On Breathing: Inspiration

We speak of the breath of life; and breath is the life of song.

Beautiful singing is predicated upon correct methods of breathing,

without which, though there be a perfect larynx and perfectly formed

resonance chambers above, the result will be unsatisfactory. Breathing,

in fact, is the foundation of the art of singing.

Breathing consists of taking air into the lungs and expelling it again,

or as the phys
ologist would say, respiration consists of inspiration

and expiration. Although they are essentially different actions, the

laws governing each frequently have been confused by teachers of


There are books in which the singer is told to breathe naturally, and

this direction is harped on and extolled for its simplicity. Surely no

rule could be more simple; and, so far as simplicity goes, it is

admirable. So far also as it casts doubt upon various breathing-methods

which teachers of singing put forth as their own individual and pet

devices, without which, they claim, aspirants for the concert and

operatic stage would be hopelessly lost, this direction serves a useful

purpose. The trouble with it is, however, that it is too simple. It does

not go far enough. It leaves too much to the individual. For obviously

there will be, if not as many, certainly nearly as many opinions among

as many different people as to what constitutes natural breathing; and

a person may have become so habituated to a faulty method of breathing

that he believes it natural, although it is not.

Correct breathing, although a function of the body, also is an art. The

method of a singer to be correct should be based on artistic, not merely

on natural, breathing. For while all artistic breathing is natural, it

does not follow that all natural breathing is artistic. Therefore, the

first direction to a singer should be, breathe artistically, with some

definition of what constitutes artistic breathing.

Could the singer be relied on to breathe as naturally and unconsciously

as in normal slumber, when the body is in a state of calm, nearly

everything that has been written on the art of singing could be

dispensed with. That, practically, is what the direction to breathe

naturally amounts to. For such breathing is both natural and artistic.

Unfortunately, however, a singer is not a somnambulist, and when he

faces his teacher, or a large audience, he not only is not in that

deliciously unconscious state induced by normal slumber, but he is very

much awake, with the added tension caused by nervousness and excitement.

He is conscious, self-conscious in the artistic sense, unless he has

been trained to appear otherwise. For, in the final analysis, that lack

of self-consciousness, that ease and spontaneity which we associate with

the highest art, is, save in the case of a few superlatively gifted

individuals, the result of method and training. Therefore, the direction

to breathe naturally is begging the question. It states a result,

without explaining how it is to be acquired. Once acquired, method is

merged into habit and habit into seeming instinct--that is to say, it

becomes method, responding so spontaneously to the slightest suggestion

of the will, that only the perfected result of it is apparent to the

listener. Under such favorable conditions created by a correct method

of instruction, the nervousness inseparable from a debut, and in many

singers never wholly overcome even after frequent public appearances,

is disguised by an assumption of calm, into which the poise and aspect

of a trained singer naturally fall. All this is much facilitated by the

fundamental acquisition of correct breathing.

This correct breathing, which is the artistic respiration of the

accomplished singer, is based upon physiological laws which can be

described, prescribed and practised. When Salvatore Marchesi, the

husband of Mathilde Marchesi, and himself a famous singer, said that

prepared or instructed mechanical effort to get more breath results in

less, he said what is true only if the instruction is wrong. His dictum,

if accepted unreservedly, would leave the door open to all kinds of

"natural," haphazard and go-as-you-please methods of breathing, the

"simplicity" of which consists in simply being incorrect. The physiology

of breathing is an exact science, and the singer who is taught its

laws and obeys them, will acquire in due time the habit of artistic

respiration. It is that breathing that is as natural and unconscious

as in normal slumber, so natural in fact that it has to be acquired

through correct instruction, because most men and women are unnatural

or have taken on habits that are unnatural.

Taking in the breath, the function of inspiration, results in a

readjustment of certain organs which become disadjusted by the act of

expiration or outbreathing. In general it may be said that the singer

should breathe with the least possible disadjustment, so that only the

least possible readjustment will be needed and the effort of breathing

be minimized. Nature herself is economical, and the singer should

economize the resources of breath. To breathe easily and without a waste

of energy is essential to the best art, and gives a feeling to the

listener that the singer, whose work he has enjoyed, has even more in

reserve than he has given out. That sense of reserve force is one of

the greatest triumphs of art. It is largely the result of effortless

breathing, in which it is not necessary or even desirable that the

singer always should strive to fill the lungs to the utmost, since that

induces an obvious effort which diminishes the listener's enjoyment.

