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Art Of Singing:
 Introduction

 Fundamentals

 Classification Of The Voice

 General Conservation Of The Voice

 Breathing

 Breathing Exercises

 Development Of Voice

 Interpretation And Expression

 The Halls

 Defective Voices

 Read More Articles About: Art Of Singing

Breathing

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

No element in the production of the human voice has been the subject of so much attention and contention as has breathing. It has been specialized upon and magnified out of all proportion to its relative importance. To note the piles of literature that have accumulated one would think that none but those lucky enough to visit "Professor X" had ever learned to draw a full breath for any purpose. And yet breathing correctly is perhaps the most common thing in the world.

Why, then, all the trouble and talk and building up of special systems of breathing for use in singing?

Without wishing to give unnecessary space to a discussion of those in every line of work whose love for the almighty dollar leads to almost every advertising misrepresentation, it must be noted in passing that unfortunately there are plenty such to plague the sacred art of voice culture. Yet, to the credit of the teaching profession be it said, the great majority of those vocal teachers who specialize on the element of breathing do so because they conscientiously believe they are right about it.

For the purpose of clarity it is necessary to dissect the breathing process into three distinct physiological functions :

1. The mixture of gaseous matters exchanged between the air and the blood, said function essential for understanding from standpoint of chemistry, but of no interest as a matter of phonetics.

2. This is a reflective function, one that originates the above said interchange of matters, but admits the air into the organism. This second function also does not have any direct importance upon the matter of controlled phonetics. We will not analyze either of the first two functions.

3. The voluntary breathing or respiratory gesture. This is the only point that interests singers.

Observation of the breathing of noted singers permits the classification of their method of breathing as a real gesture of the thorax, a gesture very complicated, engaging a large number of muscles and cavities.

It is a well recognized fact that the amplitude of the thorax is diminished or increased according to different positions of the body. Lying on the back, side, or stomach, raising the arm, crossing the hands, carrying a package under the arms, all these movements affect more or less the action of the breathing apparatus.

These different ways of breathing are effected by the voluntary (or involuntary, as in sleep) contraction and expansion of different groups of muscles. What is essentially to be noticed is that the functioning of the muscles concerned, be it in the act of inhalation ("in-breathing," the immission of air into the lungs) or in the exhalation ("out-breathing," expulsion of the air from the lungs), is practically automatic. Ordinarily we do not think of it in the least. Our own will has nothing to do with it unless we make a special effort, as in holding the breath for short or long phrases in singing.

In normal respiration the mouth should be closed. It should be used for breathing only when the nasal passages are out of order, or in case of necessity for quick respiration, as in singing.

Perhaps a discussion of the subject from an entirely different angle may not be amiss here.

It was the author's good fortune a short time ago to be returning from a European tour with many of the world's leading opera singers. Upon the trip over, the Italian edition of this little work repeatedly became the subject of discussion. That the general consensus of such ex-pert opinion was in conformity with the author's views is shown by the photographed indorsement by those artists which appear at the beginning of this English edition. I may be pardoned for mentioning this, perhaps, when I draw to your attention my reason for doing so. Years ago, when Adelina Patti (whose stellar magnitude needs no praise from me) was asked how she produced her flawless tones, she answered simply "Je ne sais pas" (I don't know). Would you be surprised to hear that each of the group of famous opera singers to whom I put the query, "Tell me what method you use in breathing?" answered, as if by agreement, practically in Patti's own words.

What, then, is the logical explanation of this apparent contradiction between the world's best singers and the general run of vocal teachers?

The answer is simply this: The proper way to teach and learn tone production is through the tone itself. Tone is the product of many elements, true; but those elements are the inseparable parts of one result, all working simultaneously and in perfect balance, each with the rest, and that result is the tone itself. Like a violin, the instrument is there, ready to give forth a musical tone. All it needs is the hand of a master on the bow. From the same instrument the tyro will bring forth a noise which would rasp every nerve in one's body. But the violin is there, it does not have to be dissected or constructed.

So with the human instrument. It is there. All parts of the apparatus are but contributory to the general result. Nature simply demands a balance.

Now we reach the rather technical part of the subject, namely, how to secure that balance in case some of the elements be over or under contributing, as shown by .the poor tone produced.

Again turning to the violin for illustrative purposes, and it must not be overlooked that it is well recognized that in the hands of a real master the violin's tone is the nearest thing to the human voice known to the world, suppose the body of the violin be stuffed with cotton, what happens? The tone brought forth is worthless. Why? The sound foundation is missing, there is no body for the tone and consequently no body to the tone.

All that the singer needs to know about breathing in singing is to keep the sound body open, or, at least, keep the sensation of so maintaining it, even though at the end of a long phrase the very last particle of breath may have been used up. In this one point lies practically all there is to breath control in singing. Of course it is quite another thing to balance the working of this one component of a good tone with all the other elements, but that is the whole art of tone production, and it is impossible of acquisition except under the watchful eye and ear of a first-class teacher, combined with the ear-nest, thoughtful and unremitting effort of a pupil with a worth-while voice and good health. It goes without saying, of course, that you can-not get a good tone from a violin unless you have an instrument capable of producing a good tone.

Nothing truer in connection with vocal study was ever said than that "singing, after all, is a mental attitude." It follows that if the mentality be absorbed in a progression of physical functions which, all combined, will make a good tone, there is nothing simultaneous or well balanced in the result. The proper coordination of the tone-producing elements can be attained or tested only from the study of the tone itself. In a simultaneous, many-sided production such as tone, there is no time first to adjust the breath, then the larynx, then the focus, then the hardening of the cavity walls, then the tone color, enunciation, interpretation, etc., ad libitum (and ad absurdum).

When one has the right idea, the right result follows naturally in most cases, physical and physiological conditions making necessary the exception. The thing to be sought for is the right conception of tone production, and I cannot state too strongly that the right mental conception of tone can be studied from only one angle, the sound of the tone at its intended point of destination. Tone can be analyzed, true; but it cannot be pieced together like a piano. The keys, strings and case do not have to be produced simultaneously and coordinately.

I will not trespass upon the reader's time by further discussion. This is the point where we must leave the matter to the combined earnest study of teacher and pupil. May I close this chapter by quoting what Mme. Lilli Lehmann wrote anent this very subject?

"Learning and teaching to hear is the first task of both pupil and teacher. One is impossible without the other. It is the most difficult as well as the most grateful task, and it is the only way to reach perfection."

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