Lilli Lehmann: on the breath

At the beginning of the third edition of her book Meine Gesangskunst (translated and known in english as How to sing), Lilli Lehmann presents the singers’ motto, a great synthesis of the utmost expression of our art:

Acquiring artistic technique is always associated with exaggerations, for isn’t it necessary to make others hear, see, and understand, in spacious halls, the singer’s own fine feeling for something? The finer the feeling, the more complicated it is. Artistic technique must acquire the harmony of the beautiful through the aestheticism of the soul, and may through it only become apparently natural again.

Breathing is one of the crucial aspects of the technique and Lehmann dedicates the second chapter to it.


The breath becomes voice through the operation of the will, and the instrumentality of the vocal organs. To regulate the breath, to prepare a passage of the proper form through which it shall flow, circulate, develop itself, and reach the necessary resonating chambers, must be our chief task.

How did I breathe?

Being very short of breath by nature, my mother had to keep me as a little child almost sitting upright in bed. After I had outgrown that and as a big girl could run around and play well enough, I still had much trouble with shortness of breath in the beginning of my singing lessons. For years I practised breathing exercises every day without singing, and still do so, but in another way, by continually articulating syllables on a decreasing breath, for everything that concerns breath and voice has become clear to me. Soon I had succeeded so far as to be able to hold a swelling and diminishing tone quietly from fifteen to twenty seconds.

I had learned this: to draw in the abdomen and diaphragm, raise the chest and hold the breath in it by the aid of the ribs; in letting out the breath gradually to relax the abdomen. To do everything thoroughly I doubtless exaggerated it all. But since, for years I have breathed in this way almost exclusively, with the utmost care, I have naturally attained great dexterity in it; and my abdominal and chest muscles and my diaphragm have been strengthened to a remarkable degree. Yet I was not satisfied.

A horn player in Berlin with the power of holding a very long breath, once told me, in answer to a question, that he drew in his abdomen and diaphragm very strongly, but immediately relaxed his abdomen again as soon as he began to play. I tried the same thing with the best results. Very naive was the answer I once got from three German orchestral horn players in America. They looked at me in entire bewilderment, and appeared not to understand in the least my questions as to how they breathed. Two of them declared that the best way was not to think about it at all. But when I asked if their teachers had never told them how they should breathe, the third answered, after some reflection, “Oh, yes!” and pointed in a general way to his stomach. The first two were right, in so far as violent inhalation of breath is really undesirable, because thereby too much air is drawn in. But such ignorance of the subject is disheartening, and speaks ill for the conservatories in which the players were trained, whose performances naturally are likely to give art a black eye.

Undoubtedly I took in too much air in breathing, cramped various muscles, thereby depriving my breathing organs and muscles of their elasticity. I often had, with all care and preparation for inhalation, too little breath, and sometimes, when not giving special thought to it, more than enough. I felt, too, after excessive inhalation as if I must emit a certain amount of air before I began to sing. Finally I abandoned all superfluous drawing of the abdomen and diaphragm, inhaled but little, and began to pay special attention to emitting the smallest possible amount of breath, which I found very serviceable.

How do I breathe now?

I draw in the diaphragm and my abdomen just a little, only to relax it immediately. I raise the chest, distend the upper ribs, and support them with the lower ones like pillars under them. In this manner I prepare the form for my singing, the supply chamber for the breath, exactly as I had learned it from my mother. At the same time I raise my palate high toward the nose and prevent the escape of breath through the nose. The diaphragm beneath reacts elastically against it, and furnishes pressure from the abdomen. Chest, diaphragm, and the closed epiglottis form a supply chamber for the breath.

Only when I have begun to sing and articulate an ā do I push the breath against the chest, thereby setting the chest muscles in action. These combined with the elastically stretched diaphragm and abdominal muscles —the abdomen is always brought back to its natural position during singing—exert a pressure in the form, which, as we have already learned, is the supply chamber and bed of the breath. This pressure enables us to control the breath while singing.