Moreover, effort goes against the economy of nature. By keeping this in

mind and by the use of correct methods, the singer will be able, in

time, to gauge the amount of breath he requires for the tone he is about

to produce or the phrase he is about to deliver, and the natural demand

of the lungs will become his guide.

It is essential to correct breathing that the organs of the tract

through which the breath passes in and out should at least be known.

They include the mouth, nose, larynx, trachea (or windpipe), the

bronchial tubes and the lungs. A narrow slit in the larynx, called the

glottis, and where the vocal cords are located, leads into the windpipe,

a pliable tube composed of a series of rings of gristly or cartilaginous

substance. The bronchial tubes are tree-like branches of the windpipe,

and extend to the lungs, which are extremely elastic and, upon being

filled with air, become inflated and expand somewhat like a balloon.

It is necessary that in taking in breath and expelling it, this natural

apparatus should be under the singer's control and that no undue force

should be exerted upon the whole or upon any part of it, since this

would result in its physical impairment and a corresponding impairment

in production and quality of voice. It cannot be emphasized too often

that the scientific method of voice-production based on the study of

the physiology of the vocal tract is not a fad; as is proved by the fact

that every violation of physical law affecting the vocal tract results

in injury to it and in the same proportion affects the efficiency of

the voice.

Before considering various methods of breathing it should be said that,

irrespective of these, air should, whenever it is possible to do so, be

taken into the lungs through the nostrils and not through the mouth.

True, there are times in singing when breath has to be taken so rapidly

that mouth-breathing is a necessity, as otherwise the inspiration would

not be rapid enough. But to inspire through the nostrils, whenever

feasible, is a law not alone for the singer, but a fundamental law of

health. In the passage from the mouth to the lungs there is no provision

for sifting the air, for freeing it from foreign matter, or for warming

it if it is too cold; whereas the nostrils appear to have been designed

for this very purpose. Their narrow and winding channels are covered

with bristly hairs which filter or sift and arrest the dust and other

impurities in the air; and in the channels of the nostrils and back of

them the air is warmed or sufficiently tempered before it reaches the

lungs. Moreover it can be felt that the lungs fill more readily when

air is taken in through the nostrils than when inspiration takes place

through the mouth. That breath should be taken in through the nostrils

is, like all rules in the correct physiology of voice-production,

deduced from incontrovertible physical facts. It is, moreover,

preventive of many affections of the lungs, bronchial tubes and throat.

Three methods of breathing usually are recognized in books on

singing--but there should be only one. For only one method is correct

and that really is a combination of the three. These three are called,

respectively, clavicular, abdominal or diaphragmatic, and costal;

clavicular, because it employs a forced movement of the clavicle or

collar-bone accompanied by a perceptible raising of the shoulder-blades;

abdominal or diaphragmatic, because breathing by this method involves an

effort of the diaphragm and of the abdominal muscles; and costal, which

consists of an elastic expansion and gentle contraction of the ribs, the

term "costal" signifying "pertaining to the ribs."

Let me say right here, subject to further explanation, that neither of

these methods by itself is complete for voice-production and that the

correct method of breathing consists of a combination of the three, with

the costal, or rib-expansion method, predominating. For of the three

methods mentioned the expansion of the ribs creates the largest

chest-cavity, within which the lungs will have room to become inflated,

so that more air can be drawn into them by this method than by either of

the others. But a still larger cavity can be created and a still greater

intake of air into the lungs be provided for, if, simultaneously as the

ribs are expanded, the diaphragm, the large muscle separating the cavity

of the chest from that of the abdomen, is allowed to descend and the

clavicle is slightly raised, the final act in this correct method of

breathing being a slight drawing in of the lower wall of the abdomen.

Ignoring the slight raising of the clavicle, this method may be called

the mixed costal and diaphragmatic, for it consists mainly in expanding

the ribs and in allowing the dome-shaped top of the diaphragm to descend

toward the abdomen. It calls into play all the muscles that control

respiration and their cooperative nerves, provides the largest possible

space for the expansion of the lungs, and is complete in its results,

whereas each of the three methods of which it is a combination is only

partial and therefore incomplete in result.

