For centuries volumes have been & continue to be written about the classical singer’s use of the breath – usually referred to as support, breath control, breath management, balanced breath, etc. Yet there remains a great deal of confusion on the subject.  

Several followers of SINGING WITH MANY VOICES have asked me to address this important topic.  I am happy to do so, based on some of your questions.  However, this is not meant to be a “How To” blog but rather a look at our breath mechanism and how it functions, with an emphasis on the classical singer’s skill.

QUESTION:  Is there a  difference between “The Singer’s Breath” &  normal speech?ANSWER:  Singers & non-singers alike have the same breath mechanism.  But the  classical singer must develop it to its fullest capacity for the demands of the repertoire:     1) Long sustained vocal line   2) A  wide vocal range (2 and 1/2 octaves)   3) Balanced registration (chest,middle,head)   4) Dynamic control   5) Agility   6) Diction &  7) Expressivity.

These principles of the Bel Canto School require us to look more specifically at the breath mechanism itself:   INHALATION MUSCLES:  Diaphragm & Rib Cage (Outer Intercostals).  EXHALATION:  Lower Abdominal muscles and Rib Cage (Inner Intercostal muscles).

INHALATION (Support):   For everyday speech we do not need to be too concerned about how we inhale  – nor does the throat need to be “open”.   The singer, on the other hand, must always inhale completely, comfortably and deeply.   We often take this kind of satisfying, complete breath in real life when we:  Begin a Yawn; Deeply inhale the perfume of one rose;  Express joyful surprise; and, yes, when we sneeze.  Therefore this way of inhaling is not foreign to any of us.   For singing,  this “complete” breath prepares the whole instrument:   THE VOCAL TRACK (larynx, speech mechanism & resonators) &  THE TORSO  (Diaphragm distends & rib cage opens (outer intercostals).  The lower abdominal muscles release to make room  for the descending diaphragm.  The air goes easily, completely and noiselessly into the lowest part of the lungs (open back).                                                                    SUSPENSION:  This is a sensation we feel when the deeply  inhaled air “settles” in the lungs.  It is one of firmness and stability in the torso, often described as a “Column of Air”.  It is this phase of the breathing cycle that we often do not pay enough attention to as singers. But it is a very important part of the dynamic control of the breath flow for each phrase to be sung .   

EXHALATION (Breath Management):   When we Yawn & Sigh in every day life the body automatically takes a fuller, deeper breath.  But we  do not need to consciously control the exhalation  as the breath is “sighed” away very quickly.  The position of inhalation (suspension ) is not retained & the exhalation muscles push  the breath up to the larynx  without any resistance being offered.  The Yawn/Sigh is a wonderful way  to release tension or to relax after a long day’s work, etc.   But singers need to have a dynamic control over that column of  air.   The major difference, then, at this point in the breath cycle,  is that the singer will learn to set up a buoyant interplay between the inhale and exhalation muscles  by maintaining the position of inhalation (suspension) from the first tone,  continuing  to dynamically feel the isometric interplay throughout the phrase.    The buoyant control  of the breath changes the pitches, leaving  the larynx stable throughout the whole range (open throat).  There will always be a small amount of air in the lungs & the  singer never feels out of breath.  One  never sees a well trained singer inhale or exhale.  They are aware of this breath cycle from the moment they prepare to sing.  It, of course, all begins with the “noble posture” of our body (Richard Miller, The Structures of Singing).                                                             

QUE:  How does one know how much breath to take in & how to control it?              ANS:  The phrase to be sung will dictate all of this to the singer.  Therefore, “Breathing for the Phrase” is an important concept.  The inhalation becomes the upbeat for each mentally prepared phrase (Inner Ear/Eye).    Knowing in advance the gesture of the phrase, its range and its dynamics are all a part of mental preparation.  The body will follow the clear thought.

QUE:  Is there a name for this type of breath management?                                       ANS:   Yes, in the Italian School of singing it is called “Appoggiare” (To Lean/To Support).   Support is the air you have in your lungs upon inhalation and breath management is the buoyant, dynamic isometric interplay between the 2 sets of breathing muscles, assuring that the lungs will not run out of  this “support” before the end of each phrase.    Thus the use of the word “To Lean”.

QUE:  Why is there confusion about breathing for singers ?                                        ANS:   Two possible reasons:  A  lack of simple but clear knowledge about our own instrument  &/or  an over complication of the “process” – causing the breath flow to be static as opposed to dynamic.  We sometimes over emphasize one muscular function instead of balancing the whole instrument as one unit.  We need to keep the phrasing  as our guide at all times.  

QUE:   How may a student develop this skill?                                                                     ANS:  Each knowledgeable teacher has their way(s) of helping each student   to develop this part of the technique.  Each singer must take ownership of the information received from all sources  developing one’s own mental and musical concepts based on  correct information. 


THOMAS HAMPSON:  “Keep the feeling of inhalation at all times”                       ENRICO CARUSO: “The art of breathing, once acquired will go a long way on the road to parnassus.”                                                                                                             LUCIANO PAVAROTTI:  “The throat does not change the pitch – the proper air pressure does.”                                                                                                                     PLACIDO DOMINGO:  “Be aware of your firm torso, onset your first note there and go away from your body”                                                                                               MATHILDE MARCHESI    (Bel Canto: A Theoretical and Practical Approach):  “The inhaled breath feels like a firm and supple column upon which we sing.”              “Sing in the position of inhaling”                                                                                   EMANUEL GARCIA :  “In a balanced onset (appoggiare) all shock is avoided.  Therein lies the germ of all good vocalism”                                                              RICHARD MILLER (The Structures of Singing) – “The breath quickly & easily renews itself if the posture of inhalation remains throughout the phrases”                 LAMPERTI:  “Feel the breath under the tone – not in the tone”.                                      MY FAVORITE QUOTE  “Keep it as simple as possible   –  but no simpler”(Albert Einstein)   

In my next Blog on “The Singer’s Breath”  we will look at accepted pedagogical phrases  and  what they mean, 

Please feel free to send in any questions or topics you would like to have discussed in SINGING FOR MANY VOICES.



















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