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.
What do you mean by a release of tonal energy? Is it just maintaining the open throat to allow the vibration to happen? What is happening when a singer holds back the tonal energy?
As always, Michael, I like how you say things. I really like this “Tone is Energy moving through air.” That describes what is happening so marvelously! Yes, the tone is energy, and it gives a sense of energy to the singer. And that energy of course travels through air. When the voice is balanced, one realy does feel the energy flow producing tone much more than the air or breath flow, which one hardly notices at all (but of course, it is happening or there would be no sound at all).
I also am so glad you stressed NO AIR actually descends into the abdomen. So many singers and teachers really talk like they are “Putting the air down there” when in fact the air actually stays very stubbornly in the lungs (where it was designed to be). All that happens is inner organs descend out of the way of the diaphragm so it can flatten out (descend) and allow air to flow into the body/lungs. Then it arches back up to push the air out. But it is the abdominal muscles that regulate that movement, or can help regulate it for singing.
I also love that you said one does have the upper abs come out when breathing in, but HOW MUCH DEPENDS ON THE STRUCTURE OF THE INDIVIDUAL BODY. That is so lost now days, as so many people strive to copy what they see in others not realizing that whatever they do MUST work with their own body structure.
I just love these discussions. So much comes out of them.
You’re welcome, Cameron.
You are more on the right track. A couple more things to think about. You mention the idea of breath is not the tone. Part of the reason this confusion exists is because when we hear a good singer it sounds like there is nothing but air. And since the most obvious air we experience is the breath we assume that is what carries the tone.
But the reality is tone is air as is the breath, but they are different manifestations of air. Breath is air that we breath in and out of the lungs. Tone is air that has been energized by a vibrating source. In the case of the voice this vibrating source is the vocal cords.
The role of the breath in singing is to be a medium to provide pressure to the vocal cords to sustain continuous vibration. If it passes the vibrating material it no longer serves any purpose.
Another related aspect that contributes to the confusion is the sense of release. In good singing there is a sense of release that we can notice both as listener and as a singer. But again there needs to be a distinction between tone and breath.
To keep a balance in the function there needs to be a release of tonal energy but not breath. As we have already illustrated, if we release the breath we distort the vibration of the glottis. But in an attempt to keep the breath contained, if we also contain the tonal energy we create an uncomfortable build-up of energy.
And since, as stated above, both breath and tone are aspects of air, they can easily get confused. A distinct difference to remember is breath is the air, tone is energy moving through the air.
Regarding support, I prefer to keep things simple and many terms used in singing have multiple meanings depending on the individual opinion. Support suffers from that, I feel. I prefer to describe it as support is the result of the natural act of breath compression.
In other words, the torso compresses the breath to provide air pressure to feed the vibration of the vocal cords. This solid air pressure supports the production of tone. And to experience how this is performed, just observe the behavior of your torso while blowing the nose, clearing the throat, laughing or any other natural act that involves breath compression. There is an instinctive reflex that controls this. We need to learn how to act in line with that.
The structure of our torso determines how efficiently this all happens. Your pear analogy would be more accurate if it were upright where the larger space were the lower lungs and the lesser the upper lungs. Because realistically there is no breath in any part of the abdomen. The muscles below the lungs control the breathing, but there is no actual breath down there.
The descent of the diaphragm does cause the upper abdomen to come out some. But how much completely depends on the structure of the individual body and the condition of the posture. If you lift the ribs open and exhale so the abdomen effectively disappears, then inhale you can observe how much the descent of the diaphragm displaces the abdomen. It is not nearly as much as is generally believed.
And thank you Michael, too!
Thank you for the clarifications, Beatrice!
My understanding of everything that’s what’s been said can (crudely) be summarized as such:
A. Support is a separate act from inhaling and exhaling
B. Breath is taken in in a balanced manner, using the whole torso; belly-breathing advocates lower ab expansion only, which is unbalanced and not conducive to maintaining a descended diaphragm nor efficiently using the breath.
C. Support is accomplished by creating sensations which keep the breath in a static and compressed position. That is, keep the lower ribs in their expanded position.
D. Tone is not breath; it is created by breath (I found this one really illuminating)
Could it be considered that the space the breath takes up when properly inhaled is pear-shaped, where the sensation of the most breath is at the lower ribs and the sensation of the least amount of breath is at the bottom of the abdominal cavity?
I suppose, Cameron, I can comment on what I wrote, since I am Beatrice. It is hard to fully describe, and when described, breathing often becomes too heavy a topic. The way I was taught to breathe, which has helped me sing with ease for over 40 years in some of the heaviest operas, involves basically two things: Support, which is the action of the lower abs, and Appoggio, which is the “pressing out” of the solar plexus (which is that area just below your sternum, not any part of your abs). These are the two forces often called “opposing forces” by singing teachers. I was taught to NEVER allow any amount of breath to escape without allowing it to cause the vocal folds to create tone. In fact, I was made to sing before a candel and make sure the flame didn’t flicker at all. If it did, I was wasting breath. Unlike “belly breathing,” the least amount of breath needed is what I used.
