On Breathing: Expiration

Air having been taken into the lungs, the act of exhaling it--the act

of expiration--is, for ordinary purposes, a very simple matter. The

elasticity of the parts of the body, the expansion of which made room

for the inflation of the lungs, as these became filled with the air that

was being drawn into them, permits the disadjustment to be readjusted

almost automatically. Elasticity implies that a body which has been

nded returns spontaneously to its normal size and position. Thus

with expiration the lungs return to their position of rest and the

diaphragm and the walls of the abdomen follow them. This voluntary

readjustment suffices for ordinary expiration. But the expiration of

a singer should not be ordinary. It should be artistic. To begin with,

while, whenever possible, air should be taken into the lungs through the

nostrils, in singing it should always be expelled through the mouth. If

part of the air-column is allowed to go out through the nose, there is

danger of a nasal quality of tone-production.

In ordinary breathing the emission of air immediately follows the

intake; expiration begins the moment inspiration ceases, and the

respiration is completed. The elasticity of the lungs causes the

diaphragm to rise and the walls of the chest to return to their natural

position. Thus, in ordinary breathing, relaxation immediately follows

the expansion, and almost as soon as the air is inhaled, it is expelled


But as breath is the foundation of song, it is something not to be

wasted, but to be husbanded to the utmost. For of what value to the

singer is a correct method of taking in breath if all or part of the

air passes out before the tone is produced? It is an income dissipated,

a fortune squandered.

The first step toward that breath-economy so essential in singing is

to retain the breath a little while, to pause between inspiration

and expiration. "Pause and reflect," one might say. For that pause,

physiologically so helpful, as will be shown, appears psychologically to

warn the singer against wasting breath and so to manage it that breath

and tone issue forth simultaneously, the tone borne along on a full

current of air that carries it to the remotest part of hall or theatre.

The pause before exhaling will be found by the singer a great aid in

enabling him to maintain control of the outgoing column of air and to

utilize it as he sees fit without wasting any portion of it. Wilful

waste makes woeful want in singing as in life.

How long should the breath be retained before emission? There can be

no hard and fast rule. It is a matter of circumstance entirely, and

it certainly is detrimental to postpone the next inspiration to the

last moment before the next note has to be intoned or the next phrase

started. Every opportune rest should be utilized for inspiration, and,

if possible, the breath should be inhaled a second or two before the

note or phrase to be sung, and the breath retained until the crucial

moment. Then breath and song together should float out in a steady

stream. The result will be pure, full, resonant tone. A pianissimo

upon a full breath is like the pianissimo of a hundred violins, which

is a hundred times finer than that of a single instrument, and so rich

in quality that it carries much further. It is the stage-whisper of


This pause and the steadiness produced by it probably constitute what

the old Italian masters of singing had in mind when they laid down for

their pupils the rule "filar il tuono" or "spin the tone," in other

words, the practice of emitting the breath just sufficiently to produce

a whisper and then convert it into a delicate and exquisite tone--a mere

filament of music. Even in rapid passages which succeed each other at

very brief intervals and such as frequently occur in the Italian arias,

it is possible to replenish the breath in such a way that some pause,

however brief, can be made between inspiration and expiration. Watch

Melba singing the Mad Scene from Lucia, Tetrazzini, the Shadow Song

from Dinorah, or Sembrich, the music of the Queen of the Night in the

Magic Flute, and you will observe that they replenish the original

intake of breath with half-breaths, a practice which enables them at

every opportunity to make the required pause before breath-emission.

Moreover, it always allows of a reserve quantity of air being retained

in the lungs. That sense of unwasted resource, the feeling so important

to convey to the audience that, much as the singer has accomplished, the

limit of his capacity has by no means been reached, and that, like a

great commander, he has his forces well in hand, is holding back his

reserves and does not expect to launch them into action at all, can be

created only by perfect control of the air-column; and that control of

breath is gained best by a pause, if only for a fraction of a second,

between inspiration and expiration.

