night-song or Handel’s “Let the bright Seraphim,” before the pupil can manage the simplest portamenti (tone-connections), seems an utter waste of time and strength. For only the just proportion between sound and air-supply makes the tone beautiful. Too much air is quite as harmful as too little.

Herman, Reinhold Ludwig. An Open Door for Singers: Hints to Vocalists. G. Schirmer, 1912.

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“Friendly Compression”

That’s the term I use for Manuel Garcia’s coup de glotte. The terminology and wording of Garcia’s theory of glottal closure caused a firestorm of controversy in the mid-to-late nineteenth century. The misunderstanding of it as a glottal plosive frightened many teachers, theorists, and voice doctors from that time to the present day.

Henry Holbrook Curtis derided it as “death to the voice”, and partnered with the De Reszkes, Jean and Edouard, to spread the terror of it throughout Europe. Of course, their versions, according to Blanche Marchesi, were highly exaggerated and not at all what Garcia intended.

Garcia’s wording on the exercising of the coup de glotte was ‘delicate’. It was a gentle closure of the glottis, not a ‘brutal pushing of breath’ ‘fit only to tear the glottis, not to rectify and regulate its movements.’

It is necessary to prepare the stroke of the glottis by closing it, which stops and momentarily accumulates some air in the passage; then, much as a rupture operates as a means of relaxation, one opens it with an incisive and vigorous stroke, similar to the action of the lips in pronouncing the consonant [p].

For author James Stark, the coup de glotte was a prephonatory setup of the instrument as well as a continuance of the tone in that particular firmer, ‘clamped’ (his word) arrangement.

Mathilde Marchesi is also in agreement with this idea as well when she wrote:

‘the glottis must be closed an instant before Expiration commences; in other words, it should be prepared’

From a breath management perspective, an efficiently adducted mechanism gives the tone a lower flow of air across the glottis. The result is that the singer needs less air for singing, not more. Numerous accounts of Old Italian School singers and authors speak of the fact that singers ‘scarcely breathed’. Visual perceptions of bodily breath were completely invisible. An effectively strengthened adductory mechanism would need less breath to bring the vocal cords into vibration.

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 as 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!’

Constance Shacklock on Kirsten Flagstad

Palmer, Andrew. Divas–in their own words: fifty sopranos and mezzo-sopranos talk about their voices and careers. Vernon Press, 2000.

Garcia’s coup de glotte is not only the onset, it is also the continuance of the tone with friendly firmness. This would lend credence to the wording of Jenny Lind (also a student of Garcia) who remarked that tones should be “struck” and “bound” together. This suggests she understood the idea behind the firm start of the sound, and the ensuing firmness of the tone. The pitch was ‘struck’ with the coup de glotte, then ‘bound’ to other tones in a phrase of music. For Garcia, a student was to exercise the coup in glotte in the first lesson, otherwise they hadn’t been taught properly.

…when singing, on one occasion, with Rubini, in the Matrimonio Segreto, he [Luigi Lablache] held the great Tenor’s hand in his own, during a passage in the famous duet, and, at the same time, looked him full in the face, without being able to detect the act of breathing in the least degree…triumph of consummate art.

-Frederic Lablache on his father’s account of singing with Rubini.

Shakespeare, William. The art of singing: based on the principles of the old Italian singing-masters, and dealing with breath-control, production of the voice and registers, together with exercises. Vol. 1. O. Ditson, 1905.

In modern times, we recognize only three forms of onset: 1. soft, or aspirate, 2. hard, or glottal, and 3. balanced. None of these three forms of onset reflect Garcia’s ideas on the start of the tone. 

In my studio, I work with singers on ‘friendly compression’ through something I refer to as a ‘stingy hum’ with the mouth closed. It has the quality of a ‘squeaky door’ which must be done gently and with as little extrinsic muscle participation as possible – only the adductory muscles should be active and the throat relatively free and relaxed. The scale is usually some kind of gallop figure over the interval of a fifth, later expanded to the Rossini scale of an octave and a half.

Garcia wrote in Hints on Singing:

The lightness of movement is considerably facilitated if it be tried with the mouth shut. Once understood, it may be used with the mouth open on any vowel.

So that’s why I start all coup de glotte work with a closed mouth. The purpose is not to ‘blow breath’ against tightly adducted vocal cords. In fact, the maneuver can demonstrate to a singer the least amount of air needed to sing. From the Traité:

The rush of air, however, that is escaping through the half-open orifice, will be quite perceptible, and will give the sound a veiled character, at times extremely dull; this is frequently the case with the falsetto; we may hence conclude, that brilliancy of voice results from the entire closing of the glottis after each beat. Economy of the breath is another advantage derived from this complete closing of the glottis.

