A reader of this blog wrote in response to the posts about breathing exercises. She gave a wonderful explanation of the exercise referenced as the “Farinelli Exercise”. I asked her if I could post it and she agreed. So hear it is.


Dear Michael:

I was rereading your blog and noticed a mention by one writer in his question (dealing with silent breathing exercises) about the Farinelli breathing exercise.

I am very familiar with this exercise, and even though it is mentioned and given by Mr. Miller in his book on singing, he really doesn’t go into it enough. It is not an exercise that is unique to Farinelli either, but was a common breathing exercise of the day.

As we discuss the Castrati, we have to remove all this junk now associated with them. Firstly: castration did NOT increase the ability of the singer to sing long phrases, or the lung power of the singer, or what have you. Secondly: it did not give the castrati their huge voices (which must be seen today in light of the times; orchestras were smaller, and even if some theatres then did seat large audiences, the reverence we show during performances didn’t occur; it was a bedlam of noise, and often the critics we read were well placed in boxes and not amongst the regular attendees; voices of today are required to sing over orchestras many times larger with instruments with far larger and more piercing sounds; we also sing at a much higher diapason for the most part, and the average theatre today is the size of their large theatres of that day). Nor were all castrati, even sopranos, high pitched in sound. Whenever a castrato was replaced by a female singer, the one used most often was a contralto or mezzo, not a high female soprano. Also, according to Tosti, who was a castrato, the voice did change, but not as drastically as normally, but it did change through time. That is why it was not rare to hear a soprano castrato when he was 16 later in his 30s becoming a contralto. Also, as they reached about 30 the lower extension entered the voice, often of an octave or more below middle C. And they were want to use that range a great deal. Of course, since all singers are unique, one cannot apply everything to every singer.

When one goes through their music, as recorded by them, not just hearers of performances (and yes, most castrati wrote out their embellishments, they did not do them as we are often lead to believe ad libium, though some did; Farinelli wrote out his ornamentation in detail, and in most all his famous arias we have record of all his variations, and seldom did he even venture above the staff, though it was not rare for him to descend to the F below middle C; Velluti was known to have at least 3 sets of variation for whatever he sang, and if you can still find it, the printed piano score of Meyerbeer’s opera Il Crociato in Egitto – by a no longer existent German printer — contains all his variations that he used in the score; interestingly he often lowered Meyerbeer’s keys as much as a 5th, and his embellishments often took him to the D below middle C, and only to the A above the staff; and his embellishments are extraordinarily difficult, but with one major flaw — the melody is often so overly embellished the actual tune vanishes), one will see just where their voice centers lie.

People write of their ability to sing a full minute without breathing, and we get such accounts from observers who couldn’t see the signs of breathing normal for that day: raised shoulders, etc. When you study their methods of breathing and their training, it is all very modern, much as we teach breathing today. In that day and age, few singers other than the castrati were taught much in the way of breathing, though some singers really did excel with it by observation of good singers. Women wore corset and had very shallow breathing (and the corset actually became their support, which I will deal with when speaking of the use of an elastic rib brace to learn to breathe). I do not doubt they could hold their breath for two minutes, but so could Montserrat Caballe. When one reads the writings of famous castrati who taught singing, one is aware of the teaching that one can breathe anywhere one wants as long as one don’t spoil the musical line. That is a key to remember.

Since the castrati has such low breathing methods, low in the body, one never noticed any signs of breath being taken. In fact, with many good singers today, one doesn’t notice any breath being taken. The biggest difference is they perfected the art of partials or half-breaths, to which we do not attach much importance.

Though Miller does mention the idea of partials when explaining this exercise, he really doesn’t go into detail about how the exercise works, at least not to the point it really becomes clear. I had a teacher who worked me with this exercise all the time, and she explained it in detail (she had learned it from Calve who learned it from some famous Castrato of the Sistine Chapel).

The most important point to remember is it is NOT an exercise to build large expansion or lung capacity. It is an exercise to learn breath control. It is easy to confuse its purpose just by reading the explanation of how it is done.

