Q&A - Belly Breathing
While we are still on the discussion of “normal breathing” versus “breathing for the purpose of singing,” I should bring up something that has puzzled me for a while now. One popular method of breathing and supporting nowadays seems to be “belly breathing,” where the singer is told to keep the chest down, let the belly inflate with the breath, and hold the expansion. I see where these people are coming from, as the pushing out of the abdominal muscles is meant to keep the breath from being expelled too quickly, but it seems to go against what people like Mr. Mayer and Maestro Jones have said (which involves keeping the ribs in an uplifted position and letting the abdominal muscles go into the body while the side muscles expand). Just so I put it out there, the Swedish/Italian concept of breathing makes the most sense to me. However, many people seem to disagree. Even William Vennard, who seems to be like an idol in the world of classical technique, seems to support belly breathing. From what I’ve read in the Breathing chapter of Singing, the Mechanism and the Technic, he preaches against clavicular breathing (lifting the collarbone and shoulders while breathing) and intercostal breathing (letting the ribcage expand) and instead advocates breathing into the belly. Or at least, that’s what I got from it when I read it. Would you say that this is one of the downfalls of an otherwise-great pedagogue, or did I misinterpret what he said? Also, it seems that belly breathing seems to be what is supported by experts when it comes to everyday life and athletics. What’s your take on this? Should we belly-breath in everyday life and then revert to another form while singing?
This is a huge issue because of how prevalent this belief is. I was taught to belly breath as far back as 3rd grade, I think, by a well-meaning Gym teacher. We were doing the 600 yard run in class and he taught us if we breath with our belly we will have better endurance. This was the late-70s. In athletics, as in singing, the objective with breathing with the belly is to avoid the high “panic-like” breathing of the shoulders and top of the chest. To help us remain calm.
The problem with this is our tendency to go too far in our desire to maximize effectiveness. And as a result we impede the natural behavior of our respiratory system making it less efficient. In order to feel ourselves breath with our belly requires us to take on an unhealthy and unproductive posture. Ironically it is also counter productive to the act of breathing. Collapsing the chest will never improve breathing, regardless what the purpose.
Belly breathing only happens when we are in a relaxed, slouching posture. In order for the abdomen to expand as much as is recommended the ribcage and chest must close down. This impedes the expansion of the lungs and actually results in shallow breathing. The same as if one were to breath with the top of the chest. The reason it happens in normal breathing is because we are in that relaxed condition. We are not trying to do anything active or athletic. But just because it often happens in normal life it doesn’t make it desirable for activity. Many breath with high-chest breathing in their normal life, should we recommend that for singing because it is normal? No.
Another aspect to investigate is what does that manner of breathing express. What I mean is, the condition of the body is some kind of expression of an emotional state. It is the physical expression of emotion. I try to get people to realize that singing is an expression of emotion. In nature we can imagine that singing would exist in a similar family of expression as laughter, cheering, celebrating. In many cultures this still exists.
So what does the collapsed, over-relaxed condition of the body necessary for belly breathing express? Certainly not joy, enthusiasm, celebration, excitement that would result in singing. So how can that be a correct and productive behavior of the body for the purpose of singing? It can’t.
The condition of the body during belly breathing is the opposite that is needed for free, spontaneous singing. This kind of singing requires productive energy that the body can use easily. There is no energy in the downward, heavy condition that goes along with belly breathing.
The real problem with this, just the same as high-chest breathing, is that it is breathing done in just one area. Free, natural breathing is done over a large area. I am reminded of a statement from Lamperti, “breath a little over a large area rather than a lot in a small area”. That is what I’m talking about. It is more efficient, but is also simply easier.
Slender people (including myself) often find it difficult to accomplish the belly expansion asked for by these teachers. As a result they never feel like they can get it “right”.
Now, as I have said before on this subject, this doesn’t mean the abdominal muscles don’t participate in the breathing act. They absolutely do. But because of proper posture they start much farther in so that when they expand they still feel drawn in. This is important because once the abdomen expands beyond a certain point the deeper transverse abdominus muscles responsible for breath compression can’t contract reflexively.
And when this happens it just kills the function. It is ironic because belly breathers are the same ones who preach how important the breath is to the voice. Yet belly breathing starves the voice of breath pressure. The voice requires air pressure to feed the vibration of the vocal cords. The skill comes in knowing how to coordinate things so there is a balance between the air pressure and the larynx so the two forces work cooperatively.
For this to happen it requires the use of compressed breath, which can’t exist with belly breathing. Unless the singer pushes out with the belly while singing which, contrary to their belief, doesn’t hold back the air pressure but creates needed air pressure by pressing the chest down. This way of creating air pressure is unhealthy and can result in vocal fatigue.
All one needs to do is observe while performing different manners of coordination. No matter what you do the body has a natural reaction to the desire to sing, which is to squeeze the torso. Regardless of what we try to do, this act will happen without our control. The effectiveness of the result will depend on the condition of the body that we start with. People can experiment themselves to find the answers.
This is the main point of everything I write, regardless of the specific topic. Each of us needs to go through the experimenting, sensitizing, coordinating of our bodies. What I say, or anyone else for that matter, even if it is absolutely true, is still only an opinion for you until you experience the truth of it.
But it should be obvious that there is no air that goes into the abdomen. Since that is obvious, why should we expand it so much? The most common reason I have heard is because the diaphragm descends and the abdominal contents move out. Well, in theory this is true. But the reality is it is not to the great extent that they believe.
The diaphragm is much higher than most realize. When it is contracted and low it reaches the bottom of the ribcage. When it is relaxed and domed it rises up into the chest to the level of almost the nipples. And when it descends the abdominal contents can condense rather than distend out. This is actually a key aspect of creating compressed breath. Keeping the abdominal muscles stable while the diaphragm descends increases the internal pressure, which results in energy to automatically feed the vibration of the vocal cords without effort.
An unrecognized key component of the contraction of the diaphragm is the expanding of the lower ribs. The diaphragm connects to the lower ribs, and it can’t contract fully without the participation of the ribs. This is why intercostal breathing is recognized.
If the ribs don’t expand with the contraction of the diaphragm then only part of the diaphragm will contract. This is what causes the belly to distend, just the front portion of the diaphragm contracting. It doesn’t take a lot of analysis to recognize the decreased effectiveness of a muscle that only partially functions.
Breathing is really an act of the whole torso. And for the singer it is important to utilize the full capacity of the respiratory system not only for strength of vocal function, but also for simple coordination. When you only use part of a physical system it is much more difficult to find coordination and balance.
Using the body in the way I describe opens the door to the possibility of automatic function. This doesn’t mean things happen all by themselves and we don’t have to do anything. That is a misconception and never happens. We have to create the condition of the body and nervous system where the only result is singing. But this only happens when we work with the body and not against it. This is the real meaning of Lamperti’s statement of “don’t sing unless you’d die if you didn’t.”
Many have taken that in an artistic sense, which it can be. But he was really referring to the state of the body. You just can’t stay in that condition without releasing it as singing. Just like our bow and arrow analogy. The bow really wants to release the arrow because of the condition it is in.
I’m sure there will be people that disagree with what I’m saying. I can’t avoid that. But what I’m saying is not something I have made up. It has been said before and will be said by anyone who goes to the trouble of actually experiencing what is described. And just because someone doesn’t experience what is described doesn’t make it not true. Good luck.