The description of what is happening, not necessarily what you are forcing your body to do, is what I am talking about. As you inhale, the lower abs do NOT push out, but rather stay pulled in, and I mean LOWER ABS. I had an experience with a conductor who had me pull in even the entire solar plexus area saying that it would force the lungs to fill properly with air. I prevented me from getting any air at all, as it prevented the diaphragm from lowering and drawing air in. The diaphragm is a muscle that is similar in size to a bar stool seat. It is not thick, and it descends to draw in air into the lungs. It rises up again to its resting place to push air out. It does that naturally as that is its function.
Some people mistakenly think that when it lowers that by pressing out the belly button area and lower, you are giving it more room to descend. But it will only descend to where it was designed to descend. The conductor who insisted that I not allow any outward movement of the solar plexus area was causing me to pull in the the abs, all the lower and higher ab muscles, to such a point the diaphragm could not descend as it was intended to. That was equally wrong thinking, as is the idea that if you push out your belly button area you will allow more room for it to descend.
Whether what I will say is what Michael would say, I am not sure, but this is what I was taught and it made sense, and it worked with the voice. I was instructed to pull in the lower abs (sometimes, just at the initial stage of inhaling — about a tenth of a second — it will very slightly relax outward, but it instantly pulls inward as the inhaling happens). My teacher said that was the foundation stone on which we build. As the diaphragm lowers, the lungs inhale. As they inhale, one feels an expansion of the solar plexus area, the back and lower back (but I never felt it as low as some people claim you should), and even on the sides. The lungs will fill with only the amount of air they need. Many singers will force their bodies to take in even more air than is necessary or natural, and when that happens, one cannot control the air flow at all, as one simply has too much to control. Some singers can and do actually do things correctly, but because they take in far too much air, end up overblowing the chords.
It is as you bring the air in that you feel this expansion, but you do not force it.
As you exhale, you keep the lower abs pulled in, and in fact, they will pull in gradually on their own as you sing. But as they pull in, the solar plexus area also presses out more. Of course, you really don’t see anything change, but you feel it more. It is especially pronounced when singing higher notes and high lying phrases, and one even feels an increase in the pull in the lower abs. Again, this is not really something you make yourself do, rather it is what the body will do of itself when things are working as they should. The body knows that as you sing higher and higher you must remove more and more of the pressure that builds up around the vocal folds, that is air pressure, so those muscles seem to respond in such a way as to relieve that pressure.
I fully agree with Michael, that one DOES NOT slow down the breathing system to sing long phrases, rather if things are working as they should, and you have not taken in too much air, you will be able to sing long phrases that are suited to your body and how much air it can use. There is no sin in breathing many times during a phrase, the key is making sure those breaths are not noticed and don’t break up the musical line. It is true that many singers have such good control of things they can exhale for over 2 minutes, or even sing a note (one note only, not a long musical phrase) for at least a minute. I have been able to do both. But NEITHER of those things are the goal of singing or of breathing or of support. That is just a benefit some people have, and it is more dependent on your body structure than anything else.
Michael is also correct when he says that the responsibility of breath is simply to feed the Vibration a source of energy through air pressure. What we create really is compressed air.
What I was mostly describing was not what a student should do, but rather what they should be feeling, if they are doing things correctly. It is quite wrong to think you deliberately pull in the abs strongly, and press out the solar plexus like made, and really push out those back muscles. If you did that, you would break yourself in two. And you could NEVER sing, as you would be under completely too much strain. Singing is not to be straining at all. Yes, it is athletic, but it is not straining oneself.
It is this pressing out and pulling in that actually regulates the air pressure. The purpose is not to regular flow exactly, as the chords need air passing through them, or activating them is what I would rather say, or they would not vibrate. But if we push out too much we can do one of two things (besides hurt out bodies with hernias): If we press out too much we can stain so as to stop the flow of breath/air energy from even reaching the chords; or we can actually end up shoving far too much air through the folds and overblow the chords.
Neither of those is what you want. Instead, you want to maintain the breath pressure so as to allow just enough breath to activate the energy needed to cause the chords to vibrate. As you ascend a scale, you will notice that the pressure of the air increases, and so the body increases its inward/outward motion to regulate the pressure so as to maintain the most balanced amount of energy affecting the vocal folds, not too much so you blast, and not so little you stop the flow of breath energy.
Now, in writing this out, it all sounds so daunting, but in reality, it isn’t. It takes about 5 mintues to learn how to breathe. It takes much longer to train the muscles to do as they should because we have misused them most all our lives. And it takes a while to strengthen them and accustomize them to the work of singing. That is really why singing teachers used to have students do so many breathing exercises, some with just breathing, some with tone, some with lengthy scales, etc. The entire purpose was to help the muscles actually gain the strength they need to do the work of singing.
Now the work of singing is very different depending on what you sing. For Broadway and musical theatre, though the principles are exactly the same, the muscular development is small. For singing opera and enduring the performances, and creating the ring that carries over and through the orchestra (especially very thick orchestrations like one finds in Wagner) takes a bit longer, and the expansion is far more than for lighter music.
Many instrumentalists use the correct method of breathing that is natural to the body, only with them, they do not have to regulate the flow of breath energy to really create sound in the same way a singer does. They actually send great quantities of air out of their mouths to cause sound in their instruments. A singer simply cannot and should not send so much air out when they sing.
Breathing in singing is never really holding back and pressing out the muscles till we are blue in the face to hold back the air, rather is it simply suspending the act of respiration (breathing) so as to set things up so that the body can do what comes naturally to it.