Some students refer to them as ‘vocal push ups’ because they build in a gentle way the adductory muscles of the larynx without ‘pressure of breath’. They are not user friendly, nor do I want students practicing them outside of lessons, where they will be likely to blow air against a tightly adducted mechanism. Students with whom I work in the exercise gain a true ‘ring’ of the voice, and an ease in register transition that is more efficient and less ‘pressured’. The ease with which high notes can be taken also attests to the effectiveness of firm glottal closure (without SQUEEZE, I might add).

The additional benefit of the exercise is awareness of shifts in the registration. If the mechanism is not allowed to adjust through the passaggio, a resultant tightness and strangulation of the throat will follow. This choke should not happen in any vocal exercise.  If the singer tries to ‘pull’ the lower register or mechanism up into the passaggio, this exercise will expose it right away.

To close, I’m going to include Garcia’s admonitions on the coup de glotte in his own Hints on Singing.

 

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Breath Management as a Compensatory Tension

In singing, the body gets the message to ‘help out’ when the cords lose their adducting strength. This appears to be a physiological law and the body kicks in to secure a firmer relation between itself and the throat. In any case, if, when we try to sing, the response from the voice is weak, it would seem natural to try to use a greater quantity of breath, in order to press our cords into action. This would then pose the questions not whether the extra breath is acceptable so much as ‘how much breath?’ and ‘how do we control it?’

Breath control is talked about as though the breathing apparatus must be manipulated. This is why ‘special breathing for singing’ has generally become of great importance in the eyes of singers and teachers. Unlike our vocal folds, breathing is by and large something that we can both feel and see. If a weak larynx ‘calls for support’ from the body – from the breathing department – it seems logical that the more breath we have the better, especially to support the voice through phrase after long phrase. It seems logical too that the stronger the engagement between the breath and the larynx, the louder and higher we will be able to sing.

[…]

The idea of ‘singing on the breath’ (as distinct from with the breath) possibly arose from the ease with which a voice in the ‘minimal breath’ condition flows, with its accompanying lack of pressure and absence of ‘fixing tension’. The implication is that the voice flows as the breath does, and while this may sometimes prove a helpful image, encouraging a more relaxed ‘delivery’, it does not necessarily bring about efficient vocalisation. A singer remains short of the mark so long as there is a real sensation that air is flowing. When the breathing apparatus is used wrongly we get the impression that breath is all-important, but when it plays its natural part without bidding, there is no such impression. The amount of air is infinitesimally small, as befits its delicate and highly specific task at the level of those tiny cords.

In singing it’s only when breath is evident, either in being dammed up or because it is ‘leaking’, that we should be concerned. To attempt to control the breath without the natural participation of the vocal folds is a folly, and the cause of much misplaced hard work, and damning struggle.

It would be convenient to be able to say that if breathing per se is ‘correct’ the voice will respond accordingly. Unfortunately, to function correctly in singing the breathing system needs the larynx and its extrinsic support system as much as the larynx needs the breathing system. ‘Breathing athletes’ with exemplary posture (such as yogis) may have their breathing very much under control but cannot sing.

Harrison, Peter T. The Human Nature of the Singing Voice: Exploring a sound basis for Teaching and Learning. Dunedin Academic Press Ltd. 2006.

Evan Williams Discussing Posture’s Relationship to Efficient Breathing

Singers study breathing as though they were trying to learn how to push out the voice or pull it out by suction. By standing in a sensible position with the chest high (but not forced up) the lung capacity of the average individual is quite surprising. A good position can be secured through the old Delsarte exercise which is as follows:

I. Stand on the balls of your feet, heels just touching the floor.

II. Hold your arms at your side in a relaxed condition.

III. Move your arms forward until they form an angle of forty-five degrees with the body. Press the palms down until the chest is up comfortably.

IV. Now let your arms drop back without letting your chest fall. Feel a sense of ease and freedom over the whole body. Breathe naturally and deeply.

In other words, to “poise” the breath, stand erect, at attention. Most people when called to this “attention ” posture stiffen themselves so that they are in a position of resistance. When I say attention,— I mean the position in which you have alertness but at the same time complete freedom, — when you can freely smile, sigh, scowl and sneer, — the attention that will permit expansion of the chest with every change of mood. Then, open the mouth without inhaling. Let the breath out for five seconds, close the mouth and inhale through the nostrils. I keep the fact that I breathe into the lungs through the nostrils before me all the time. Again open the mouth without allowing the air to pass in. Practice this until a comfortable stretch is felt in the flesh of the face, the top of the head, the back, the chest and the abdomen. If you stretch violently you will not experience this feeling.

-Evan Williams