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. 

Pierfrancesco Tosi, The Grandfather of Bel Canto

In his book, “Observations on the Florid Song,” Tosi has given a great deal of information regarding the methods of vocal training used during his day. The book is divided into three parts and consists of instructions to teachers, pupils and singers.

Tosi was a singer and composer, as well as, a teacher. His voice was a beautiful artificial soprano, which had been trained to a high state of perfection.

He sang with a great deal of emotional expression and his artistry was held in high esteem by the great singers of his time. They considered it a great privilege when they were given the opportunity of hearing him sing.

He was a great lover of his art and had the highest respect for those who distinguished themselves in music. On the other hand, he was very critical and outspoken toward all who abused or degraded the profession. Tosi spent a great deal of his life travelling. He made friends readily and some of his best ones were among the nobility. At one time he lived in England and became a leading figure in the musical circles of that country.

That Tosi considered the teaching of singing a serious undertaking is seen by the following quotations:

But above all, let the teacher hear with a disinterested ear whether the person desirous to learn hath a voice and a disposition, that he may not be obliged to give strict account to God, of the parent’s money ill spent, and the injury done to the child, by the irreparable loss of time.

Again warns the teacher:

From the first lesson to the last let the master remember, that he is answerable for any omission in his instructions and for the errors he did not correct.

Tosi also maintained that the pupils were responsible to the teacher in many ways. He felt that if the teacher was instrumental in the success of a singer, he should also be entitled to a share of the fortune made by the singer.

Tosi’s system of voice culture was one of progressive development from the first lesson to the completion of the course. The first few months of study were confined to the middle part of the voice. Single tone exercises were practiced until the student could sing with a clear steady tone, for the full duration of the breath, in varying degrees of dynamics, all the intervals of the middle octave. Short scale exercises for acquiring agility were then added. They consisted of just a few tones which were sung at a slow tempo. As the voice gained in flexibility, the speed was increased. Upon mastering the short scale exercises the messa di voce (swelling and diminishing a tone) was taken up. It was used to develop control and power of voice. Tosi considered the messa di voce of the greatest importance.

After the middle octave was firmly established, the next step was to extend the range of the voice in both directions. To develop the high tones, Tosi used scale passages on the different vowel sounds. The student was cautioned to practice softly, with light quality of tone. The scale exercises would extend three or four tones above the middle octave. After these could be sung with facility, the messa di voce was practiced on the upper tones. Tosi found that the combined practice of the messa di voce and the scale exercises were especially beneficial in extending the range of the voice and in firming the upper tones. He used this method in his teaching, adding note by note, until the upper limit of the voice was reached. Scale exercises of increasing difficulty practiced in varying degrees of dynamics were then added. The lower tones of the voice developed in the same manner.

At this stage of the training, the student took up the study of the appoggiatura, the shake, (trill) and divisions (runs). Tosi demanded musical perfection in preference to speed. He insisted that his pupils practice with this in mind. He would not tolerate a muddy shake or a slovenly executed division. Thus, the process of acquiring speed and agility required a great deal of patience and perseverance on on the part of the student and the master alike. Florid exercises were all practiced with a slow tempo, gradually increasing the speed as the voice acquired flexibility and freedom. Vowels were used, preference being given to the open ones. When the pupil was able to sound his vowels perfectly, the exercises were practiced with words and the building of a repertoire began in earnest.

Pure legato singing was emphasized by Tosi from the first lesson to the last. He never let his pupils become careless, or fall into slovenly habits of slurring their tones. They were taught how to sing with a steady flow of tone moving from one note to another, with perfect assurance and clear intonation. Tosi considered nasal and throaty production two of the worst defects of singing.

Some writers maintain that Tosi was the first voice teacher to refer to the registers of the voice. However, this is in error. If we refer back to Caccini, we find that he believed the voice to have two registers, which he called, “voce piena” (full voice) and “voce finta” (disguised voice). Tosi’s conception of the term register was not the same as that used during the present time which divides the voice into separate sections. The term as he used it had reference rather to a distinctive quality of tone. According to Tosi the term register was taken from the different stops of the organ and was used to describe various tone qualities produced by the voice. He believed the voice to have three registers, which he called “voce di petto” (chest register) and “voce di testa” which he describes as coming more from the throat than the breast. This would perhaps be the same as the middle register. He also mentions the falsetto (head register) which he claimed was formed entirely in the throat. Tosi used the term “feigned voice” for the falsetto. He believed that the falsetto could be developed and made a part of the voice so that the entire range of the voice was of consistent quality. In his teaching Tosi said very little about registers.

The terrible break in the voice that we hear so much about today, and which seems to be the main source of trouble in the development of an even scale, was given little thought by Tosi and his associates. The chief reason for this was that in their methods of teaching, the weak places in the voice were strengthened gradually and never reached the proportions of a break.

Tosi was considered an authority on voice culture by his contemporaries. Many of his pupils became teachers of voice. It may be for this reason that part of his book was written especially for the teacher.

 

Klingstedt, Paul T. Common sense in vocal pedagogy as prescribed by the early Italian masters. Edwards brothers, inc., lithoprinters, 1941.

The Old Masters Applied Nature’s Laws

Without troubling themselves to reason the matter out, they [the Old Masters] always obeyed and applied the laws which Nature has imposed on the voice. The first of these laws is, as we have seen, that the voice is guided by the ear. Yet it may be doubted whether they could have stated in plain terms their belief in the voice’s ability to obey the ear. Even in the matter of singing in tune, to which they devoted the closest attention, they could not have explained that the cerebral centres of hearing are connected by nerve fibres with the centres governing the vocal cord action.

Another natural law regarding the voice is, that the proper way to study its activities is by listening to it. We are so engrossed nowadays in the scientific aspects of voice production that no other kind of information about the voice seems possible. It has thus come about that the whole interest of vocalists is apt to be centred on vocal cord action, breath control, etc. Anyone not conversant with the anatomy of the throat and the laws of acoustics would be held utterly ignorant of the first principles of the vocal action. Yet the old masters knew nothing of vocal science, and no one would venture to say that they were ignorant teachers. On the contrary, their understanding of the voice comprised a mass of information about which the vocal scientists know almost nothing, — information of vastly more value to the singer than a know ledge of throat anatomy. The old masters studied the living voice. They did not acquire their professional training in the laboratory or the dissecting room, but in the studio and the opera house. They centred their attention on the sounds of the voice, as their predecessors had done for a thousand years before them.

Taylor, David Clark. “New Light on the Old Italian Method: An Outline of the Historical System of Voice Culture, with a Plea for Its Revival.” (1916).