In the method of breathing called clavicular, the hoisting of the

shoulder-blades is an upward perpendicular effort which is both ugly

to look at and disagreeable in its results. For in art no effort, as

such, should be perceptible. Moreover, as in all errors of method in

voice-teaching, there is a precise physiological reason why clavicular

breathing is incorrect. Correct breathing results, with each intake of

breath, in as great an enlargement of the chest-cavity as is necessary

to make room for the expansion of the lungs when inflated. But as

clavicular breathing acts only on the upper ribs, it causes only the

upper part of the chest to expand, and so actually circumscribes the

space within which and the extent to which the lungs can be inflated.

It is an effort to expand the chest that is only partially successful,

therefore only partially effective.

In fact, clavicular, or high breathing, requires a great effort to

supply only a small amount of air; and this not only necessitates a

frequent repetition of an unsightly effort, but, in consequence, weakens

the singer's control over his voice-mechanism, makes inspiration through

the nostrils awkward and, when the air has to be renewed quickly, even

impossible, obliging the singer to breathe in violently, pantingly, and

with other disagreeable and distressing symptoms of effort, through the

mouth. The correct method of breathing involves only what may be called

the breathing-muscles, but it utilizes all of these, thus insuring

complete and effectual action; whereas clavicular breathing secures only

a partial cooperation of these muscles, and in the effort involved in

raising the clavicle and shoulder-blades actually is obliged to call on

muscles that simply are employed to lift the weight of the body, have

nothing whatever to do with breathing and, from their position, are a

hindrance rather than an aid to chest-expansion.

A better name for the method of breathing that is called "abdominal"

would be abominable. It is predicated upon an exaggerated idea of the

force of the action required of the diaphragm, or midriff, the large

dome-shaped muscle which separates the thoracic from the abdominal

cavity, in other words, the cavity of the chest from the cavity of the

stomach. It is true that some animals can get all the breath they

require to maintain life by the action of the diaphragm alone, yet it

is a mistake to predicate breathing, and especially inspiration, upon a

more or less violent action of the diaphragm and the abdominal muscles.

Both diaphragm and the abdominal muscles are, indeed, used in breathing,

but not to the forcible extent that would justify applying the term

"diaphragmatic" or "abdominal" to the correct method of respiration.

The abdominal style of breathing was advocated by the physiologist

Mandl, and it is said that soon afterward in the schools of singing

which followed his theory most unusual devices were practised for the

purpose of keeping the ribs in a fixed position and compelling the pupil

to breathe by the action of the diaphragm and abdominal muscles only.

Thus, the pupil was compelled to sing while lying down on a mattress,

sometimes with weights placed on his chest. In fact, masters are said

even to have made a practice of seating themselves upon the chests of

their pupils. Gallows, with thongs and rings for binding the upper half

of the body and keeping it rigid, corsets and a pillory, which enclosed

the frame and held the ribs in a fixed position, were some of the

apparatus used in teaching the art of singing based upon abdominal


I have characterized clavicular breathing as an upward perpendicular

force, ugly and only partially effective. Abdominal or diaphragmatic

breathing is a downward perpendicular force just as ugly and as

ineffective, besides being positively harmful, the pressure of the

diaphragm, if violently exerted, often being injurious to the organs of

the body contained in the abdominal cavity and especially to the female

organs of sex. Yet unfortunately and only too often, this style of

breathing is taught to women, because women, owing to corsets and tight

lacing, incline to breathe too much with the upper chest (to employ

clavicular or high breathing), which, however, does not justify teachers

in going to the other extreme and, in order to overcome one faulty

method, instructing their pupils in another that is faultier still and

even physically harmful.

A more nearly correct method of breathing is the costal--that is by

expansion and contraction of the ribs. It enlarges the chest cavity more

than does either the clavicular or the diaphragmatic method; but does

not enlarge it to its full capacity. Each method by itself alone,

therefore, falls short of the complete result desired. With none of them

are the lungs wholly filled with air, but only partly--the upper part

and a portion of the central lungs in clavicular breathing, the lower

part and a portion of the central lungs in diaphragmatic breathing, and

the central and upper parts in costal breathing. The correct method

combines the three--adds to the inflation of the central and upper parts

of the lungs accomplished by costal breathing, the inflation of the

lower part accomplished in diaphragmatic breathing and of the extreme

upper part accomplished in clavicular breathing. In other words, the

correct method inflates the whole of the lungs and creates a cavity

large enough to accommodate them.

