In Search of the Breath

Breathby Karen Saillant

As printed in the January 2004 issue of Classical Singer Magazine

Breath. Everyone agrees: you need it to sing. From this one point of agreement, however, a series of opinions emerge more divergent than those of the United Nations.

Where does breath come from? How much of it do we need? What do we do with it? How do we get it in and once we’ve got it, how do we get it out?


“It‘s in the abdomen.” “No, it’s in the back.” “Act surprised.” “No—push out against a book.” “No—pull in against it.” “No—balance it and push out with your ribs.” “No, pull in with your ribs and …” “Abdomen, ribs, chest breathe, belly breathe, back breathe, blow.” “Move only your abdomen.” “No, move your chest first and then your back.” “No, the abdomen first.” “Forget the diaphragm.” “What’s the diaphragm?”

Look to babies
When we were born, we had the capacity to use our breath to make all sorts of sounds. Long before we could form these babblings into words, we made sounds so expressive that our parents, especially our mothers, knew exactly what they meant. People could hear us readily at long distances, and our voices had natural inflection, transferring from high-pitched squeals of glee to low, booming moans and groans with ease.

As babies, our desire to communicate immediately translated into a complex, intuitive selection from among 200-400 different muscles and hundreds of nerves, enabling us to communicate for hours, even at the top of our lungs, without vocal fatigue. This reflexive system of respiration leading to potent communication is Mother Nature’s gift to us. Yet, as a result of stress and pollution, some people—including singers who have been improperly instructed in the mechanics of breathing—have lost their natural coordination. Hoarse after periods of vocalization and struggling to survive a complete operatic role, these singers suffer a loss of the projection associated with the natural overtones of a baby’s cry, and an inability to turn breath into sound that can move an audience.

Carl Stough
Carl Stough, a successful choral director, did seminal work in the field of breath between 1961- 2000. The armed forces invited Stough into the wards of military hospitals in the hope that his work with hundreds of singers might find application in the saving of hopelessly ill emphysema patients. Stough’s research there gives us our first look into the internal mechanics of breathing, via cinefluorographic films (x-ray movies of the internal workings of the body) that showed the diaphragms of his patients before and after his work. Through Roentgen kymographs and other scientific tests, he confirmed his theory that the diaphragm is the main muscle of respiration and that with proper instruction, the diseased diaphragm of the breathing-disordered can indeed be redeveloped, enabling the entire breathing mechanism to return to its cooperative relationship. Think of the ramifications of this work for us as singers and please listen carefully as we explore the truths that Stough discovered.

The inhalation is a reflex
Here’s how Stough describes the physical act of breathing: “When the phrenic nerve, which sits on the top of the diaphragm, receives a message from the respiratory center at the base of the skull that the body needs oxygen, it causes the diaphragm, which sits under the base of the lungs, to descend. As the diaphragm descends, its edges act like the edges of a grapefruit that is being squashed: they spread, rather than going straight down like an elevator. This movement enables the ribs—which are attached at the spine with a hinge joint and at the breastbone with cartilage—to swing out on an axis. The additional space caused by this movement creates a vacuum in the lungs and air quickly and effortlessly comes in from the bottom of the lungs to fill this vacuum.

The diaphragm then begins its much slower ascent. As it moves up inside the rib cage, it supports the base of the lungs and simultaneously synchronizes the release of the spine (where it is attached), along with the shoulder blades, chest, and abdomen, enabling the ribs to fold around the lungs and expel air evenly and equally from all of its surfaces. This complex motion is a reflex and can only occur when the involuntary diaphragm is in charge. All the other (voluntary) muscles of respiration merely respond to the leadership of the diaphragm.”

Attempting the following will not help the respiratory system to return to its natural synergy:

Conscious abdominal muscle expanding or contracting. (The abdomen moves as a result of the lowering and rising of the diaphragm. You do not need to move it.)

Trying to take a breath at the top of your chest. (The lungs are shaped like pyramids—there is little tissue at the top.

Taking a breath here is like putting one pebble on the top of a pyramid.)

