May 20 2015

Sul fiato/Singing On the Breath - What is it and how has it been misinterpreted?

A client of mine was discussing some of the concepts we work on with a former teacher/professor of hers. He agreed with the things she said and told her they were much the same as he taught.

One of the statements he made was that he always taught “sul fiato”. Since she had studied with him she knew that he did not teach the same things we work on. So she asked me what is the concept of sul fiato and is it the same as what we are after?


Sul fiato is a concept of the old Italian school of singing. It means “on the breath”. Many more are probably familiar with the English version of the concept of singing on the breath. The problem is it has been misinterpreted by modern pedagogues to fit the popular “breath flow” model of phonation.

To understand the true meaning of “sul fiato” we must also include the concept that always went along with it, “col fiato”. Which means “with the breath”.

When we include both concepts we can see that what people are talking about now is actually col fiato, but they are calling it sul fiato. And it doesn’t matter what language you use, there are plenty of people talking about singing on the breath but based on their demonstrations they mean with the breath.

It seems to me the problem of misinterpretation comes from a misunderstanding of what is meant to actually be on the breath. The typical statement is the voice on the breath. So what do we mean when we say “voice”?

This is why I developed my basic premise of talking about the voice as being the physical mechanism of the voice, the larynx. Because what many people mean when they say the voice is actually the sound of the voice.

So if the sound is what is meant when they say the voice, then if they think of the voice on the breath they are actually going to be trying to blow the sound with the breath. Which will end up causing a severe imbalance in the larynx.

This is one way to create the #1 mistake singers make that I talk about in my article available to free members of the community. (Sign-up on the Home page) Because in order to feel like the tone is on the breath we need to exhale loose breath through the larynx.

And if we do that there is no way for the larynx to be stable or for there to be a pure vibration. And lacking these conditions is the fundamental reason for most of the problems singers experience.

So as I said before, if the breath is flowing out that is actually singing with the breath. It feels as if the sound and the breath are flowing together. Which I believe is what confuses people.

I believe this confusion of the breath and the tone stems from the fact that they are both air. I have discussed this before, but a quick review might be worthwhile.

Both breath and tone are air, but they are different manifestations of air. Breath is the more obvious to understand. We breath air into the lungs and we exhale air. But tone is air that has sound energy passing through it. The sound is actually the energy and the air is just the medium for transmitting it.

The air of the breath is compressed into air pressure which causes the vocal folds to vibrate. That vibration creates disturbances in the air like a rock dropped into a pond disturbs the water. The ripples in the air is actually sound energy that travels like the waves we see in the water.

The air of the tone, like the water example, is more effective for transmitting the sound waves the more still it is. Which is why we don’t want the breath to flow out during the producing of the sound. (Beside the obvious fact that doing so distorts the vibration of the vocal folds because we breath through the opening of the glottis.) Because flowing breath will cause the air of the resonance to move, diminishing its effectiveness as a transmitter of sound.

You can imagine the difference between dropping a rock into a still pond versus dropping into a flowing stream. The waves in the pond will be nice, regular undulations. In the flowing stream the waves will be dissipated quickly by the moving water.

Now, the correct interpretation of the concept of “on the breath” relates not to the sound but to the actual mechanism of the voice – the larynx.

When we phonate reflexively and completely so the vibration of the vocal folds is not leaking unvocalised breath we can feel that the voice is on top of the breath. It is much like how a boat is on top of the water.

It is buoyant, but also feels quite solid. A feeling of stability can also be noticed. This is actually a very critical condition for the balance of the instrument.

The relationship between the voice and the breath is the basis of a healthy functioning instrument. They need to behave as partners in the vocal act.

It could be described that they lean into each other for balance. Most people are familiar with the idea of the breath going up. I would describe it as the breath leaning up against the larynx.

Many may not be familiar with the idea of the voice (larynx) leaning down into the breath. This is an element of “appoggio” that many don’t recognize. Most think of appoggio as simply “support”.

Unfortunately support is a concept that is not clearly defined for many that use it. A good illustration of how the breath supports the voice is the boat on water image I mentioned. The boat rests on the water and the water supports it.

It is actually a two-way relationship. We tend to only think in one direction at a time. This is why the concept of support tends to cause imbalance, because when we support we only do the breath up but we don’t think of the other direction of the larynx stabilizing down.

But this lack of stability of the larynx is the root of many vocal problems and especially vocal injuries.

This is represented by the fact that the client that asked this question was diagnosed with nodes before she came to me. And it is obvious that they were caused by this imbalance between the voice and the breath.

She had been taught to sing with a great deal of airflow, and to increase it as she sang higher. This only caused her discomfort, and then ultimately her voice started giving out. I will be including a series of blog posts detailing her circumstances and recovery in the future.

I have another client that suffered from the same imbalance, though fortunately she did not develop any physical injury. But she did lose her ability to sing any high notes.

It was a perfect example of singing with the breath. And she was not a beginner. Even with the imbalance she was still able to accomplish some impressive things toward her goal of being a career-oriented singer.

But we don’t need to suffer from vocal dysfunction to experience negative consequences of this mistaken condition.

Most difficulties that people experience with the voice can be traced to an imbalance in this relationship between the larynx and the breath.

The good thing is it is not a very difficult thing to learn to balance the relationship and experience quick improvement.

