Dec 15 2014

Lamperti's Concept of Pelvic Control of the Breath

The teaching concepts of Giovanni Battista Lamperti have been a major influence in my development as a singer and voice instructor. Lamperti is best known from the book “Vocal Wisdom, Maxims of Giovanni Battista Lamperti”.

This book was not actually written by Lamperti but was a compilation of lesson notes by his student William Earl Brown. But he isn’t even the one to thank for having this information published.

It was Brown’s student, Lillian Strongin that inherited his many manuscripts and notes. She found this material in a notebook, written in French, from his lessons with Lamperti in Dresden from 1891-1893. She translated everything and had it published in 1957.

I was introduced to this book by the tenor voice faculty member at the Univ of Minnesota. I was still an undergraduate at a different campus and was home for Christmas break. I just wandered into the school looking around with the thought of maybe trying to go to Grad school there in a couple years.

The teacher just happened to be there giving lessons during the holiday break and his next lesson struck up a conversation with me and invited me to meet the teacher and sit in on his lesson.

When he was finished I had a nice conversation with the teacher and he recommended the Lamperti book. It would be an understatement to say it had a profound affect on my path.

Actually that day might be the most significant in my whole development because I kept in touch with that teacher and even studied with him during the summer. When I auditioned for the school I was refused three times.

It wasn’t until the last audition in August, just weeks before the beginning of classes, that I was accepted to the Master’s program. And it would not have happened if not for the efforts of this teacher.

So without the events of that day I wouldn’t have gotten into Grad school and wouldn’t have learned about the Vocal Wisdom book, which has been my number one reference. It only seemed natural to name my website after it.

Something I have wanted to do for some time is explain the concepts covered in the book to my modern audience. So when I received this question it seemed like a great opportunity to start that series.

So here is the first in what I hope will be many posts explaining Lamperti’s concepts from the book Vocal Wisdom.
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I was really impressed by your blog posts and by your amazing understanding of vocal technique and great way to communicate it effectively. I’m a big opera fan and I also like singing, even if only as an amateur.
Since it looks like you are very familiar with G.B. Lamperti’s maxims, I wanted to ask you if you could better clarify what you think he means with his continuous references to controlling the vibration in the pelvis and not up-rooting the energy from the pelvic region and in general controlling the breath pelvicly.

I instinctively understand Lamperti’s point and I feel this connection in the rare moments that it happens to me to sing well, but I wanted to understand better the physical basis that underlies this sensation.
Thank you very much if you can help me to better understand this aspect of vocal technique.
Keep working this way, the opera world needs people with your talent!! And it would also need better discerning ears…

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Thank you for your kind feedback. Your question illustrates how much of Lamperti’s teaching is hard to grasp at first. We kind of need to understand certain things before the others make sense.

In the case of his references to the pelvis we must first understand the principles of compressed breath. Which is another common theme in his teaching.

Compressed breath is a condition of the breath that is different than the normal condition we experience in daily life.

As we breath in and out the breath is in a condition we would call “loose”. This is a natural byproduct of the fact the air is moving in and out of the lungs.

But this condition of the breath is not optimal for the act of phonation. For vocalizing sung expressions it is much more efficient and effective for the breath to be in a compressed condition.

We accomplish this when we stop the respiration act and suspend the breathing. Then the breath is no longer moving and remains in the lungs.

From this point the glottal opening instinctively closes as part of the respiration cycle. (I explain this in my special article, “The #1 Mistake Singers Are Making.” Join the VocalWisdom.com community with your email for free access to this article.)

When the glottis closes the respiratory system becomes a closed system. In a closed system air is automatically under compression.

There is naturally more potential energy in compressed air than there is in loose air. So when we create the condition of compressed breath rather than loose breath we have much more potential energy available for us to use to vibrate the voice.

We need to understand this in order to understand the role the pelvis plays. There are actually a couple aspects to this pelvic control he refers to. One is muscular and the other involves sensations.

The muscular aspect is subtle, but can be critical for some people, depending on their condition.

There are muscles in the pelvic region that when activated help to hold the breath and close the glottis. (For example, I remember reading Joan Sutherland mentioning something about flexing a muscle in the pelvis.)

So it is a reflexive way of helping the glottal condition. Now I should say that I don’t usually teach this way of influencing the glottis. But I had a client that discovered this on her own and she really noticed a big positive difference.

The other aspect, sensations, is what I suspect is the one that is more likely to benefit most people.

When we breath in the way he recommended to create the condition of compressed breath, the sensation of the air pressure descends all the way down to the pelvic floor.

The physical reason for this is pretty simple. When we breath this way, we don’t expand much. This is contrary to the common practice of expanding on the inhale.

Many emphasize expansion in the abdomen or in the ribs, or both. It is true that these parts of the body are involved in the act of inhalation. But to create the condition of compressed breath we try to resist the expansion of the body.

I should point out that there is still some expansion, but because we don’t just release and let it hang out the expansion happens in an elastic condition. The elasticity creates a much more automatic recoil, contributing to the compression.

We can understand this with some simple Physics. If we expand the container as we fill it with air, (or you could think of this as water) the air will be the same pressure as it was outside the container.

Since we want the air to have a higher pressure than outside we don’t expand the container as we fill it. This requires the air to become more dense in order to fill the container.

We are increasing the amount of air in the same volume, which results in higher density of the air. Which is another way of saying there is more pressure. Or the air is under compression.

In the same way that the air gets condensed, if we don’t expand the abdomen the internal organs in the abdominal cavity will become condensed.

This pressure will be transferred through the soft material until it reaches the firm, bone structure of the pelvis.

So what he is instructing us to do is keep the body from expanding, or more accurately resisting the expansion, so we create a condition of internal pressure. This pressure, when correct, we feel in the pelvis because it is the hard floor of the torso.

He actually talks about the collar bones acting in a similar manner for the upper end of the torso. But that is also somewhat subtle.

I hope this gives you a better idea of this concept in action. It is important to remember that these are conditions of the body and not actions that we try to do. If we try to do them we risk losing the natural responsiveness of the body.

Please leave comments and questions below. Thanks.

  1. Thanks Michael for your clear and meaningful explanation. Do you think that the vagus nerve also plays a role in this feeling of connection from head to pelvis?

  2. I suspect it does. I think in general we don’t give enough attention to the nerves. They are what carry the signal from the brain to the muscles. The muscles work better when we don’t try to use them, which is when we rely on the nerve impulses rather than try to directly control the muscles. That is one way we create tension.

  3. Regarding these feelings of connections, I also read about “bone conduction”. What is your opinion about this?
    Thanks for your time and capacity to go in depth into these tough issues!

  4. Bone conduction is an aspect of resonance. The energy of sound can transfer through air but also through certain solids. An easy way to experience this is to say something and plug your ears. The sound you hear is from the inside of the head. I suspect bone conduction contributes to the sensation of resonance in the nasal passages. We usually call this head resonance. But there is a tickle feeling from the sound energy in the air of the nasal passages that might get there through the roof of the mouth. I don’t know of any studies that prove or disprove this, so I can’t say it is a fact. But it doesn’t really matter. We can behave as if it is true and get excellent results. Thanks.

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