Chi sa respirare sa ben cantare.
attrib. to Anna Maria Pellegrini Celoni

It has been almost two centuries since breathing in the context of singing found its highest point of development, evolving along the needs driven by the emission of sound and this, in turn, propelled by the new forms of the drama that, in the days of the Romantic era, required from the vocal and breathing organs a degree of power and strength hitherto unequaled by previous vocal styles.

In spite of this, nowadays you can easily find among teachers and students many bizarre and deceiving “systems” that are, in addition, unnatural, since none of them is based on the physiological laws that govern the act of breathing. The results are visible.

To expose this charade you need only to read some of the old treatises and methods of singing and observe with clarity the unanimity on the physiological principles that govern breathing and the sole system that arises from them. This will be much more useful for the development of your abilities than accepting the advice of any of these alla moderna “teachers” that can only manage to confuse the mind and destroy the vocal means of the students.


Breathing in theory

The act of breathing is composed of two regular and rhythmic times: inhalation and exhalation, with the respective dilation and contraction of the lungs. In addition to the lungs, the respiratory mechanism is made up by auxiliary organs such as the thorax, intercostal muscles, the abdomen and the diaphragm. The latter, though it is not actively involved in breathing when we are at rest or when we talk, becomes a muscle of vital importance in the exercise of singing, since it works as a bellows by means of which the singers can regulate a piacere the quantity and the speed of the air they want to expel according to the specific production of a tone.

In view of this, it can be noticed that singing requires special respiratory gymnastics, radically different from the one we practise daily, because it needs artificial, irregular and slow movements that demand a greater effort and activity of the mechanism. Qualities as important as the firmness of sound and good intonation depend on this activity.

The systems of breathing according to science and its relation with vocal art

A long time ago science classified different respiratory systems depending on the part of the thoracic cavity that is filled with air. If it is the upper part, it is called clavicular breathing, if it is the middle, it is called intercostal and if it is the lower part, it is diaphragmatic. These three systems result from a theory born of the examination of normal breathing and have some limitations in the practice of vocal art. However, we will analyze each one and the relationship between them, considering their advantages and disadvantages.

Clavicular breathing

In this type of breathing, air is retained in the upper part of the thorax, producing violent movements of the clavicle, sternum, ribs and shoulders, which only return to their natural position after expiration. This is because the upper chest cannot store the air without generating a great tension. This “system” as described by science is not admissible in the art of singing by any means, since the chest should only serve as a resonator and as point of support of the voice —for which it must be without air—, never as a bellows. This way of breathing reduces the dimensions of the resonator and alters the behavior of the trachea and the larynx, which cannot descend normally due to the great pressure of the air stored in the chest and therefore it is not free for the emission of sound. This fatigues the singer greatly, because of the inevitable friction that the air produces in the larynx and the throat.

Teacher Leone Cav. Giraldoni mentions in his Compendium:

Clavicular breathing, in addition to exerting pressure on the ribs (which gradually reaches the trachea), reduces the space on the chest, resulting in decreased phonic vibration, being that it should only work for the repercussion of sound.

Costo-diaphragmatic or intercostal breathing

In this type of breathing, air is retained somewhat lower, kept in the middle part of the thorax and the abdomen. When breathing, we can observe a slight expansion of the ribs, shoulders lay still and the lower part of the abdomen, where the diaphragm is, does not quite participate. This system is very useful when the singer needs to inhale in a very short time, which has been denominated by common practice as “breathing in tempo rubato”. Included here are half and fourth breaths, which consist in inhaling in very short times while prolonging the exhalation. All the cavities must be filled with air quickly and the exhalation must be done very slowly, regulating the volume of air so that it comes out evenly until the end of the expiration.

Diaphragmatic breathing

All the great teachers of the art of singing recommend this way of breathing because of how it benefits the emission of sound, making it firm and stable in intensity, volume, timbre and tuning. In diaphragmatic breathing only the diaphragm is responsible for expelling air and maintaining the column of force. This is the only way to achieve the great fiati, as well as the most full and robust sounds, since it is the one that allows us to store as much air as possible, taking into account the natural limits of each individual.