Breathing into the back. (When the diaphragm is healthy, more air will automatically go into your back, because there is a great deal more lung tissue there than in the front of your body.)

Blowing out the breath. (The sound of blowing is merely the sound of the bronchial tubes constricting.)

Attempts to consciously control diaphragmatic movement by trying to push it up, or move it in any way at all. (The diaphragm has no proprioceptive nerve endings, so it cannot be consciously controlled.)

Any other method that encourages the development of one particular part of the respiratory musculature.

These methods are all rather ineffective.
The respiratory system is extremely complex, requiring hundreds of sensitive interactions. Efforts to bring it under conscious control in any limited portion of its musculature only disrupts the potential coordination of the total system.

IMPORTANT: The diaphragm should always be in motion. Never hold your breath—meaning consciously close your glottis, the area between your vocal cords—or stop or hold the breath back with any voluntary muscles in your body.

Silent count exercise
Without continuous, reflexive movement, weakening and eventual deterioration of your diaphragm will occur. Unconscious breath holding starts during stressful moments of childhood.

SILENT COUNT: Whenever you feel stressed, shape the numbers from 1 to 10 without making any sound, or unobtrusively repeat “la, la, la, la,” moving your tongue up and down without making any sound.

If you are vocally healthy, you make sound by a complex process of opening and closing the vocal cords in what is called a mucosal wave. This undulation begins with the opening of the lower part of the vocal cords, while the upper part is closed, and continues the opening upward until the cords are completely separated.

Our ears hear this movement as continuous sound. It is, however, only at the moment when the oscillating folds come together that sound is made. (Think of a baseball card in the spoke of a bicycle. When the bicycle begins to move, we hear a clicking sound. As the wheel picks up speed, our ears hear a humming or continuous sound. In reality, the baseball card is intermittently hitting the spoke, but our ears hear it as continuous).

Now let’s go back to the vocal cords and the diaphragm. Those healthy vocal cords move in a mucosal wave, intermittently coming together. The diaphragm, if healthy and flexible instead of locked or tense, is able to respond to the mucosal wave and continually move breath upward against the pressure created by it. If your vocal ability is not healthy, to restrengthen your weakened diaphragm you must slowly build up its tolerant cooperation to the pressure created by the closing of the vocal cords. By silent counting, the movement of the articulators tricks the vocal cords into remaining in the final, open stage of the mucosal wave, thereby reducing the pressure against the diaphragm.

Simply exhaling is not sufficient to do this—the laryngeal passageway must be narrowed by the protruding vocal cords, as it is in speech, but without speaking, so as to create the isometric conditions necessary to redevelop the diaphragm.
Under the conditions created by silent counting, the diaphragm is able to move upward ever so slightly more than previously. Can you see the power of this simple exercise Stough developed?

Make sure you do not continue the silent count to the point where you feel voluntary muscle tension. I hope that you understand that doing so is completely counterproductive. An automatic inhale should occur at the end of the silent count, meaning the point at which you stop, previous to the arrival of voluntary tension.

If you cannot sense the advent of constriction or the automatic inhale, or it does not even occur, this is an indication that bodily tension is blocking you from feeling your natural reflex, or that the natural reflex of the phrenic nerve has deteriorated to the point where it is barely functioning. In this case, lie quietly with a pillow under your head and knees, or if that is not possible, sit and begin to notice the movement of breath throughout your body.

Can you allow your breath to move unconsciously, without interrupting it? This is the first step.

Relax your abdomen

Stough learned that when the diaphragm tenses, the tension is reflected in the tensing of the abdomen. In other words, we see the indirect result of the halted upward diaphragmatic action in the constriction of the abdominal muscles, as they attempt to continue the movement of breath out of the body. Unfortunately, many singers are taught to do this, but moving breath out with the muscles of the abdomen, ribs, back or chest, cannot exert an even and equal pressure on the entire surface of the lungs. Therefore, a residual volume of air is always left in the lungs—the singer is never able to completely exhale. This residual volume creates dead space, areas where there is no movement and where all disease begins. Singers with this type of breathing are constantly getting sick. Improper use of these voluntary muscles strengthens them, weakening and eventually deteriorating the entire structure of the diaphragm.