It is mixed costal and diaphragmatic accompanied by a slight raising

of the clavicle. As the air is taken into the lungs and the framework

of the ribs expands, the dome of the diaphragm, naturally, and as if

voluntarily, descends and, at first, the walls of the abdomen extend or

are pushed outward. The clavicle is slightly, one might say passively,

raised and, finally, the lower part of the anterior abdominal wall is

slightly drawn in, thus forming a support or foundation for the lungs

and at the same time putting the abdominal muscles in position for

participation in the work of expelling breath.

This is the most natural and, from the standpoint of physiology, the

most effective method of inspiration. For it creates the largest

possible cavity in which the lungs can expand. The description of it

may sound complicated, but the act of inspiration itself is not. If

attention is concentrated upon expanding the entire framework of the

ribs the rest seems to follow in natural sequence. As the framework of

the chest expands, the movement of the ribs is outward and at the same

time sidewise and upwards. This expansion of the chest naturally

enlarges the cavity behind it, and the lungs themselves find more space

in which to expand. This triple movement of the ribs, especially in the

combined outward and upward direction, the latter at right angles to

the spine, causes a great enlargement of the chest-cavity and gives the

lungs a great amount of space in which to expand. Combined with the

sinking of the diaphragm, which still further adds to the space, and a

slight raising of the clavicle which assists the expansion of the upper

portion of the lungs, it constitutes the correct method of breathing.

It is mixed costal and diaphragmatic--effected by the ribs, with the

assistance of the diaphragm and the abdominal muscles, but very

different from the method of breathing predicated upon so violent an

effort of diaphragm and abdomen that it is called "diaphragmatic"

or "abdominal" breathing, and very different also from pure "costal"


Patrons of opera and concert will have noticed that many great singers,

when emitting the voice, incline the body slightly forward toward the

audience, as if feeling more assured that their voices would carry to

the listeners, or as if striving to get upon a more intimate footing

with them. This forward poise of the body, however, is a natural and

physiological aid to a correct method of singing. I have stated that

the upward and outward movement of the ribs greatly enlarges the

chest-cavity, and with this slight forward poise of the body it is not

necessary for the ribs to move all the way upward to the natural

horizontal position in order to stand at right angles to the spine. In

other words, the forward poise of the body eliminates a portion of the

movement involved in inspiration, the spine now taking part and doing

its share. This can readily be tested by holding the back straight or

rigidly upright and taking a full breath by lifting the chest. The

physical effort will be found much greater than when the body is

slightly poised forward, and if the singer will gradually assume that

poise and again fill his lungs with air, he will find that to do so

requires less time and less strain. The forward poise of the body also

favors many of the muscles employed in inspiration, because many of

these extend upward and forward so that the forward inclination aids

them in assisting the horizontal lifting of the ribs and the resultant

enlargement of the chest-cavity. This assistance is greatly needed,

for the singer sometimes is required within the brief space of a quarter

of a second to expand the framework of the ribs sufficiently to take

into the lungs from 100 to 150 cubic inches more of air than they

previously held.

This forward poise of the body is another illustration of the sound

logic that lies in the application of physical laws to voice-production.

For the forward poise which singers find so advantageous and which aids

in the horizontal lifting of the ribs, also induces that gentle sinking

in of the lower abdominal wall which is the final detail in the correct

method of drawing in the breath and on which the old Italian masters of

bel canto insisted as an important factor in their methods.

In considering the diaphragm and its part in costal or rib-breathing,

care should be taken to make clear why it is that, while this muscle is

a valuable aid to inspiration, its value would be impaired were it

whipped into action like a conscript instead of being drafted, so to

speak, as a volunteer.

In breathing a singer is required to take in, on an average, from 100 to

150 cubic inches of air, and one of the purposes of artistic breathing

is to provide room in the chest-cavity for the expansion of the lungs

due to this intake. The natural, voluntary, and, I am tempted to say,

logical descent of the dome of the diaphragm in artistic breathing

allows for 25 cubic inches of the number required, and by no effort can

it be forced down further to allow for more; or, to put the matter more

correctly, the gain will be too insignificant to make the effort worth

while. The gain of 25 cubic inches, although, of course, highly

important, seems slight when the size and shape of the diaphragm are

considered. It would appear as if the descent of the dome would allow

for a much greater displacement. But the discrepancy is accounted for by

the fact that about two inches above its lower border the diaphragm is

attached to the ribs so that only a partial displacement is possible,

which shows the futility of the more or less violent effort involved in

pure diaphragmatic or abdominal breathing. Moreover, the hollow vein

(vena cava) which leads the blood back to the heart, passes through the

diaphragm, or, to be more exact, through its central tendon, and any

violent action of the diaphragm in taking in breath tends to stretch

this vein and, after a while, to create dizziness.