When you experience balance for the first time it almost seems like a miracle. But it is just simply the natural result of finding an appropriate balance between these fundamental components of the vocal instrument.


Please leave any questions or comments below. And if you have been experiencing difficulties with your voice let me know and we can start to address them. I feel everyone deserves to experience the enjoyment of a free, balanced voice.

  1. Is this appoggio you are speaking of the appoggio della nucca that has been so elusive to me to find out what exactly it IS

  2. Yes, exactly. That is a description of the sensation we have when the larynx finds stability resting on top of the breath. When we understand this relationship we can see it is impossible to create this condition if we are moving the breath.

  3. Roger Bryant

    Well done, Sir! I have NEVER been a fan of the dubious concept of “support”. But, as far as your post is concerned, with your superb explanation, your have my complete “support.” I especially appreciate the distinction between voice as mechanism and voice as sound/tone. Excellent point!

  4. I just wanted to say that I LOVE to read every single sentence you put out here!! No big words, never ever too little of this or too much of that. Thanks, Michael, for putting your time into writting these blogs!

  5. Great article! I would just emphasize more the importance of breath compression in gaining this balance.

  6. The great baritone Giuseppe Danise used to ask his students whether the different singers that they had heard on the Metropolitan radio broadcasts sang “sul fiato” or “col fiato” to test their understanding of this fundamental difference in voice production.

  7. jacqueline bouviala

    I read somewhere this anecdote : a great solist and choristers sang in a church and it was very cold.
    The clouds that were emitted by the mouth of the choristers were big and those emitted by the soloist very tiny.
    so, does it not boil down to a question of quantity?

  8. Thank you, Vanessa. That is exactly what I am trying to do. I’m glad to hear it is coming across for you.

  9. Thanks, Giacomo. Neat story about Danise. You are right about the breath compression. But it is important that it be accomplished through reflex. I find that if we emphasize something there is a good chance that one will try to accomplish it. Pretty logical. But by trying to accomplish it they try with deliberate action. Which is not an effective way of creating breath compression. We want the breath to be compressed through reflex action in response to the intention to say something.

    Another aspect of this is the concept of balance. For the breath compression to be balanced there needs to be something on the other side acting in the opposite direction. That is what this post is talking about. My point was that plenty of people talk about the breath. But the breath is not balanced because it doesn’t have a partner.

    Learning to use the larynx in a balanced and appropriate way to provide resistance to the breath to create vibration is the fundamental skill of vocalization. Breath compression can only happen when there is this balanced opposition or else the attempt to compress the breath just becomes pushing wild air.

    As Lamperti is quoted there needs to be a balance of opposite forces. And experience has taught me that the more reliable way is to provide the resistance of the larynx first, then the breath compression happens reflexively. This happens naturally when we think of saying something with the larynx.

    That thought stimulates the larynx which then stimulates the breath second. It all feels totally natural when well coordinated. And for the most part it is just thoughts, the physical actions happening almost automatically.

  10. Good illustration, Jacqueline. This is much like the old school tools of singing in front of a mirror or candle. The singer can use the tool to see if they are expelling unvocalized breath. They want to avoid fogging the mirror or flickering the flame of the candle.

    The problem for me of thinking of it as simply a question of quantity is that still implies releasing the breath. In a balanced phonation the vibration already is releasing breath automatically. If we include releasing breath as part of our conceptualization, then we will start to exhale releasing the glottal adjustment and release too much breath.

    Good vocalization feels like we are suspending the breath and releasing the tone. Then the vibration uses the breath based on the needs of the phonation to fulfill the expression. I am reminded of Lamperti’s quote that the voice takes the breath it needs. If we release the breath it will be more than the voice needs.

  11. Hi Michael,

    Where does “The inhalation of the the voice” fit into you philosophy of singing? if it does at all. i know its probably just imaginary fact, but what do you think of it

  12. There are two aspects that relate to that traditional concept. The first one is the suspension of the breath. We suspend and, in a sense, hold the breath through continuing the inhalation gesture. This keeps things flexible and avoids stiffness while coordinating the breath so we don’t release more than the vibration needs.

    The second is a subtle sensation we get when the phonation is optimally balanced. In this balanced condition we feel like the air is released inward instead of outward. The statement reminds us of this condition so we don’t exhale while we sing but feel more of a sense of inhaling so we stay balanced.

  13. Dear Michael
    I have been reading your Blog for quite sometime last two three years and I appreciate that what you write is based on your hands on experience of treating the voice problems of singers in the West.I have been approaching similar problems of singers of Indian Classical Music in India.

  14. Dear Michael,
    Your writing is based on rich hands on experience I have doing similar job on a small scale in India. the students of Indian Classical music are suferring from voice constriction mainly due to wrong notion of supporting the singing voice with the help of outgoing excessive breath. Ma


  16. There is a 300 character limit on the comments. It is built into the software and I have no idea on how to change it. I will be redesigning my site in the near future and the different software may have a different limit. But in the mean time just use more than one comment box to say what you want. Thanks. Michael

  17. Justin Buller

    Amazing posts Michael. From a singer who worked as a professional opera and musical theatre, I can’t thank you enough for conveying a message of such importance that actually makes sense. I became so frustrated in my career and vocal challenges that I eventually walked away from it all. Had I but found this sooner! Thank you for re-inspiring me again.

    Justin B

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