Teacher Leone Cav. Giraldoni mentions in his Compendium:

The diaphragm, that muscle on which the lungs lie, operates on the breath just as the bellows does on the organ. It is so important that some physiologists musicians did not hesitate to say that singing is nothing more than the gymnastics of breathing. Only those who have made a careful study of diaphragmatic breathing in singing can appreciate its great advantages. This breathing, which I have always used throughout my extensive theatrical career, has been defended by me and put into practice in my school. Mandl, the celebrated Hungarian doctor who made special studies on the human voice, recommends this breathing as do Mackenzie, Lavoix, Benke, and all those who studied its application and the benefits it brings to the emission of sound.

With respect to breathing systems, I want to conclude by saying that one should never attempt to direct air to a single part of the thorax, since it is impossible for the lower part of the abdomen not to participate, even minimally, in intercostal breathing. Rather, it is essential to concentrate our attention on the amount of air we take, without forcing or directing it when inhaling, thus achieving a natural breathing where all the muscles take part in a balanced way.

The relation between breathing and the emission of sound

We gain total consciousness, mastery and control of all the organs that participate in inhalation and exhalation only when they are involved in the emission of sound. Proper breathing becomes a necessity and, therefore, the young singer quickly understands the sensations. However, it’s necessary to do some independent breathing training (mute exercises) in order to broaden, intensify and strengthen the chest and, especially, the diaphragm.

The artists that are convinced, through practice, of the great advantages this respiratory training has in the emission of sound and even for general health 1, should exercise throughout the course of their career in the same way they train their vocal skills.

Breathing in practice

I would like to emphasize the importance of physical strength and development in the practice of vocal art. We must not forget that all of our body is an instrument and that we depend on its entire disposition for the exercise of singing.2 Therefore, I recommend regularly toning muscles up and doing cardiovascular training as well as taking extreme care in our sleep and eating habits.3

Preparing for breathing exercises

It is important to prepare your body when we do our breathing exercises, which is why I recommend adopting a brief warm up routine that can be made up of classical ballet moves, yoga postures or any other discipline that makes big muscle groups work without losing sight of posture and without altering the breathing flow excessively.

Breathing exercises should always be performed with a straight back, shoulders down and back, knees slightly bent, pelvis at the center and arms relaxed at the sides of our body.

Introductory exercises

I propose the following exercises with the aim of strengthening the chest and the diaphragm by regulating their movements, understanding the phenomena of inhalation and exhalation and preparing for the training of respirazione diaframmatica and respirazione in tempo rubato:

  1. Slowly inhale through the nose and then exhale freely through the mouth.
  2. Breathe in freely through the nose and then exhale slowly through the mouth.
Recommendations and care

In these exercises the lips should never move with the desire to go with the air flow. On the contrary, they should remain slightly open, without any tension, letting the jaw drop of its own weight naturally.

Inhalations should always be calm, deep and silent, filling all the cavities except for the sternum area.4

Air must be taken steadily and in proportion to the time used to inhale.

In case of dizziness, you should take a short rest and resume the exercise only when discomfort has disappeared completely. This effect will disappear over time, once our breathing habits have developed.

Respirazione diaframmatica

By practicing this type of breathing we develop and expand our respiratory capacity, allowing us to achieve long breaths.

We can estimate that when we are at rest we breath between 18 and 22 times per minute. In these preparatory exercises we must reduce the number of breaths to only 4 or 5 and, as our thorax and the auxiliary muscles become more flexible, we can try to reach 3 per minute. This requires the indispensable opening of the isthmus so that air can pass without encountering any obstacle. Otherwise, the muscles involved in this function would be forced, generating great diaphragmatic fatigue we must try to avoid.

What follows is a table for the exercise of diaphragmatic breathing. This is a progressive routine, so I recommend not to go beyond what your personal strength allows. The important thing is to do these exercises daily in order to gain strength and resistance almost inadvertently.

With the same posture we used for the introductory exercises, we must:

  1. Inhale through nose and mouth at the same time in a calm, deep and absolutely silent way, filling all the cavities. The chest will widen and the diaphragm will expand.
  2. Exhale through the mouth, releasing air very slowly, forming a continuous and smooth column.5
Recommendations and care

In these exercises the lips should never move with the desire to go with the air flow. On the contrary, they should remain slightly open, without any tension, letting the jaw drop of its own weight naturally.

Inhalations should always be calm, deep and silent. Air must be taken steadily and in proportion to the time used to inhale.

It is very important to use a metronome or chronometer to scrupulously respect the duration I propose for inhalations and exhalations; this is a fundamental requisite for the progressive training of this type of breathing.