And although I fully agree with Michael that we are not supposed to set our goal as making a large expansion around the mid-section of our bodies and lower, well, after you have sung as long as I have, you do have a bit of a “roll” a “spare tire” that is as hard as a rock that sort of does form around the ribs, just slightly below them, and in the solar plexus area. You may not have deliberately sought after it, but it does happen.
I hope this makes what I said a bit clearer. It is one thing to describe what is happening, and quite another to think that one MAKES it happen deliberately in some forced contrived way. The other thing is that those feelings are NOT super intense. That is one mistake students often make; they hear a teacher describe a sensation, what they feel in the body, and then the student really goes out of his way to really FEEL it, and to make sure it is so pronounced that it is about all he feels. Some teachers may desire that, but I know that is NOT what my teacher ever wanted, and in fact, she really corrected me, if she felt I was moving that direction in my practicing. Her advice was: you must be fully aware of what is happening, what the sensation are, but when you sing, excepting truly difficult passages where thinking of your technique is what is needed, you must sing as if you are not interested in your technique at all. It must be so second nature, you don’t notice it.
I will share a very strange thing she did when at one time I was really pressing too much (for some strange reason I cannot remember, I mean, I cannot remember what was making me think I had to really push out and pull is so hard, but there was some reason, something I was attempting to do which was wrong). She had me take exlax (that is a laxitive made so you have to go to the bathroom, but it often removes all real control over the bowels; when you have to go, you have to go). After emptying things, she has me sing, but I was fully aware of the “grumbling inside” that could spell embarrassment at any moment. I had to use all the correct muscles, but I had to be very careful, too much pushing and pulling, and well, I could never be sure I would make it to the bathroom in time. I know this sound terribly rude, but that is what she did. I learned quickly, one lesson, just how important it was to NEVER push. The feelings of security and support are strong, but never stronger than they need to be.
Though I would never recommend the exlax route, I still think the entire experience does instruct: Imagine that if you push too hard downward, or pull in too tightly upward, that you will cause yourself an accident. Make sure you have enough involvement in the feelings that you are aware of what is happening, but never push more than that. The muscular strength will develop in time, actually far quicker than you think, and you won’t have to get into that habit of pushing too much and putting yourself under undo pressure. Unlike some singers say; singing is not giving birth nor is it overcoming constipation with force, even if you are aware of everything that is happening to support the tone.
Hello Cameron. Thanks for writing in. What you describe is a very common technique. But it is based on a mistaken premise. The reasoning that people use to explain this approach seems to make sense, but it is not what actually makes the voice work. That is why you are having difficulty.
The vocal folds require air pressure to make them vibrate. That is a fact. There are many ways of applying air pressure to them, and it is our job to figure out what is the most effective and efficient manner of doing so.
The first mistaken belief that “belly breathers” have is that we want maximum breath. That the more the better. This is not correct. The second mistaken belief is that we need to slow down the exhale so we can sustain a long phrase. These are both based on the false behavior that the breath is the tone, which is obviously not the case.
The responsibility of the breath in singing is simply to feed the vibration a source of energy through air pressure. If the breath escapes through the glottis as breath it did not do its job. It must only escape as puffs of vibration sound. This requires a high degree of coordination, which is the real skill of singing. Not the elaborate techniques of breathing.
The reality is we need to suspend our respiration between inhaling and exhaling so the larynx can become a vibration mechanism. And then once we have suspended the inhalation we need to be able to provide air pressure to set the vocal folds into coordinated vibration.
This is way beyond a quick explanation in writing, but the point is making a large expansion around the mid-section creates a condition that doesn’t allow for these co-ordinations to happen.
This will be explained in more depth in future resources. You can subscribe to make sure you find out when. Thanks for reading.
Wow. Looking back over the comment thread it sounds like I support using the “belly breathing” method. But I’m not sure I understand the simultaneous actions of inward and outward coordinated together that Beatrice has described. To me it sounds like the lower abs go inward, the lower back goes outward (both of these movements are minor, not exaggerated) and there is a general outward expansion of the upper abs, as well as the upper back? And, if this series of actions comprises inhaling, what are the specific actions involved in support?
Hello, I’ve read much of what’s been written on this site, and I appreciate how thoroughly, directly and simply you describe your vocal technique. It makes a lot of sense to me.
I am young (in my teens), and currently the sensation I strive for when I try to support is a forward-backward (i.e. outward) expansion of the lower abs and the lower lumbars, respectively. From what I’ve read it appears this is a valid method of support. But I don’t have good control of the air I breathe, i.e. I think I have a tendency to overblow my vocal chords. So, I was wondering if you would elaborate on ways a student can build his/her support (a process which I know takes years).
Yes, this is pretty much the same concept. She doesn’t seem to really understand completely why what she is saying is correct. But it is pretty much the same thing as what I’m saying. Thanks.
I think many here will like this video. It’s not about breathing for singing, but rather for playing flute. Still, the way the lady breathes is similar to what Michael describes. Also, she uses some of the same terms, such as keeping the body “energized.” It may not be exactly what we’re discussing here, but it certainly reminded me of it.