As we know, one inhales for so many counts, holds the breath for an equal amount of counts, and releases the breath with the exact same amount of counts. That is the exercise in a nutshell. As you repeat the exercise, you increase the number all across the board. let us say, you began with 6 counts, when you repeat it you do 7, the next repeat you do 8, etc. On the surface one would think you increase the amount of breath you take in with each increase in the count. That is the mistake. One takes in exactly the same amount of breath from the beginning of the exercise to the end. All one is changing is HOW LONG it takes to take in, hold, and release that same amount of breath. The other important point is that at no time do you stop between sets. When you finish your 6 count set, you immediately begin the 7 count set. This is where the difficulty often arises: one is want to take a breath in, a full breath in, as soon as you finish the exhalation, but you must not do that; instead you must immediately begin a very slow inhalation. The expansion of the chest and lower breathing muscles never increases in capacity, but goes from the exhaled position to the full breath position (which is attained by the end of the inhalation). Also, even though the holding portion of the exercise is seen today as not needed in singing, its purpose is to learn to hold back air with the body, not the throat. One attains full expansion and keeps it, and one maintains full expansion throughout the exhalation process as well. The only thing “coming in” is the lower abs, and only at the last moments of exhalation.

One also is to do the exercise at a slower tempo. Now days, we often read that to set the metronome at about 50 beats to the minute is the best way of doing things. We must remember that back then, in Farinelli’s day, the metronome was not invented. The only time on which they based musical pulses were the natural rhythms of the heart; basically the human pulse rate. The speed of music was governed basically as faster than the natural pulse or slower. It is because of this fact that we often have troubles with Baroque Music. In the Victorian times, it was conducted so slowly and stately that it literally didn’t hold together. We still hear performances of Handel’s Messiah that way. The piece becomes deadly dull, and many of the fine choruses and solos drag, and almost become “too religious” in nature.

Many more “authentic versions” have realized that the pulse of the music was much faster than we hear it today. And often the rate of the heart beat is used as a reference. As a results, many of Handel’s “grave” markings in 4/4 time are given 8 beats to the measure because with each eighth note receiving about 65 beats to the measure, the entire piece does become slower, more a grave marking, but doesn’t lose its forward momentum.

That is the other key to doing this exercise: one must constantly think of forward momentum. Yes, you may not be singing notes, but you are keeping time, and the exercise must MOVE, or it becomes too boring to do, and too hard to keep the breath.

Now a curious thing happens as you increase the length of time doing the exercise: as you take longer and longer to inhale, the body needs to stop taking in a very smooth breath, like you were able to do in the beginning. The number count varies with the individual, but for me, about the count 12, I need to take in very small breaths. I will begin at that count taking in a very smooth measured breath, but as I near 9 my body needs to stop taking breath in and inhale through small partials until the lungs are full, or when I reach 12. The sustaining part is then quite easy, and even though the body muscles not the throat are holding back the breath, an extreme sense of calm fills the body, then one begins the release of breath, and because of this calm, it releases very slowly without forming any gagging motions or sensations. Once this partial inhalation begins you can increase the overall count as high as is comfortable, but I seldom went higher than 20. It really isn’t needed.

The other key in doing this exercise is that at no time do you ever feel the breath rising any higher in the body than the sternum. It is as if all breath stops there. Everything above that point on the body feels calm and relaxed. And in fact, at no time during any part of the exercise does anything above the sternum feel like it is in any way involved with what you are doing.

