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.