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.

 

 

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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. 

Breathing and Capacity for Skilled Action

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.

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 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.

[…]

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.

 

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

Where’s Your Pity for the Tuba Player?!!

Without undertaking to decide whether one system of breathing can be right, to the exclusion of all other systems, one general remark can be applied to the whole subject. It has never been scientifically proved that the correct use of the voice depends in any way on the mastery of an acquired system of breathing! True, this is the basic assumption of all the discussions of the singer’s breathing. As Frangçon-Davies justly remarks, — “All combatants are agreed on one point, viz., that the singer’s breath is an acquired one of some kind.” (The Singing of the Future, David Frangcon-Davies, M.A., London, 1906.) This is purely an assumption on the part of the vocal theorists. No one has ever so much as attempted to offer scientific proof of the statement.

Further, it is frequently stated that the old Italian masters paid much attention to the subject of breathing; the assumption is also made that these masters approached the subject in the modern spirit. Neither this statement, nor the assumption based on it, is susceptible of proof. Tosi and Mancini do not even mention the subject of breathing.

Breathing has been made the subject of exhaustive mechanical and muscular analysis, for one reason, and for only one reason. This is, because the action of breathing is the only mechanical feature of singing which can be exhaustively studied. The laryngeal action is hidden; the influence of the resonance cavities cannot well be determined. But the whole muscular operation of breathing can be readily seen and studied; any investigator can personally experiment with every conceivable system.

Furthermore, the adoption of any system of breathing has no influence whatever on the operations of the voice. A student of singing may learn to take breath in any way favored by the instructor; the manner of tone-production is not in the least affected. Even if the correct use of the voice has to be acquired, the mode of breathing does not contribute in any way to this result.

All that need be said in criticism of the various doctrines of breathing is, that the importance of this subject has been greatly overestimated. Breath and life are practically synonymous. Nothing but the prevalence of the mechanical idea has caused so much attention to be paid to the singer’s breathing. A tuba player will march for several hours in a street parade, carrying his heavy instrument, and playing it fully half the time; yet the vocal theorist does not consider him an object of sympathy.

Taylor, David Clark. The psychology of singing: a rational method of voice culture based on a scientific analysis of all systems, ancient and modern. The Macmillan Company, 1917.

W. Stephen Smith on Breathing

There are almost as many ideas about correct breathing for singing as there are voice teachers. Every vocal pedagogy book has a chapter about breathing, and the various approaches range from “Don’t think about breathing at all,” to the most complicated and intricate understanding of the musculature involved and how to manipulate the muscles for proper breath support. The latter approach focuses on the use of intercostal muscles, expansion of the rib cage, use of the pelvic muscles, and raising the chest. Although none of those things is necessarily wrong (indeed, some of those ideas are provably correct by scientific measurement), they are simply descriptions of what happens when we sing correctly, not what we do to sing right.

[…]

The more simply we think about breathing, the better we will do it. However, correct breathing is not so simplistic that we don’t think about it at all. To have the kind of power necessary for singing, the voice must speak clearly, which creates an intense muscular vibration. To balance and buoy that intensity, the breath must flow freely and consistently, which requires intense engagement with the breathing process. While singing, we cannot forget about breathing altogether, but we must not focus too much on the physiology of breathing.

 

Smith, W. Stephen. The naked voice: A wholistic approach to singing. Oxford University Press, 2007.