Likewise, resting times must be respected as they make it possible to avoid any type of fatigue and, consequently, allow the continuity of the exercises.

In case of dizziness, you should take a short rest and resume the exercise only when discomfort has disappeared completely. This effect will disappear over time, once our breathing habits have developed.

It is necessary to give our body a period of adjustment and to wait for the muscles to become accustomed to the new breathing gymnastics before trying to reduce the number of inhalations per minute.

InhalationExhalationComplete cyclesTotal timeRest
4”4”162’8”30”
5”5”183′30”
4”8”153′1′
4”11”123′30”
5”15”93′1′
5”25”63′
Respirazione in tempo rubato

By practicing this type of breathing we train our capability to achieve quick breaths, which are essential for half and fourth breaths as well as for the ability of knowing how to distribute air continuously in the exhalation in terms of pressure and volume.

What follows is a table for the exercise of respirazione in tempo rubato. This is a progressive routine, so I recommend not to go beyond what your personal strength allows. The important thing is to do these exercises daily in order to gain strength and resistance almost inadvertently.

With the same posture we used for the introductory exercises, we must:

  1. Inhale quickly through nose and mouth at the same time for one second filling all the cavities.
  2. Slowly exhale through the mouth regulating air volume so that it is always uniform through the time indicated in the table and until the end of the exhaling movement.
Recommendations and care

In these exercises, lips should never move with the desire to go with the air flow. On the contrary, they should remain slightly open, without any tension, letting the jaw drop of its own weight naturally.

In this breathing system, inhalation must be silent, avoiding all kinds of noise, which is produced by inhaling abruptly and with a contracted and narrow throat. This aspect should be scrupulously taken care of since quick inhalations easily lead to the development of this fatal habit.

It is very important to use a metronome or chronometer to scrupulously respect the duration I propose for inhalations and exhalations; this is a fundamental requisite for the progressive training of this type of breathing.

Likewise, resting times must be respected as they make it possible to avoid any type of fatigue and, consequently, allow the continuity of the exercises.

In case of dizziness, you should take a short rest and resume the exercise only when discomfort has disappeared completely. This effect will disappear over time, once our breathing habits have developed.

It is necessary to give our body a period of adjustment and to wait for the muscles to become accustomed to the new breathing gymnastics before trying to reduce the number of inhalations per minute.

InhalationExhalationComplete cyclesTotal timeRest
1”9”183′1′
1”14”123′1′
1”19”93′1′

In conclusion

Singing is an art that requires the mastery of many and varied technical means and one of the fundamental tools that the singer must handle is breathing, since its exercise and training make the development of the vocal technique possible in all its magnitude.

The history of singing and the tradition that comes from it indicates our way forward. It does not make sense to deny this legacy, we must use the experience of those who should be remembered today as true prodigies of our art.

Original article by Luca D’Annunzio.


1 Among the health benefits of breathing exercises are: greater firmness and vitality, as well as volume, of all participating organs, especially lungs, bronchi, chest and diaphragm; greater oxygenation of our body, which highly benefits neuronal and circulatory activity; elimination of toxins.

2 Anyone who is in the course of their studies would know that our voice easily suffers either because of abuse, in other less subtle functions such as speech, or because of physical, intellectual and even emotional fatigue.

3 Of all cardiovascular workouts the one that adapts best to our art is swimming, due to the specific development of the breathing organs, without disregarding the harmonic increase of muscular mass and vigor in our whole body, building no tension in the joints. This allows us to maintain our physical elasticity, an indispensable condition for a melodramatic artist. I also recommend underwater exercises, for the well-known benefits they have on air management and strengthening of the lungs. Another top discipline for those who are seriously engaged in the art of singing is the study of classical ballet, which not only gives strict and effective training for the whole body but also sculpts posture and good taste extraordinarily.

4 I recommend those who elevate the sternum and find it difficult to inhale without the aid of the upper part of the chest to do this exercises lying on the firm floor, for a while, trying to relate this position to the breathing habit we all have when we sleep, when the sternum takes no part in the mechanism.

5 Many old teachers such as García, Lamperti, Marchesi, among others, advised the students to do these exercises in front of a lit candle to evidence the quality of the breath, which should be stable not to make the flame waver in size and direction. If the blow is too strong and erratic it can extinguish the candle.