Moreover, holding the breath for a little while before expiration is

conducive to good health, a condition, needless to say, which creates

confidence and buoyancy in the singer and adds greatly to the efficiency

of his voice and the effectiveness of his performance. Proper breathing

is a cleaning process for the interior of the body. It cleanses the

residual air, the air that remains in the lungs after each respiration;

and it does much more. Air enters the lungs as oxygen; it comes out as

carbonic acid, an impure gas created by the impurities of the body. The

process of breathing dispatches the blood on a cleansing process through

the whole body, and, while traveling through this, it collects all the

poisonous gases and carries them back to the lungs to be emitted with

expiration. By holding the breath we prolong this process, make it more

thorough, and correspondingly free the body of more impurities. From the

classic ages down physicians have advocated retaining the breath for

a little while after inspiration as an aid to general health, and the

taking and holding of a full breath has been compared with opening doors

and windows of a house for ventilation.

Sir Morell Mackenzie emphasizes this purifying function of respiration

in his book on the "Hygiene of the Vocal Organs." It consists, as he

says, essentially in an exchange of gases between the blood and the air,

wherein the former yields up some of the waste matters of the system in

the form of carbonic acid, receiving in return a fresh supply of oxygen.

It is evident from this how important it is to have a sufficient supply

of pure air, air which contains its due proportion of oxygen to renovate

the blood. A room in which a number of people are sitting soon becomes

close if the windows and doors are kept shut. This indicates that the

oxygen in the air is exhausted, its place being taken by carbonic acid

exhaled from the lungs of the assembly, so that the purification of the

blood must necessarily become more and more imperfect.

"Besides their principal function of purifying the blood," writes Sir

Morell Mackenzie, "the lungs are the bellows of the vocal instrument.

They propel a current of air up the windpipe to the narrow chink of the

larynx, which throws the membranous edges or lips (vocal cords) of that

organ into vibration, and thereby produces sound. Through this small

chink, the air escaping from the lungs is forced out gradually in a

thin stream, which is compressed, so to speak, between the edges of the

cords that form the opening, technically called the glottis, through

which it passes. The arrangement is typical of the economical

workmanship of nature. The widest possible entrance is prepared for the

air which is taken into the lungs, as the freest ventilation of their

whole mucous surface is necessary. When the air has been fully utilized

for that purpose it is, if need be, put to a new use on its way out for

the production of voice, and in that case it is carefully husbanded and

allowed to escape in severely regulated measure, every particle of it

being made to render its exact equivalent in force to work the vocal

mill-wheel." Thus again is illustrated the close analogy between vocal

art and physical law, and further evidence given of the value of a

physiological method of voice-production as opposed to those methods

that are purely empirical. In fact when it is considered that speech is

Nature's method of communication and that song is speech vitalized by

musical tone, it would seem as if song were Nature's art and, therefore,

more than any other based on Nature's laws.

No effort is involved in holding the breath. The pause before emission

is accomplished without any internal muscular struggle, and without any

constriction of the larynx. Some writers lay down the rule that after

inhaling, the singer should retain the breath by closing the vocal

cords. The only objection to laying down this rule is that it is apt to

make the pupil perform consciously an act that is so nearly voluntary as

to be unconscious. It inclines the pupil to make an effort when effort

is unnecessary. Retain the breath and you can feel the vocal cords close

in consequence, and as if of their own accord, and open again with the

act of emission. It is all voluntary, or nearly so. In fact, artistic

breathing becomes after a while a fixed habit and is performed

unconsciously. In the early days of practice the pupil may be apt

consciously to perform each of the successive acts comprised in artistic

breathing. Gradually, however, messages begin to travel so swiftly over

the nerves which connect the will, mind, or artistic sense with the

breathing-muscles that these seem to have become sensitive by

anticipation to what is required of them and voluntarily to bring

themselves into play. The most subtle filament ever spun still is less

fine than the line which divides the physiology of voice-production from

the psychology of song and, by crossing which, song, the art of Nature,

becomes second nature.

The singer having after inspiration retained the air in his lungs for

a brief space of time, also must maintain control of the stream of air

when he begins to emit it. It should rise from the lungs through the

bronchial tubes, the windpipe and the larynx into the mouth and flow

out from between the lips like a river between smooth and even banks

and bearing voice upon its current--a stream of melody. The more slowly,

within reason, the singer allows his breath to flow out, the better; and

this is as true of rapid phrases as of broad cantabile. Breath should

be emitted as slowly in a long, rapid phrase as in a slow phrase of the

same length. It is only when rapid phrases succeed each other so quickly

that there is no time between them for a deliberate, full inspiration,

that half-breaths have to be taken to replenish the air-supply. But

a singer who thinks that rapid singing also involves rapid breathing

should rid himself of that mistaken notion as quickly as possible. A

choirmaster once told me that he had trained his boys so perfectly in

breath-control that they could sustain a note for thirty seconds on one

breath. For them to sing on one breath a rapid phrase lasting just as

long, would be equally feasible. It is the slow emission of breath that

gives to long, rapid phrases a smooth and limpid quality; and it is the

taking of breath at inopportune moments, as badly taught singers are

obliged to do, that makes such phrases choppy and ineffectual. This

fault is never observable in artists trained in the real traditional

Italian school of singing--not necessarily by Italians, but in the

traditional school of the old Italian masters.