Thanks, Bea. Yes, there are many functions that are similar to the breath reflexes for singing. There is also laughing and vomiting, among others that we haven’t already mentioned. I think that at least part of the pressing out is a result of the back-pressure created because the air is not able to just freely escape because of the vibrating glottis. Like the resistance when pressing the plunger of a spray nozzle. There is no pressure going the other way, it just feels like it because there isn’t a free escape for the pressure because of the small dimension of the nozzle. I think sometimes we can create problems by deliberately trying to create the outward pressing. But it does require coordination to do productively.
Michael, I like very much how you have stated this: “It should never be encouraged to weaken the body in order to sing.” I run into this problem all the time. I would say 9 out of every 10 young singers I see, even those coming to the stage, do this. They weaken their bodily support and natural function. I believe they do this because they are afraid of forcing the breath (mostly because they think of breath leaving the body and not tone), but I am not quite sure they would agree with me. For some reason the idea of singing being effortless has translated into singing requiring nothing at all, not even any bodily engagement. Singing appears effortless when done correctly because we are not stressing or over-stressing the wrong muscles. But those that are used in doing the work DO THE WORK.
Your example of clearing your throat and seeing how the lower abs work in relation to that is excellent. People will notice the same motion when they cough (especially during a real bad cold; if coughing is really bad one’s guts hurt big time), even if they sneeze (and at times, if the sneeze is really big, one will feel the muscles compressing at the back as well). All those muscles that do the work of expelling things from the body through powerful blasting breath function exactly the same way when singing (except we are not blasting the breath out of our throats). They still move in exactly the same way they naturally do for those other functions. All we do differently in singing is we slow down the process so as to create a spinning tone that has enough energy to leave the body. While those lower abs crash inward violently when we sneeze, cought, or clear our throats, they are regulated when we sing so that no violent motions occur. Plus they have the pressing out of the solar plexus muscles and other torso muscles that work against them so they don’t come in violently. They still fill their function exactly as they were created.
I also like your statement; “I don’t know where teacher got the idea that singing was outside the realm of normal physiology…” Singing is done by the body and nothing else. We don’t connect some device to our bodies to make us sing. We use our bodies, and we have to use them as they were built. What brought this disconnect about in the world of voice training? All my career, I have heard many many singers lament that directors, conductors, and even costume designers don’t seem to understand we use our bodies and things have to be done so we can use them to their best advantage and in the most natural way. Clothing cannot be too tight in some places, or we cannot expand. Costumes cannot be too heavy, or they press down on the chest making it impossible to lift the ribs or expand the rib cage. Even if the character is deformed, we can’t constantly sing in a bent over position, and we need moments to straighten up. All this is so logical, but no one seems to understand this. I believe it is because they have no understanding of the body and what it must do in order to sing and sustain the tone, and the work of heavy dramatic and emotional singing.
This disconnect from the body is not confined to the teachers of voice, but it seems to everyone involved in the music industry. With sports and dance, we are fully aware the body is needed and it must do many things. But for some reason with singing we think there is no connection. WHY? The voice comes out of the body and no where else.
Thanks for joining in, Josef. I agree there is too much vocabulary. Especially when the words mean different things to different people. Yes, we need to keep things simple. And really the voice is pretty simple. But like many simple things, it doesn’t mean it is easy. Yes, over-breathing must be avoided. As Bea mentioned, if we have too much breath we can’t control it without tensing.
Yes, Jussi emphasized the importance of staying relaxed. But at the same time he spoke strongly of the importance of the strong abdominal muscles, like a baby, pressing the breath up to feed the tone. In reality the compression of the breath feeds the vibration which is them amplified into tone by the resonating of the vocal tract. But he stated that he though about pushing the breath into the resonating cavities. But it is important to point out that he didn’t actually do that. By thinking that he was keeping a consistent pressure against the vibrating larynx so it had sufficient energy to phonate.
This is why it is so important not to expand the belly too much. Because then it is impossible to make a natural upward compression. And the compression does need to be upward because that is where the voice is in relation to the breath.
A simple experiment for people to experience this is to put your hands on your abdomen and then clear your throat. It becomes pretty obvious what the job of the abdominals are. Babies use them very strongly to compress when they cry. They aren’t just relaxed all of the time.
Another point about babies that I meant to say before. The reason it appears as if they breath with their belly is because they are usually laying down, often are sleeping, and their musculature around the abdomen and oblique areas are not developed yet because the haven’t started walking. So there is more expansion than there would be if the muscular “girdle” were developed as in an adult.
It should never be encouraged to weaken the body in order to sing. I don’t know where teachers got the idea that singing was outside the realm of normal physiology and that is was OK to decrease postural integrity.
Josef, you are right that a singer should not seem like he/she is struggling when they are singing. It should seem relaxed. However, the appearance of being relaxed should not confuse people into thinking there is no physical strength being used. I have seen this idea pushed throughout my career, and with most singers who sing in a super relaxed fashion, the voice never achieves the needed strength to endure. It falls apart in no time, and nodes and other things develop. I have seen many wonderful voices fall to the wayside in very few months, not even years, because they considered “just let the diaphragm do what it does naturally” was all they needed to do. Everyone always uses the baby breathing illustration, and although good, babies don’t have to create pitch, nor sing legato, nor any other such things, including proper use of the upper range. They simply make noise, and it is true they can do it for hours without going hoarse. However, we cannot know that for sure, as the first indicator the voice is overworked is NOT the singing voice but the response of the speaking voice, which a baby doesn’t have. Only because they haven’t learned to talk. That vocal function, which is more refined than crying and screaming, is not yet part of their vocal skills. However, I do agree one doesn’t have to use more muscles than are necessary. But you must use some.
