Breathing for Singing

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Classical Singing By: Please log in to see tutor details
Subject: Singing » Classical Singing
Last updated: 14/05/2016
Tags: appoggio, breathing, singing, technique

One of the most common questions from aspiring singers is 'how do you breathe?' The answer can be both simple and complex. I will attempt to make it as simple as possible...but not simpler!:

We need to learn to take a breath for singing that will adequately support the voice we have and will satisfy the demands of the repertoire we are singing. For most people and most repertoire, this will be the old Italian school approach which was based on a flexible, buoyant breath. Put simply, you expand around the lower middle part of your torso, approximately where the lower ribs are, in a circle running all the way around the back. You expand your midsection in this way, and at the same time the diaphragm lowers, and you may also choose to feel a gentle relaxed lowering in your throat, as in the beginning (only the beginning!) of a yawn. This is all one gesture: expand and gently relax downward.

The next stage of the cycle involves phonation...singing...but speaking in terms of the breath and body aspect, the old school generally kept this part natural and automatic, instinctive, not overly mechanical. The idea is that your body will naturally instruct the diaphragm to support the voice as needed, and this generally happens without need to consciously control it. You form the type of sound you wish in your mind, and the diaphragm responds intuitively. If you are rising through your range and keep a squillo tone (a bright, ringy sound), you may notice the diaphragm is rising slightly faster in order to feed the tone properly, but the sound is guiding everything.  This is key: the sound is formed first in your mind, and then the body automatically causes the diaphragm to respond with the right amount of support for that sound.  This is 'appoggio' (from the Italian word 'to lean'), the old Italian method of breathing for singing.

If you attempt to force the diaphragm up mechanically you will almost certainly overload the larynx. The feeling in the body is relatively tranquil and steady, not turbulent or shaking. There may even be a slight feeling of expanding even further around your midsection, as you learn to regulate the balance for soft singing or higher range. It is worth noting again that this conscious act of expanding the ribs or upper abs is separate from the work of the diaphragm. Our job is to give the diaphragm the space it needs to work properly, and not 'crowd' it. More often than not, this means expanding around the middle of the body to take the pressure *off* the diaphragm and larynx. Once we find a free, balanced sensation in the body, the diaphragm can do its job naturally, which is to respond in a very sensitive way to the sounds you are making, in your mind and with your voice. If you imagine a fuller, rounder tone with more strength in the lower harmonics, the diaphragm will respond instinctively and provide the right type of support for that. On the other hand if you imagine a gentler, more youthful tone with more emphasis on the higher harmonics, the diaphragm also responds to that, instinctively.

It is very difficult to improve on the body's natural wisdom, and the old Italian school is at its best a relatively 'natural' approach, when possible. There are other techniques involving taking a very low breath or adding additional strength in the lower abs. These should be seen as 'advanced techniques'. They are used to great success by some singers, particularly in dramatic repertoire, but also carry a great deal of risk and thus are to be undertaken only after you have mastered the unimpeded flow of Bel Canto singing. If you have any imbalance in the sound or impedance in the mechanism, adding additional pressure will generally serve to magnify that imperfection. It is better that you develop your voice according to the balanced Bel Canto approach for some years, and then once you feel confident you have mastered this approach, and can always return to it, you may carefully explore further techniques with the guidance of a master teacher.

This is the simplest and most complete explanation of breathing I can muster, and of course it is much easier to demonstrate in person!  It is applicable to traditional 'classical' music, legit broadway/West End repertoire, and even modern styles.  I believe it explains the great tenor Lauri Volpi's view, and gives us a glimpse into the approach of a singer who was at the pinnacle of the old Italian school approach. Have a good week!

Lauri Volpi on breathing, an excerpt from his book Voci Parallele (English below):

Abbiamo giá avuto occasione di parlare dei tre modi di respirazione: "clavicolare", "diaframmaticao-costale", "diaframmatico-costo-addominale."...La respirazione clavicolare é una specia d'impiccagione del cantante. La "diaframmatico-costale" é la giusta respirazione, massime per la voce femminile. La piú complessa e completa é la respirazione cui cooperano torace, diaframma e addome, ma anche la piu difficile e rischiosa, ove non si conosca l'equilibrio del ritmo respiratorio.

We have already had occasion to speak of three ways of breathing: "clavicle", "diaphragmatic-rib", "diaphragmatic-rib-abdominal."...The clavicular breathing is a specialist in hanging[choking] of the singer. The "diaphragmatic-costal" is the proper breathing, especially for the female voice. The more complex and complete is breathing which coordinates chest, diaphragm and abdomen, but also the most difficult and risky, if you do not know the balance of the respiratory rate.


John Rodger, Tenor Classical Singing Teacher (North London)

About The Author

Hello, I am a professional Tenor and Singing Teacher in Central London and North London. Whether you are looking to master your voice for professional purposes or explore singing for personal growth, I believe I can help you release your true voice.




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