I should be sorry if what I have said regarding the diaphragm were to be

construed as belittling its importance as an aid to artistic breathing.

My comments are directed against the exaggerated importance attached to

it by advocates of wholly diaphragmatic or abdominal breathing, when it

is capable of physiological demonstration that violent effort will

accomplish no more with the diaphragm than that accommodating muscle

accomplishes of its own accord when the singer, in taking in breath,

correctly applies the principles of mixed costal and diaphragmatic

respiration. In women only one-fifth and in men only one-sixth of the

cavity needed for the inflation of the lungs can be made by sinking the

diaphragm, the remaining four-fifths and five-sixths being created by

the expansion of the ribs. Therefore, the diaphragm would be obliged to

move five or six times as far downward as the ribs move upward, in order

to make room for the same amount of air. In other words, the ribs need

only make about one-fifth or one-sixth as much effort as the diaphragm,

and effort--conscious, noticeable effort--is one of the first things to

be avoided in any art and especially in the art of singing. "If a full,

pan-costal inspiration be taken after a complete expiration," writes

Dr. Harry Campbell in his "Respiratory Exercises in the Treatment of

Disease," "no more air, or at all events only a small quantity, can be

inhaled by means of the diaphragm." This, however, should be construed

as meaning that, after the diaphragm has performed its correct function

in inspiration, any further violent effort on its part is practically

futile. For the term "full, pan-costal inspiration," substitute "mixed

costal and diaphragmatic," which will imply that the diaphragm has done

its duty by the singer--and it is that apparently effortless performance

of its duty that gives it its real importance. The diaphragm really is a

most courteous and accommodating muscle when its assistance is politely

invited, but most obstreperous when one tries to force it into action.

In proper breathing the feeling is as if the intake commenced with the

upper ribs and terminated over the abdomen. We even feel, in taking in

a deep breath, as if all our power were directed toward the four or

five upper ribs and as if we were giving the greatest expansion to the

very apex of the lungs; but the simple fact is that the six upper ribs

encompass more space than the six lower ones, consequently in proper

breathing the most movement is experienced where the cavity formed

admits of the greatest expansion of the lungs.

To say that no other style of breathing excepting that which has been

described as correct, the mixed costal and diaphragmatic, ever should be

employed, would be a mistake, but any other should be employed, when at

all, only for rare and specific effects. For example, a tenor in reaching

for a high note may find that the violent raising of the collarbone and

shoulder-blades, which is involved in clavicular breathing, assists him

at the critical moment, and he may, rightfully, perhaps, employ that

method in that one great effort of an evening--remembering, however,

that Rubini actually broke his collarbone in delivering a very high note.

Tenors sometimes reach for their high notes with their arms and legs, and

if the high note comes out all right, we forget the effort in the thrill

over the result, provided effort does not degenerate into contortion.

Similarly in an unusually powerful, explosive fortissimo, a momentary

use of pure abdominal breathing may be excusable. But these are

exceptions that prove the rule, and very rare exceptions they should


In breathing, the correct method of inspiration is to provide the room

required for the inflation of the lungs by enlarging the chest-cavity

to its greatest possible extent, which is accomplished by expanding the

whole framework of the ribs and allowing the diaphragm to descend, the

clavicle rising passively while the wall of the abdomen at first extends

and then, as to its lower anterior portion, slightly sinks in.

Sir Morell Mackenzie recognized that artistic inspiration is a

combination of methods. "When costal or diaphragmatic breathing is

spoken of," he writes in "Hygiene of the Vocal Organs," "it must always

be remembered that in the normal human body both methods are always used

together, the one assisting and completing the other. The terms are in

reality relative, and are, or should be, applied only as one or the

other type predominates in an individual at a given time." The only

trouble about applying these terms singly to genuinely artistic

breathing is that, in the nomenclature of respiration, they signify

methods that are only partial, whereas correct inspiration is mixed

costal and diaphragmatic, with a touch of the clavicular added. Such,

then, is that "natural" method which also is artistic. It is based on

sound physiological laws; and because these laws are, in turn, founded

on fact, it is as efficient in practice as it is correct in theory.