Some Thoughts about Breathing and Breath Control.


The Respiratory System

The primary role of the larynx and vocal tract is to provide a conduit for air to enter and leave the lungs which are placed in the chest and protected by the ribs (not shown). The lungs are not made of muscular material so the action of breathing must be instigated by muscles below the lungs. The principal muscle responsible for inspiration is the diaphragm. The muscles responsible for expiration are the abdominal muscles and the internal intercostal muscles. These are the muscles you use when coughing forcefully. The act of inspiration brings oxygen-rich air in to the lungs. The act of expiration allows the body to expel carbon-dioxide and other gases which the body does not need. Breathing is automatic and silent. A healthy person breathes automatically fifteen times per minute when sedentary, and does not think about it. This volume of air is taken at rest is called tidal breath and is sufficient to allow conversational speech.

Singing is a more athletic pursuit and requires more than tidal breath. The intensity of a quiet voice is approximately 35-40 decibels; the average intensity of speech is 60-70 decibels and singing requires an intensity of 90 decibels.

In order to create sufficient breath pressure to support the voice a singer must be able to exploit their full inspiratory capacity: inspiratory reserve volume plus tidal volume, which is the volume of breath which can be inspired beyond the end of tidal inspiration. In order to create and control a full inspiratory capacity the singer must modify their posture and articulatory habits.

Volume Value (litres)
In men In women
Inspiratory reserve volume 3.0 1.9
Tidal volume 0.5 0.5
Expiratory reserve volume 1.1 0.7
Residual volume 1.2 1.1

The untrained singer, who sings with too much breath will have to draw on their expiratory reserve volume, which is very tiring; whereas the trained singer only does so in extremis. The residual volume cannot be used; it is air that cannot be voluntarily discharged.

If we examine the following parameters for maximum inspiration and expiration, we can see that a fixed and rigid posture does not enable a performer to breathe in and out freely.

Maximum Inspiration
Maximum Expiration
Abdominal Wall
Raised (relaxed and stretched)
Fixed backwards
Flexed forwards

When the abdominal wall is 'fixed' - as is many peoples' habit, the diaphragm is unable to descend as deeply as it should. The ribs are restricted in their range of movement. The spine, which is flexing forwards, does not support the body as it needs to when singing. As the breath cannot be controlled the larynx is restricted from exercising a full range of movement and the singer cannot move freely from one vocal register to another.

How can I improve my breath control and sustain longer phrases?

Good breath control is the result of a balance of factors: posture, breathing and diction (articulation). Singers refer to this balance of factors as their 'support'. The Italian school of Bel Canto provides the best technical foundation in its appoggio system. The Italian verb appoggiare means 'to lean on'. What the singer learns to do is to lean on the breath and the posture the two factors becoming mutually supportive.

A very good definition is to be found in Michael McCallion's excellent publication 'The Voice Book'. He defines support for the voice as 'strength with direction. . . . To put it simply, it is the refusal to collapse and the physical means whereby you make your breath last as long as you want, at the pressure you need to make wahtever you you want,at whatever volume, pitch and resonance is called for.'

We can see that there is a link between the breath and the posture. These two factors must be well coordinated. You can learn to improve your breath control and sustain longer phrases by incorporating appoggio support in to your technique.

What does a singer need breath for?

This is another question which I ask adult pupils. The answer may seem obvious, the voice is a wind instrument and the breath makes it go. But therein lies a trap for the inexperienced singer: how much breath does the voice need? Too much can be as bad as too little.

The answer to the question is that the purpose of the breath is to support and brace the proud posture as though you were going to lift or push something heavy. The breath is taken lower into the body, as because it is helping to support the posture is under control. It cannot leave the body quickly. The singer is then free to sing and can let the voice take as little air as it needs. The emphasis being on the adjective little.

The Italian system of appoggio recognises that if the posture is supported by the breath then the breath cannot leave the body quickly and it utilises this fusion of factors well. I train my pupils in the Caruso-Tettrazini style of breath which sits low in the rib-cage and does not overcrowd the lungs. The breath supports the posture, and the posture in turn supports the correct flow of air which the singer needs.

How to take a singer's breath.

A singer must learn to breathe efficiently because the tone which is produced is determined by the breath which preceeds it. In order to find the singer's tone you have to take a singer's breath. As a rule this will be deeper and more pronounced than the breath required to speak with. A useful exercise which promotes deep diaphragmatic and intercostel breathing is the semisupine position.

Semi Supine Postion, © J Jessop 2011

The semisupine position is a proven method of removing unwanted stress, learning to breathe with a balanced posture and improving diaphragmatic and intercostal muscular coordination. The semisupine position gives a good alignment of head, neck, spine and legs. Lie on your back with the head supported by a firm pillow of books (about 15cm high), and remove the dint in the small of the back by bending the knees as shown. In this position breathe in and out, checking as you do, that there is no undue tension, both sides of the body are working as hard as each other, and allow yourself to experience a full diaphragmatic and intercostal breath, which naturally fills the back and displaces outwards, the abdominal flanks and upwards the tummy.

You can monitor your breathing (effort and response) by the feedback which the floor provides. You will be aware of how effectively you breathe, of any unwanted tension or resistance, and how the lower ribs, in particular, open up as the breath enters the body.

The advantages of diaphragmatic and intercostal breathing are:

The semisupine position as a proven method of removing unwanted stress, of promoting beneficial breathing habits and establising a good vocal support technique. As depicted in the film 'The King's Speech', vocal therapists have known about it for eighty-odd years. If regularly practiced it does aid technical progress.

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Copyright © 2014 Jonathan Jessop.