I also agree that the fundamentals of singing are actually very simple, and they are complicated by how they are explained. This comes about most simply because people are trying to help other people know how something may/should feel when it is working correctly. But like describing the Holy Spirit, few can do so in a way that makes the experience clear to anyone else.
All my teachers taught me to never over-fill the lungs, as the more air you have the less likely it is you can control it. You are definitely correct in that to fill the lungs to the top is not good. However, that happens more frequently with people who simply do not take the breath low enough into the body than it does with those who take it deeply into the body.
As for over-zealous stage directors, well, I could write a small tome on those. I have my opions after 40 years of professional singing. They don’t care about anything related to vocal production. If they can get some singer to do what they want, that is all they care about. In fact, I will share with you a truth, a sad truth: most theatres now days don’t care a wit for the singers at all. If you are all used up by tomorrow, they don’t care. They want only today. In the past, and even in the beginning of my career (though the practice was beginning to fade away) theatres expected you to sing for so many productions in the season. They didn’t bring you in for just one set of operas. You worked with conductors who cared about singers, and who worked with you to make sure the orchestra knew what nuances you were creating, who considered your breathing patterns (and if you were well that day or not as well; people’s abilities are not always constant from day to day). Most operatic conductors had worked with singers for years, and in fact most symphonic conductors worked in opera with singers before they became symphonic conductors. Now days that is not the case. Most conductors know nothing whatever about the voice and how it functions. They have no understanding of how impossible it is sometimes for singers to sing without taking a breath.
Singers often began singing in the provinces to gain experience in roles before bringing them out in the famous theatres. But unlike many think, these provincial theatres were anything but provincial in their productions. They were often times far more professional than many of the famous theatres (who often left new stagings and productions to special artists — like done with Maria Callas, reserving proper rehearsal time only to such productions, while all others could even go on stage without a single orchestra rehearsal).
Certainly, singers had to be more serviceable than they would later be when their careers were fully established (you learned to sing most anything that fit your voice, even if it was not a great fit for you; but the production people, directors, conductors, rehearsal conductors, all strove to make things as good for you as possible). Later in your career, you can be far more picky about what you will sing, and you learn to use the word “NO” all the time.
There was a lot of learning your craft.
These things don’t happen much anymore. Singers are thrown into the lion’s den instantly. And you would be surprised at how many don’t make it through the first tests of fire.
I would agree that singing posture is treated by the directors as if it doesn’t matter, but it still does, no matter what they think. Peter Sellers has done some really strange productions of Mozart operas where in truth the singers really couldn’t sing at all. The results are very poor.
But since such directors get enough lambs to slaughter, no one really cares. The quality of the production is terrible, at least as far as the singing is concerned. And not only because of the things the singers are required to do, but because usually such productions cannot find good singers to sing in them. Most really reputable singers will walk out because of the disgusting production values. But many younger singers will not. They need the money.
What amazes me is how when one reads a review on any operatic production the writers spends paragraphs discussing the sets, the story of the opera (which is hardly needed, as most of the operas performed are so well known that none of the reading public needs that information), what new and inventive way the staging was done, the costumes and that sort of thing. But as for the music, it hardly gets a line or a word. The orchestra is reduced to a remark about whomever is conducting and whether he added “something new and original to the score.” And the singers are hardly mentioned at all. Names are given as to who sang what, but nearly nothing about their production is mentioned. Or really useless descriptions like “she sang Aida as if she were pearching in through, her high C admirable for a woman.” And what does that tell the public? NOTHING!
When I began my career, critics spoke of the voice, how it was managed, and whether the interpretation was valid. One could often learn a great deal from a critic as to how one came across. Sometimes I wondered if I were singing in the performance they watched because the public would go wild and the critic would write as if everyone left after act one (probably the critic left and that is why his review was so markedly different from the reality). But overall, the music was the most important thing, and a great production just enhanced that.
I believe most critics are not qualified to judge the singing. They know nothing about what consists of great singing.
As for those directors you speak of, I think the only thing they care about is their own ego. I have actually sang in performances that were so terrible the public went wild out of disgust throwing real insults at the director, to which he hurled back even more profanity and worse insults at the audience. I left the production after one performance, refused even to take my pay, and in all truth have never returned to that theatre to sing since then, and will never return to it as long as they continue producing the trash they constantly push on the pubic, who clearly hates what they are subjected to.
Believe me, it is super hard to sing under such circumstances, and the voice really doesn’t work well. Often one is forced to force just to get through anything. My training, unlike most, had me learning to sing while walking, doing situps, lifting things, sword fighting, and a whole list of things. My teacher insisted I learn to keep strong support in all possible positions I may be required to sing in. I am thankful she did that. My support is rock solid at all times, and my voice shows little wear after 40 years of singing very heavy operas.
I gather from your comment you are a teacher. I wish you well in training your students. I hope you give them real tools they can fall back on when things are really a mess. And things do become a mess these days. Without a really good solid vocal foundation, they will not survive long enough to even establish a career. And that is the saddest thing of all.