In addition to this exercise, my teacher then had me (immediately after finishing it; it seems these exercises become more beneficial if done this way) she had me do measured inhalations and singing combined. We would take a very quick inhalation (which should fill the lungs with all the air you need, even for a very long passage), then sing a line of music (it didn’t matter what, as we used repertoire most of the time, in fact, the music I was learning as it helped phrase it more effectively). Whatever length of time was written in the rests in the music was how long I had to take to inhale. If it were a single 16th rest, that is all the time I could take; and if it were a whole rest, I had to take that amount of time exactly. If the rests occurred over more than one measure, I slowly took in the breath at whatever pace I wanted, but allowed myself quite a bit of time for the pause before I began to sing. If multiple measures of rests occurred (you know, about 6 or more) I simply took in the breath at the end of the original phrase as the body wanted to take it in (which was quicker than one would think, like is natural when you need more breath), and I would breath normally and in the most relaxed fashion as I awaited my entrance. Now there after we used two different approaches to the next phrase of music: if I knew I would need a touch more breath than just what was in my lungs from normal breathing, I would anticipate the phrase, taking a measured breath in a few notes prior to entry but still allowing me time to pause before singing; but I was to make certain that at no time did I feel “filled up” with this measured breath, I was to feel simply like I was ready to sing; the other approach, if the amount of time was not too long a wait, was to simply activate the breathing mechanism as if I were going to sing right then, letting out a touch of air, pausing, then beginning the musical phrase I was to sing. It was completely up to me to decide which method best suited the situation. The key was to make sure there was no built up stress or pressure around the throat and no choking sensations. One was NEVER to feel “too full” of breath. If ever I felt too full, I was told to release as much breath as needed to remove that sensation, but do it before the time I had to sing, and still allow me time to pause and prepare all the support for the phrase.

After singing a while like this, we then went to extremely long coloratura passages, ones that were many measures long, as long as 30 measures (we used much music written for the castrati). It was here I learned the art of partials and just how quickly they can flit by. Before beginning any long passage like that, we went through it to discover the musical phrases. Yes, long passages like that are actually made up of many much shorter phrases, and to make it seem as if you have never taken a breath at all it is absolutely essential that breathing never happen in the wrong place. Even if it is the shortest breath imaginable, it shines like the sun, as the hearer instantly hears an inappropriate break.

I marked all these musical phrases with ticks. Actually, most of the castrati of old did the same thing with small dots over the ends of musical phrases to mark when partials were to be used. I had to remember that these partials were to be as small as possible, and that I was NOT filling the lungs to full capacity with them, but rather, only restoring what air I had already used. We began a bit slower so as to make sure I was accustomed to singing partials in the correct place and not lose the momentum of the music. Once I was used to the idea of where and when to breathe, we increased the tempo to the correct speed, and I had to keep all the partials where I had them marked. Once the skill is learned, one realizes that one NEVER has to tank up with air (which defeats the entire purpose of breathing forcing you to exhale all your air immediately). And one always has quite enough for any given phrase, for even the longest phrase is made up of many very small phrases.

One other thing with partials is there is no motion in the body. One doesn’t feel the release of the inhalation muscles one feels when taking a regular breath. One feels only a pulse at the solar plexus area and nothing more. It is a very small pulsation to be sure. Also, so that the partials work, one doesn’t feel the slightest bit of collapse in the chest. One does push out but one doesn’t allow things to fall in. This is where the holding part of the exercise, so often discounted today as not needed, helps, for you accustom the body to keep itself in the full inhaled position, which is needed to allow the partials to enter the body without obstruction. If things are allowed to fall or come in too far, as one does with normal singing, there is too much body to move or reinflate for the partials to work quickly and as they should.

Also, when partials are used properly, there is no sensation of “stored up air” like one often feels when they don’t have time to release all the air in their body during dramatic fast moving music. The art of using partials would remove that problem from most dramatic singers, as they would not be filling up their lungs during rests, and ultimately storing it, but rather they would be restoring only a small portion of what was used and never over-filling the lungs.

I also learned it takes time, a long time, to perfect the use of partials so one can sing extremely long lines of coloratura, or many super short dramatic phrases without feeling tanked up with air. For the short phrases, the “cough off” is often used, and most effectively, but one cannot use that with long coloratura phrases. One has to keep an equilibrium of breath with the feeling that everything is relaxed and open.

I hope this helps in understanding more fully that Farinelli exercise that Miller talks about, that was mentioned by a person who wrote in a question about breathing for you to deal with. As I say, it is a very involved process, but well worth the time to learn.

Thank you for your time
Bea Stewart