Giacomo Lauri-Volpi: singing respiration and methods

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In another chapter of Mysteries of the human voice, Giacomo Lauri-Volpi writes about proper breathing in singing, addressing its physiological, technical and artistic aspects.

Metaphysics of matter – Physics of spirit

But is there a doctrine more intimate or more
profound than that which is imparted while singing?
Miguel de Unamuno

The vital body of the voice is the air. You can’t breathe without air; you can’t sing without breath. And you can’t live. To say, then, that air is the vital body of the voice is neither an idle nor a specious affirmation. Knowing how to breathe is knowing how to sing.

It should be noted that several treatises on phonetics and vocal pedagogy do not agree on the breathing method. Some advise lower parietal-costal breathing, others upper costal breathing, there for whom it must be superficial and those for whom it must be deep. Some recommend clavicular breathing; others costal-diaphragmatic or abdominal-diaphragmatic. As for attacking the sound, some exhort the stroke of the glottis, others of the chest, and others the stroke of the head. All dwell upon the physical and physiological aspects, and on technical nomenclatures of the organs of respiration, phonation and resonance. But there is no one to tell the artist a concise and constructive idea of vocal technique. Wishing to deeply intuit himself, as a single whole of several partial elements, man must admit that the concept of life and the world as harmony is not an abstract category of thought, but a living truth and reality, essential conditions to correspond with the surrounding infinite. Harmonizing opposites is the ultimate goal of knowledge, art and life. Artistic and vocal progress is generated from the passage of contrasting natural and human forms to ideal superior forms, according to the living feeling of personality.


It has been said that will and consciousness dominate the mechanism of singing respiration. The organs involved are the larynx, the trachea, the bronchi, the lungs and the thorax with its sternum and ribs. Intercostal spaces are occupied by the internal and external intercostal muscles. The lower thoracic opening is very elastic in its dilation, unlike the upper opening. In singing, besides the thoracic intercostal muscles, the diaphragm, inspiring muscle, par excellence, participates. It is a dividing muscle, horizontally, between the thoracic and the abdominal cavity. This muscle is inserted on the spine, the ribs, and the sternum with bundles of muscles and tendons. The diaphragmatic muscle has two surfaces: one concave and one convex, and has three openings through which the vena cava, the esophagus and the aorta pass. Above the diaphragm are the thoracic viscera (heart and lungs); below, the abdominal viscera (liver, spleen, pancreas, stomach, intestine, gallbladder, kidneys, uterus, ovaries).

The diaphragm contracts during inhalation and, descending, compresses the abdominal viscera, while the thoracic cavity increases its amplitude; in exhalation, the diaphragm relaxes and the abdominal viscera, compressed by the abdominal walls, push it upwards, while the thoracic capacity decreases.

In the artistic breathing the air is regulated by the will and is based on the lower diaphragmatic-costal movement of automatic breathing, in a state of rest, with the difference that the waist, formed by various abdominal muscles, must maintain its function during the double respiratory act by virtue of the inspiratory brake, in the volitional distancing and in the conscious approach of the abdominal walls, of the spine and towards the spine. It is known that the singing breathing action thus results from a series of volitional acts that, with time and the vision of beauty, become artistic. The process from the unconscious to the conscious and from the conscious to the intuitive is gradually made and is the fruit of progressive revelation.

The costal expiratory brake is, by far, more efficient and effective than the diaphragmatic inspiratory brake, which is also fundamental. The conflict of opposites establishes between the diaphragmatic brake and the brake of the thoracic-abdominal muscular waist. Leonardo states that a man is a small world with its land, its water, its air and its fire. The diaphragm and the waist are the characters of the artistic drama in conscious breathing. The diaphragm struggles to keep itself downwards in the compression of the abdominal viscera and in the distancing of the abdominal walls from the spine; the muscular waist of the thorax and the abdomen reacts to bring the walls closer to the spine, compress the viscera, raise the diaphragm and, restricting the thoracic cavity, push air into the pneumatic tube. The duel ends when air comes out under the rhythmic law of will.