I am new to this group so bear with me. What I tell my students is that there is too much vocabulary being used in the discussion or teaching voice. What is most difficult about singing is simplicity. The body is already prepared to respond naturally, what is needed is to find out how to separate our notions about voice and allow the voice to emerge in a way that gratifies the listening audience. We have a diaphragm not a belly, that is an involuntary muscle designed to bring air in and to exhale accordingly;If used correctly will produce a tireless and effortless sound as a new born infant. Relaxing the diaphragm will automatically provide enough air, any more will fill the upper lungs to a point of pressing against the throat as a shook bottle of soda will explode upon release. Jussi is one of my idols, whose tones were produced by a relaxed approach to head voice, negotiating passagio, by making certain to use only that part of the body necessary to produce sound while all else is relaxed. Yes, the chest is high to help reduce tension in the throat, but given the pressures placed upon singers today by over zealous stage directors requiring singers to sing in all sorts of positions would suggest that posture today does not seem to be as necessary or beneficial. Low breathing enables the singer to sing under the pitch, respecting the way the voice to naturally allow each pitch to fall into its own step as a the steps in a stairway, each step is reserved for that particular tonal pitch, it will find its own way if you stay out of its way. In the final analysis we do not want to see or hear an artist. whether athletic or artistic struggling with his craft.
Thanks, Bea. I agree, very good discussion.
Thanks for these points, Chris. Your partner is absolutely right. Since the body is the instrument of the singer you would think they would treat it with the same care and understanding as the dancer. I learned about the transverse abdominus in my exercise research. It is, as you said, a major stabilizer for the torso. The thing I learned is it is mainly activated through forceful exhalation. Which is why breathing is such a big part of Pilates and other exercise forms, to activate the TA. But another part of that is the body is also stabilized by the compressed breath that results from activating the TA. Yes, singing is athletic.
Yes, Michael, how you described Bjorling’s breathing is how my colleague corrected me. The conductor, on the other hand, was completely mislead. My body structure also allowed me to pull in much higher than I should have. But that was early in my career, and one hears so many things. And I must add, one is often in awe of those one is working with because at one time they were one’s idols. I fully agree with you that one should be careful about accepting what one hears about how people sang. Most of it must be taken with a grain of salt. I agree with you about how babies cry, for I have seen it myself many times (though I have no children of my own, but I do have 39 nieces and nephews, and have cared for them all as children). The only problem with viewing children/babies is no teacher ever seems to connect how they breathe with how one would sing. It is simply breathe deep into the abs.
This is a good discussion, and I think it helps people understand things a bit better.
Great discussion. My partner is a musculoskeletal physiotherapist trained at the University of Queensland in Brisbane – none of you are likely to have heard of the place, but its physio dept was actually one of the best in the world, at one stage. Their research into tranversus abdominis activation (deep lower abs that act as stabilisers for the torso) actually led to the core craze of the last 15 years. When I first met her and we happened to get into a discussion about singing, my partner (who is also from a ballet/pilates background) was amazed that I had never been told by a singing teacher to activate my TA, or to at least check it was activated when singing – it is pretty much essential to all correct posture and movement, and especially the high functioning required in dance (and, as I now understand, in the breathing and posture of singers). It should naturally be activated; but, of course, modern society’s path has greatly diverged from what is natural to what is easy, and physiotherapists are constantly having to re-train people to use their TA in daily life with biofeedback machines and real-time ultrasound – crazy! One of her colleagues treated a member of the state opera company for low back pain by giving him some TA exercises to perform; he was amazed that his voice actually began to improve as well as his back – we can only assume his TA was not at all conditioned despite years of singing. My partner, having since witnessed how operatic performers use their bodies, has told me that she would not be surprised if they required a similar core conditioning to that of a dancer – she is confident that professional singers should definitely not need TA exercises. So, it seems to me that the sedentary nature (and fear of tension) of people in today’s society has found its way into the singing world (even opera) perhaps because people fail to grasp just how athletic singing actually is, and mistake correct abdominal activation (and rib cage expansion) with over-support? I suppose it doesn’t help that those who have learned to do it properly look effortless in their execution.
Actually, what you describe is what Bjorling did as well. We shouldn’t pull in the upper part of the abdomen. If that is what you were told then you were mislead. If you read David Bjorling’s booklet (Jussi’s father) “In inhaling air, raise the chest and imagine that you extend it on all sides in order to give the lungs plenty of room to receive the air that is used in producing the tone. Contract the lower part of the stomach [abdomen] when inhaling the air and the diaphragm [solar plexus] will swell.” Jussi kept the lower abdomen in and the upper would bulge a little with the descent of the diaphragm. He also would keep an internal leaning down in the manner you refer to. Actually what you describe doing is very much what Jussi and his Father describe. Keep the chest comfortably lifted in a buoyant position and try not to let it drop while singing. The people who say he breathed wrong just see that his shoulders would move sometimes when resetting his ribcage. And most of them believed in breathing more into the belly.
There is even a story about this in the biography “Jussi”. A singer came to him showing off his big “bulge” of an abdomen and Jussi told him he will ruin his voice that way. He understood that a distortion of the body will create a harmful imbalance in the body. Maybe not in those terms, but he understood it intuitively.