The choppy method of singing is noticeable, not in all, but in many

German singers. It is due to incomplete breath-control, for which in

turn carelessness in matters of hygiene largely is responsible. The

average German is of a naturally strong physique, and for this very

reason he is less apt to take care of himself. The singer, in order

to keep the keen, artistic edge on his voice, has to sacrifice many

things that contribute to the comfort of the average man; and this is

especially true of diet. A strict regime is a necessity. You will find

that every great singer has to deny himself many things. But the German

is apt to sneer at such precaution and to glory in what he calls "living

naturally," which means that he thinks it is all right to eat and drink

what he wants to and as much as he wants to. In point of fact, however,

the great singer does not "live" at all. He exists for his voice,

sacrificing everything to it. His diet, his hours, are carefully

regulated. He is always in training. The German is apt to neglect such

matters. The inevitable result is shortness of breath and lack of

control of breath-emission. Voice is breath; lack of breath is lack

of voice.

I once attended a German performance of Die Walkuere with an Italian

master of bel canto. "You call that a love-scene!" he exclaimed during

the latter part of the first act, between Siegmund and Sieglinde. "They

are barking at each other like two dogs!" And so they were.

The natural process of expiration is one of complete relaxation. Just as

the intake of air into the lungs inflates and expands them, so, when the

intake ceases, the elasticity of the lungs exerts a natural pressure on

the air they have taken in and causes its almost effortless exit. This

exit, however, is so gentle as to be useless for the production of

voice. For this reason the singer must control the breath and retard its

exit, and the slower his expiration, the more control he will gain over

the tone or phrase. Those familiar with the performances of some of the

great opera singers who have been heard here will have observed that,

when singing, they do not allow the chest to collapse, but hold it as

full and as firm as if the lungs still were inflated. This physical

index to a correct method of expiration is more easily noticed in men

than in women. The De Reszkes, Caruso, Plancon--these have been some of

the most notable exponents of correct voice-production who have appeared

on the American operatic stage. Let the reader, when next he hears

Caruso or Plancon, note that they never strain after an effect, never

labor, never grow red in the face, never employ excessive gesture to

help force out a note. With them respiration consists of inspiration and

expiration--never of perspiration. There is little danger that Caruso

ever will break his collar bone in producing high C, and his delivery

of the romance, "Una furtiva lagrima," in L'Elisir d'Amore, is a

most exquisite example of breath-control and of voice-management in

cantabile; while Plancon's singing from a chest absolutely immobile,

even in long and difficult phrases, is so effortless that his

performances are a delight to every lover of the art of song, his voice

flowing out in a broad, smooth stream of music. Physically, the reason

why an expanded chest retards the emptying of the lungs is apparent.

The pressure of a relaxing chest would accelerate their return to a

condition of repose and the breath would be expended too soon, with the

result that some or much of it would be wasted. Moreover, an expanded

chest is a splendid resonance-chamber, affords a firm support to the

windpipe and adds to the sure and vibrant quality of the tone produced.

The wobble, which at times causes disappointment with voices that had

seemed unusually fine, is the result of lack of attention to this

detail of vocal method. The windpipe, requiring the support of a firm

chest-wall, becomes unsteady, the singer loses his control of the

air-column, and the vibrations of the vocal ligaments are uncertain,

instead of tense and sure.