Thus, the diaphragm and the muscular waist, struggling with each other and, at the same time, joined by the harmony of the higher faculties of the soul, determine the airflow, part of which will be transformed into laryngeal voice and melodic voice resonance.

And here another contrast arises: that of the opposing opinions of the scientists of the voice. But the singer must dispense with analytical ruminations and apply the opinion that is born from the living experience of singing and from the urgency of problems that sometimes arise unexpectedly on stage, in the full development of stage action and singing. Since scientific and conscious breathing is diaphragmatic-costal, it does not matter if the lower or upper ribs of the chest are involved.

Breathable air, automatically and ordinarily inhaled in a resting state, it is estimated by physiologists to be five hundred cubic centimeters. The maximum capacity of inhalation, in a volitional action, it is of three thousand five hundred cubic centimeters of air. The difference between the two figures sets the amount of supplementary and reservable air that can be inhaled. It is known that in between breaths, in a resting state, there is a restorative pause that responds to the respiratory rhythm. The air in reserve, so important for singing, is not expelled during automatic breathing. In the singing respiration the resting pause is minimal and the exhalation is composed of supplementary, ordinary and reserve air, unlike the speaking respiration which is usually made up of little ordinary and reserve air. The latter, in the singing respiration, must support, in some cases, almost all the respiratory weight. So that, even more than when speaking, singing uses the maximum amount of reserve air, provided, however, that at the end of the musical phrase and at the end of the exhalation, there is still stored in the lungs as much reserve air as would be necessary to retain the breath for a certain period of time.

On this point there are also differences of opinion among singing pedagogues. It is no mystery to anyone, in the theatre, that some sing while absorbing the outside air with their mouths and noses wide open to accumulate an excess of supplementary air. The respiratory noise rivals, in primacy, that of the vocal sound, and there is no listener who does not notice a wheezing inhalation. In this case, the respiratory action of the abdominal type provides an excess of supplementary air. Being confirmed that breathing must be of the diaphragmatic-costal type, the inhalation of air, in singing, will occur, superficially, on the basis of an inhalation of supplementary air, proportional to the ordinary inhalation. In other words, the self-conscious and self-assured artist will sing breathing naturally, regulating himself according to the vital demands of oxygenation and the artistic demands of the phrase he is singing and the one he will sing after the pause. The bravery, the boldness, will be proportional to the obstacle he must overcome. Later on, experience and maturity will teach the spontaneous and quick breathing, which becomes a conditioned automatic reflex, acquired through regular exercise. It is the same phenomenon that happens, and can be verified, in the pianist’s automatic fingering.

To sum up, as an epilogue, it can be established that, once the point of support has been found, the melodic sound is fed by the air current that is usually between one thousand five hundred to two thousand cubic centimetres of air during the singing respiration. The use of more air –that of the maximum inspiratory capacity of three thousand cubic centimetres– would require a pulmonary effort that usually results in emphysema and weakness of the hollow muscle. Regarding the opening of the oral cavity in singing, it should be remembered that it is the effect, not the cause, of a right phonation, when the diaphragm projects, towards the upper cavities, the necessary and sufficient column of air. It is intuitive that the sole ordinary air of vital breathing, in a state of rest and silence, would not be sufficient for a breathing act of a certain energy. That is why, both in the speaking and the singing respiration, the precise amount of supplementary air is introduced to sustain words and sound.

The airflow, height and density of sound should not harm or impair the free articulation and pronunciation of words. Sound and words remain parallel, each serving the expression of the idea, because singing is a psychic phenomenon, intentional, in addition to being a physical phenomenon. Animals –irrational beings– sing preterintentionally, by instinct, and are therefore not susceptible to improving their phonation. On the contrary, man, as a rational animal, sings, to use the language of phenomenologists, with eidetic reduction, having as its object the reality that dwells in him, with the mind directed and placed in the vision of the object that he loves and thinks. Hence it is present in him –as has already been said– not only the physical object, the note that must be polished in singing, but also the psychic object that his spirit contemplates in the ecstasy of his singing: its root.

Text excerpted and translated from Misterios de la voz humana, Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, 1994.