So I would take some of these stories about how so-and-so did things with some suspicion. Many exist about Caruso, and many have circulated about Bjorling. So Bjorling breathed in the same manner as many of the great singers – with the whole torso in an upwardly buoyant position. This gives the impression of breathing only with the chest, but underneath the lift is a complete use of the diaphragm and the strong abdominal muscles. He even described the use of the abdominal muscles.
You mention belly breathing being like a baby. Many have repeated this supposed “fact”. I have had two babies and have observed them very closely and they don’t breath with just their bellies. They breath with the whole torso, meaning the abdomen and the ribcage. They are so small that the two parts really become one unit. And when they make sounds or cry the whole torso creates that through a very obvious compression of the breath. Exactly how we have described things for singing but a little more extreme.
Even though it makes no sense at all and like you said, why would anyone want to do it, there are people teaching singers to pout out the belly and try to make it as big as possible. Which requires the ribcage and chest to sag and collapse. It is based on a major misunderstanding of the nature of the diaphragm and respiratory system. So we’re trying to show people that there is actually a more effective and natural way of doing things. Thanks.
I have wondered what exactly “belly breathing” is. I know what is being described here, but I have never met a singer who actually even believes they sing with their bellies nor that air actually travels down to that part of the body. I have heard of the bearing down while singing, which may be what you mean by belly breathing. However, it is not simply breathing with the belly (which babies do, and often we are taught to breathe like babies do as that is natural; but it gives no support). Nor are the ribs lowered or the chest pressed down in the process as is often described. That may happen in some singers, but it is NOT their intent. Most singers who speak of bearing down (and I am speaking of professionals I have worked with) really talk about this feeling of support from the lower ab muscles. Some actually do bear down, but it is a muscle thing. Others only really concentrate their bodily responses to that lower area and while they are bearing down and out, they are also pulling in resisting the entire bearing down. As a result, the chest does not fall, nor are the abs really pressed out as far are people think, but there is a really strong resistance countering the pressing out or bearing down of muscles pulling in. Many very large dramatic voices employ this form of support (even Marilyn Horne used it). It takes the pressure off the voice and helps avoid overblowing in reallly dramatic heavy music, especially with extreme volume in the orchestra. This sort of breathing I do not see as belly breathing, but that is perhaps what you mean. It is not a relaxed state at all, like Michael referred to when speaking of what to me is really belly breathing.
There are many things about breathing that are interesting. I for one, couldn’t sing at all doing what Jussi Bjorling even did. If I were to pull in all my abs when inhaling to force the back muscles to breathe, I would have no breath at all. The reason I discovered while singing. I was never taught much of using back muscles, and while singing professionally was told by a conductor that I would keep a slimmer figure if I were to breath soully with the back. He knew of the Bjorling way of breathing, told me how to do it, and so I did. Yes, it kept the figure smaller, but I had no breath, none at all.
I struggled with this a long while, never improving, until one day a colleague saw me struggling so. She had sung with Bjorling many many times (loved his voice, which is not represented in the recordings well at all; it was a small voice, but one that really had presence; she thought it one of the loveliest voices around), and I told her I was attempting to breathe as he breathed, but it wasn’t working. She said that my body was completely different. He was short and stocky. He pulled in his abs, yes, but only those around the navel and lower. Because I had such a long waste (that gave me a very lovely hour-glass figure) when I pulled those muscles in, they pulled in clear up to the solar plexus, thus preventing my diaphragm from descending much at all. Most people, she pointed out, have little distance between the hip bone and the lowest rib, about 2 fingers width is all. I had well over 6 inches, so my muscles would pull in quite dramatically. I told her I didn’t want to press out my gut like so many men do and some women when I sang. She said I didn’t have to. All I needed to do was only pull in from the navel down, and allow the rest of my body to function as it was intended. That fixed everything and returned me to good support.
There was nothing wrong with the Bjorling method of support and creating compressed air, but it had to be modified slightly for my body, which was not like his.
I learned that one can do the wrong thing, even while doing the right thing, if it is not done in a way that fits ones own body.
I fully agree with Michael that breathing requires using the whole torso. And yes, the diaphragm descends, to the bottom rib, and for some people they cannot “shrink” their guts and intestines to accommodate that needed space, and they will press out. One cannot and should not necessarily confuse this “enlarging of the lower abs” with belly breathing. It is true that we see more expansion of the front area of the body when allowing the diaphragm to descend, but the amount of actual expansion of the back is minimal. The back part of the ribs is firmly attached to the spine. Any rate, none of this contradicts what Michael is saying, for I still use a pulled in lower ab and back breathing, but they do not take on more importance than the frontal expansion of breathing. I feel great pressing out of the solar plexus and all the torso all around, and I also feel great pulling inward of the lower abs countering the outward pressing of the solar plexus. But from the navel up there is plenty of expansion all away around. The muscles that developed grew in size, and stay grown in size even when not singing. My tiny hour-glass waist is gone, though I still have great curves.