To maintain the expanded chest during expiration, which also means during

singing, is not difficult. There is nothing forced about it. For if there

is the correct pause after inspiration, if the breath is held for a brief

space of time, the pressure naturally exerted outward upon the upper

chest is readily felt. Accompanying it is a gradual drawing in of the

lower abdominal wall, not forceful enough to be called stringent but

simply following the return of the diaphragm to its natural position

as the lungs return to theirs. Therefore, when it is stated that if a

crescendo is to be produced on a single tone or phrase, this is

accomplished by increasing the outward pressure on the chest and the

inward and upward pressure of the abdominal muscles; there is no thought

of prescribing a sudden and undue strain, but simply of employing more

potently and more effectively certain forces of pressure which Nature

herself already has brought into play. What is perhaps the most important

distinction of this method of breath-control and voice-management is the

fact that it relieves the throat of all pressure, the correct tension and

vibration of the vocal cords being brought about by the reflex action of

muscles and nerves. This lack of strain on the throat does away with all

danger of a throaty quality of voice-production, which not only is highly

inartistic but also leads to various throat troubles.

Breath-control implies that no breath is wasted, that every particle of

breath, as it comes out, is converted into voice. Dissipation of breath

results in uncertainty of voice-production, a branch of the subject

which will be taken up in the chapter on "attack." An excellent test

for economy of breath is to hold a lighted candle before the mouth while

singing. If the flame flickers, breath is being wasted, is coming out

as empty air instead of as voice. There is the same difference between

voice produced on breath that is under the singer's control and that

produced on breath which is not properly steadied, as there is between

a line drawn straight and sure by a firm hand and a wavering line drawn

by a hand that is nervous and trembling. In fact, in singing the waver

of the voice that results from poor control of breath is a tremble,

a tremolo, and is one of the worst faults in a singer.

It also should be pointed out that the singer is not to continue an

expiration beyond the point when it ceases to be easy for him to do so.

As soon as the air-column becomes thin the singer's control over it

becomes insecure, and, from that point on, the air that remains should

be regarded simply as a reserve supply and aid to the next inspiration.

To sum up: Breathing consists of two separate actions, inspiration and

expiration, the intake of air and its emission. Of the three kinds of

inspiration mentioned in most books on singing and termed clavicular,

abdominal or diaphragmatic, and costal, neither completely fills the

bill. The correct method of inspiration is a combination of all three.

It is costal--that is indicated by an expansion of the whole framework

of the ribs--assisted by an almost automatic sinking of the diaphragm

and a very slight, almost passive, rising of the clavicle, the final

detail being a slight sinking in of the lower front wall of the abdomen.

In this method, although it is a combination of the three--the

clavicular, the diaphragmatic and the costal--the clavicle plays so

small a part, that the method may be termed mixed costal and


The breath having been taken in, it should be held for a brief space

of time.

In expiration, allow the breath to escape very slowly. Maintain the

chest firm and expanded, and add, as occasion requires, to the natural

inward and upward pressure of the abdominal muscles. Avoid all throat

effect. After expiration the chest and abdominal pressure is relaxed

and the next inspiration prepared for.

Take in breath through the nostrils, emit it through the mouth. This

latter instruction may seem superfluous, but it is not. In the so-called

"backward production" of voice, considerable air escapes through the

nasal passages and the tone-quality is nasal and disagreeable.

It is of the highest importance to acquire a correct method of breathing,

and to acquire it so thoroughly that it becomes second nature. In the

beginning it may be necessary to bear each successive step in mind and

make sure that it is not omitted. But very soon artistic breathing to

sustain song becomes as much a habit as is breathing to sustain life. We

breathe, or we cannot live; we breathe artistically, or we cannot sing.

But to breathe artistically really is no great problem. It is a simple

matter, yet fraught with great and invaluable results to the singer; and

it is a simple matter because it becomes so easily a matter of habit. The

nerves of the breathing-muscles send and receive messages to and from the

nerve-centre, but after incredibly little practice this interchange of

messages over the nervous system becomes so swift that it may be said to

take place by anticipation, and the person who benefits by it is unaware

that it takes place at all. Correct breathing has then become a habit.

This habit, this smooth working, automatic cooperation of nerves with

breathing-muscles, may be thrown out of gear by something unusual, such

as the excitement attending a debut.

The singer faces an audience or a strange audience for the first time,

and the first unfavorable and disconcertive effect travels over the

nerves to the respiratory organs. Regular breathing is at such times one

of the best ways to allay the undue excitement caused by the unusual

surroundings. Before beginning to sing the artist should, and on such

occasions with conscious artistry, immediately reestablish control of

respiration by taking a few deep breaths. I have said before that the

borderline between the physiology of voice-production and the psychology

of song is a narrow one--whereof the above cure for stage-fright is but

another case in point.