Of The Breath

The breath becomes voice through the operation of the will, and the

instrumentality of the vocal organs.

To regulate the breath, to prepare a passage of the proper form

through which it shall flow, circulate, develop itself, and reach the

necessary resonating chambers, must be our chief task.

Concerning the breath and much more besides there is so much that is

excellent in Oscar Guttmann's G
mnastik der Stimme that I can do no

better than to refer to it and recommend it strongly to the attention

of all earnest students.

How do I breathe?

Very short of breath by nature, my mother had to keep me as a little

child almost sitting upright in bed. After I had outgrown that and as

a big girl could run around and play well enough, I still had much

trouble with shortness of breath in the beginning of my singing

lessons. For years I practised breathing exercises every day without

singing, and still do so with especial pleasure, now that everything

that relates to the breath and the voice has become clear to me. Soon

I had got so far that I could hold a swelling and diminishing tone

from fifteen to eighteen seconds.

I had learned this: to draw in the abdomen and diaphragm, raise the

chest and hold the breath in it by the aid of the ribs; in letting out

the breath gradually to relax the body and to let the chest fall

slowly. To do everything thoroughly I doubtless exaggerated it all.

But since for twenty-five years I have breathed in this way almost

exclusively, with the utmost care, I have naturally attained great

dexterity in it; and my abdominal and chest muscles and my diaphragm,

have been strengthened to a remarkable degree. Yet I was not


A horn player in Berlin with the power of holding a very long breath,

once told me in answer to a question, that he drew in his abdomen and

diaphragm very strongly, but immediately relaxed his abdomen again as

soon as he began to play. I tried the same thing with the best

results. Quite different, and very naive, was the answer I once got

from three German orchestral horn players in America. They looked at

me in entire bewilderment, and appeared not to understand in the least

my questions as to how they breathed. Two of them declared that the

best way was not to think about it at all. But when I asked if their

teachers had never told them how they should breathe, the third

answered, after some reflection, Oh, yes! and pointed in a general

way to his stomach. The first two were right, in so far as too violent

inhalation of breath is really undesirable, because thereby too much

air is drawn in. But such ignorance of the subject is disheartening,

and speaks ill for the conservatories in which the players were

trained, whose performances naturally are likely to give art a black


Undoubtedly I took in too much air in breathing, and thereby stiffened

various organs, depriving my muscles of their elasticity. Yet, with

all my care and preparation, I often, when I had not given special

thought to it, had too little breath, rather than too much. I felt,

too, after excessive inhalation, as if I must emit a certain amount of

air before I began to sing. Finally I abandoned all superfluous

drawing in of the abdomen and diaphragm, inhaled but little, and began

to pay special attention to emitting the smallest possible amount of

breath, which I found very serviceable.

How do I breathe now?

My diaphragm I scarcely draw in consciously, my abdomen never; I feel

the breath fill my lungs, and my upper ribs expand. Without raising

my chest especially high, I force the breath against it, and hold it

fast there. At the same time I raise my palate high and prevent the

escape of breath through the nose. The diaphragm beneath reacts

against it, and furnishes pressure from the abdomen. Chest, diaphragm,

the closed epiglottis, and the raised palate all form a supply chamber

for the breath.

Only in this way is the breath under the control of the singer,

through the pressure against the chest tension muscles. (This is very

important.) From now on the breath must be emitted from the supply

chamber very sparingly, but with unceasing uniformity and strength,

without once being held back, to the vocal cords, which will further

regulate it as far as possible. The more directly the breath pressure

is exerted against the chest,--one has the feeling, in this, of

singing the tone against the chest whence it must be pressed

out,--the less breath flows through the vocal cords, and the less,

consequently, are these overburdened.

In this way, under control, in the passage formed for it above the

tongue by that organ, it reaches the resonance chambers prepared for

it by the raising and lowering of the soft palate, and those in the

cavities of the head. Here it forms whirling currents of tone; these

now must circulate uninterrupted for as long as possible and fill all

the accessible resonating surfaces, which must be maintained in an

elastic state. This is necessary to bring the tone to its perfect

purity. Not till these currents have been sufficiently used up and

passed through the bell, or cup-shaped resonating cavity, of the

mouth and lips, may it be allowed to stream from the mouth unimpeded.

Yet the sensation must be as if the breath were constantly escaping

from the mouth.

To observe and keep under control these many functions, singly or in

conjunction, forms the ceaseless delight of the never failing fountain

of song study.

Thus, in shaping the passage for the breath, the larynx, tongue, and

palate, which can be placed at will, are employed. The vocal cords,

which can best be imagined as inner lips, we have under control

neither as beginners nor as artists. We do not feel them. We first

become conscious of them through the controlling apparatus of the

breath, which teaches us to spare them, by emitting breath through

them in the least possible quantity and of even pressure, whereby a

steady tone can be produced. I even maintain that all is won, when--as

Victor Maurel says--we regard them directly as the breath regulators,

and relieve them of all overwork through the controlling apparatus of

the chest-muscle tension.

Through the form prepared by the larynx, tongue, and palate, we can

direct the breath, previously under control and regulation, toward the

particular resonating surfaces on the palate, or in the cavities of

the head, which are suitable to each tone. This rule remains the same

for all voices.

As soon as the breath leaves the larynx, it is divided. (Previously,

in inhalation, a similar thing happens; but this does not concern us

immediately, and I prefer to direct the singer's chief attention to

the second occurrence.) One part may press toward the palate, the

other toward the cavities of the head. The division of the breath

occurs regularly, from the deepest bass to the highest tenor or

soprano, step for step, vibration for vibration, without regard to sex

or individuality. Only the differing size or strength of the vocal

organs through which the breath flows, the breathing apparatus, or the

skill with which they are used, are different in different

individuals. The seat of the breath, the law of its division, as well

as the resonating surfaces, are always the same and are differentiated

at most through difference of habit.