For singers the most important question is: How do you make the pressure necessary to make sound?

Relax your shoulders

The shoulders must always be relaxed. Do not prop up your shoulders by leaning forward on a table or the back of a chair. Let your arms swing freely when you walk. Do not carry heavy objects in shoulder bags or backpacks. The shoulder blades must be free to respond during respiration. Excessive tension in this area reflects into the spine and therefore into the diaphragm.

Singers who sing with excessive voluntary control always have high shoulders and lifted rib cages, the result of the strengthening—and thus the shortening—of the neck and shoulder muscles. Put your finger between your bottom rib and the top of your pelvis. Is there more than one finger space there? If so, tension has constricted the muscles of your neck and shoulders, heightening your rib cage. When the rib cage is held high, the diaphragm finds difficulty rising into it. Often it hits against the bottom ribs, forcing a sternal angle, or protrusion at the second rib of your chest. Let go of your shoulders! This is very important.

Some additional suggestions

How are your reflexes? Can you catch an unexpected ball while you are singing? How about your listening reflexes? Can you respond to diverse commands as you continue to sing? How is your intuition? How are your non-verbal, problem-solving skills? You need this ability to be active so your instincts can know exactly how much breath is necessary for each phrase.

For example: Can you sing a phrase, beginning at one point in the room and arrive at another designated point exactly at the end of the phrase; then turn around and walk back to the starting point, arriving there at the exact moment the next phrase ends? The distribution of breath takes place over time. It is reflexive.

We cannot show a singer time, but we can show space (the previous exercise). This is the natural way in which you were designed to breathe. You do not “take a breath.” The ability to instinctively solve the non-verbal breath quotient problem is one that you may need to recess. This ability must be developed while the breath is in motion. You can do this same exercise by starting with your arms above your head at 12 o’clock for the beginning of the phrase and arriving at your sides (6 o’clock) for the end. Continue to move your arms in this manner as you sing your phrases. If you are continually being stopped in your lessons to receive corrections, the movement that is at the core of all sound making is being disturbed.

Practice speaking in continual phrases with no thought about making sense. Just connect words that pop into your mind. This will help you to return to the way you spoke as a child, before you were civilized into thinking before you spoke. Stand in front of a friend and mime your friend’s actions. It you find yourself moving your right hand when your friend moves his or her right hand, you know that you are thinking too much and not in your non-verbal, problem-solving modality.

For teachers, an exercise that is helpful in creating the sensation of movement, even when the student is not singing—in other words, between phrases—is to interrupt the vocalizes or songs with moving sounds and gestures that your student can spontaneously mirror, immediately returning to continue singing from the point where your student stopped.

In his later years, Stough continued to teach asthmatics, musicians, opera singers and even the U.S. Olympic team, which called him to train athletes for the high-altitude Mexico City games. His work enabled our track-and-field stars to win more gold medals than in any other Olympics and to set records that would stand for 25 years, in addition to being the only team that did not need oxygen. Stough said that he never taught anyone, even the triathlon gold medallist, who could not improve his or her breathing skill.

The rebuilding of your natural instincts is possible. Stough proved this. It will take time and patience and the help of someone who understands the principles of coordinated breath upon which the respiratory system is meant to work.

Remember our baby? Babies don’t think about how to make sound to communicate. They instinctively move the breath so that a deep impact with intense, spontaneous and free moving sound comes forward. May we all find the courage to return to this natural capacity, a capacity that is our God given right.

*Dramatic soprano Karen Saillant has received standing ovations in international opera houses. She began her study with Carl Stough in 1972. Now in her fortieth year as a teacher of singing, she is the Artistic Director of International Opera Theater, a project that presents world premiere Italian operatic adaptions of Shakespeare texts every summer in Città della Pieve, which is on the border of Umbria and Tuscany in Italy.