In answer to the person who asked the question about William Vennard, yes, how you have described what he wrote is correct, but that is not how he actually seems to have meant it. His greatest pupil, Marilyn Horne, goes into detail about what he wanted. She describes this “bearing down” that I mentioned earlier, which is NOT belly breathing, nor it is pushing the belly out to support the breath. It is that pressing out countered by that pulling in, and is felt from the navel all the way up to the solar plexus. And it expands around the entire body. The entire thing really makes the singer more aware of what is happening in that part of the body. One of the reasons is that when one sings very high notes, and very dramatic notes, one concentrates their energies to that part of the body, to the abs and solar plexus. Those areas of the body automatically take on the heavier work load as one ascends, but unless one makes oneself fully aware of that new energized tension, one will have a tendency to use the throat to attain high notes. That is what is meant by some when they say “think high notes lower into the body.” Sometimes, like Marilyn Horne says, a singer will even think of their legs and toes. The legs are seen as trunks of strength, the buttocks tightens and pulls under your body, and the toes press into the ground, and one feels a forward lean with the body weight more on the toes. One is extremely energized almost like they are readying themselves to run a race. Those body parts really don’t add to the breath support, but they do put the tension down into the body, into parts of it that can take on the workload during very heavy hard music. Some singers call it their support beneath their support. Many singers do this when singing concerted passages (like the Act 2 finally in Aida, that sort of thing). There is a great fear of blasting, or forcing breath through the chords to be heard, as those passages are extremely loud (the singer hears all the other singers, the chorus, and the orchestra blasting away and you have no sensation at all you are giving out any sound whatever; you hear nothing but a din of noise around you surrounding you and drowning you). So, singers do things to remind them to NOT blast air through the folds.
Although I have heard of this belly breathing and the collapsing of the chest to push down and push out the lower abs, I have never met a singer who actually did it that way. They all insisted the chest be kept high, even if the bearing down was strong. And at no time were any of these singers taking on a lazy or relaxed personae.
But this bearing down support is extremely common amongst men, and has been a long while, I mean a long while. Even when Jussi Bjorling was alive and singing, many people would say that his method of breathing was not correct and actually too high in the body. More women, on the other hand, sing that way, and with even higher breath placement. Maybe that is why women usually are the only ones afflicted with shaking jaws and tongues, they are the only ones who use a very shallow form of breathing where nothing is allowed to press out, but rather supposedly side to side (a thing I could never master at all).
As for the body taking on a certain position when we feel we want to sing, that is ABSOLUTELY TRUE! It does. When we really desire to sing, I mean sing with a purpose (not just sort of sing around the house doing other things) our entire bodies take on a very specific stance. Muscles aligne themselves. One automatically pulls in the lowest parts of the abdoman, the chest raises, the ribs expand, especially around the bottom, and we are alert, energized, and ready to “run our race of singing.” I found that as long as what we do with our breathing (no matter how strong it has to be for the workload of the music we are singing) allignes itself with the natural stance, everything seems to fall into place. From my view, if one deliberately drops the chest and presses out the gut, or acts like they are pushing down like constipated, they are taking on a different stance. The body is being energized to do something completely different. That is not what I call the “singing stance.” So, if I understand the definition of belly breathing given here, I would ask, “why would anyone want to even learn to do it, as it is completely out of line for what the itself wishes to do.” The body wants to have that upward boyancy, it want to be energized ready to move forward (which gives the forward lean, one doesn’t do that deliberately), it involves all the support muscles all over the torso, and the correct ab muscles alligning and tensing as is needed. I can’t see why anyone would want to fight against that, as that takes far too much energy and vitality. Yes, singing can be tiring in the same way running and working are tiring, but it is a good tired. I don’t know how to explain it. You are tired because you have done a lot of work, but you are not exhausted because you have been fighting against yourself. Michael, the belly breathing you are describing, to me, is working against oneself. I would be dead in a moment doing things that way. I would get to the point the breath would have just rushed out of me simply because I would have been too tired to even go on. Those are my views. You do so well helping students understand how the body works, and in reality, one cannot sing well when doing what the body is not intended to do. It is that simple. It was created to work well and completely. It is simply using it to its fullest, learning to develop its strength when needed, but let it do as is natural for it.
Oops – The sentence “lengthens those muscles and therefore reduces the subsequent contractile force” should obviously read “SHORTENS those muscles and therefore reduces the subsequent contractile force”.
Great article. My own experiences are very similar regarding belly breathing – I simply can’t compress the breath without rib cage elevation and expansion.
“It doesn’t take a lot of analysis to recognize the decreased effectiveness of a muscle that only partially functions.” The beauty of living with a physio is that I have access to books on clinical kinesiology. When a muscle contracts, its fibres sort of interlock, pulling it into a shortened position. If the muscle fibres are ALREADY interlocked because the muscle is completely at rest or insufficiently lengthened, you actually wind up with a weak contractile force – this is known as Active Insufficiency. Kinesiology researchers long ago plotted a length-tension curve that demonstrates the optimal length a muscle needs to have to achieve the most tension, and it clearly shows that a muscle must be around mid-range – anything higher or lower inhibits tension. I would imagine that breath compression requires a substantial amount of tension in the abdominal musculature, hence why the lengthening and expansion of the muscles involved are so vital to correct singing. This would mean, then, that the diaphragm cannot be in the required slightly lengthened position without rib cage expansion – so upon inspiration, the diaphragm can not work efficiently, nor will the core and the intercostals have the required tension to successfully hold the breath back if the focus is on the viscera being expanded, which lengthens those muscles and therefore reduces the subsequent contractile force.(Obviously I am using the term ‘tension’ in the clinical sense – the amount of contraction that breath compression muscles require during singing in order to function optimally, not the unnatural and unwanted tension that interferes with phonation when the wrong muscles contract)