From this supply chamber the breath must very sparingly and gently pass far back between the vocal cords, which regulate it, and through the epiglottis. The vowel ā lifts the epiglottis; it must always be kept in mind, always be placed and pronounced anew —even when other vowels are to be articulated. Then the singer only experiences the sensation of the inflated, well-closed form of the supply chamber which he must be heedful, especially when carefully articulating the consonants, not to impair. The longer the form remains unimpaired, the less breath escapes, and the longer it may flow from the form.

This form or supply chamber, the breath pressure, which includes abdomen, diaphragm, and chest muscles, is often named “Atemstauen” (breath restraint), and “Stauprinzip” (law or principle of restraint), terms which carry in themselves the danger of inducing the pupil to make the diaphragm rigid, to hold back the breath, and to stiffen the entire vocal organs instead of making him realize that only from an eternally alive form with elastic muscular action can the breath flow, the tone resonate.

The more flexibly the breath pressure is exerted against the chest —one has the feeling in this of singing the tone against the chest from whence it must be gently and flexibly pushed out— the less the breath flows through the vocal cords and the less, consequently, are they directly burdened. The strong cooperation of chest muscles and diaphragmatic pressure prevents the overburdening of all the directly participating vocal organs.

In this way, under control, the breath reaches the tone form prepared above by the tongue; it reaches the resonance chambers prepared for it by the raising and lowering of the soft palate and those in the head cavities. Here it forms whirling currents of tone, which now fill all attainable resonating cavities necessary for tone perfection. Not until the last note of a phrase has passed the “bell” or cup-shaped cavity of mouth and lips may the breath be allowed to flow unimpeded, may the form or supply chamber be relaxed, which, nevertheless, must quickly prepare itself for the next phrase.

To observe and keep under control these many functions, singly or in conjunction, forms the ceaseless delight of the never failing fountain of song study.

In preparing the form for the flow of breath (tone flow), all the organs, abdomen, diaphragm, upper ribs, larynx, tongue, palate, nose, lungs, bronchial tubes, abdominal and chest cavities, and their muscles, participate. These organs can, to a certain degree, be relatively placed at will, and we singers are in duty bound to acquire the necessary technical skill to perform any task as nearly perfectly as possible. The vocal cords, which, we can best imagine as inner lips, we do not feel. We first become conscious of them through the controlling apparatus of the breath, which teaches us to spare them, by emitting breath through them in the least possible quantity and of even pressure, thereby producing a steady tone. I even maintain that all is won if we regard them directly as breath regulators, and relieve them of all over-work through the controlling apparatus of the chest-muscle tension. With the tongue, whose back becomes our breath and pitch rudder, we are enabled to direct the breath to those resonance surfaces which are necessary for the pitch of every tone. This rule remains the same for all voices.

If for the breath there is created in the mouth an elastic form, in back of which the currents may circulate unhindered by any pressure or undue contraction or expansion, it becomes practically unlimited. That is the simple solution of the paradox that without taking a deep breath one may often have very much breath, and often after elaborate preparations none at all. Generally the chief attention is directed to inhalation, instead of to the elastic forming and agility of the organs for the breath and the minimal exhalation.

It is due only to the ignorance of the causes, to the absence of the form, to the pressure and to the convulsive tightening of the muscles, that the singer is unable to sing in one breath all that is included in the musical or speech phrase.

As soon as the breath leaves the larynx, it is divided. One part may press toward the palate, the other toward the cavities of the head. The division of the breath occurs regularly, from the deepest bass to the highest tenor or soprano, step for step, vibration for vibration, without regard to sex or individuality. Only the differing size or strength of the vocal organs through which the breath flows, the breathing apparatus, or the skill with which they are used, are different in different individuals. The seat of the breath, the law of its division, as well as the resonating surfaces, are always the same, and are differentiated at most through difference of habit.

Text excerpted from How to sing, Lilli Lehmann, New York, 1902.