Luisa Tetrazzini: breath control, the foundation of singing

Most renowned as Violetta, Gilda and Lucia di Lammermoor, Luisa Tetrazzini (1871 – 1940) was a great star in the international world of opera. Her London debut in 1907 caused such enthusiasm that the press and the audience proclaimed her “the new Patti”. Attracted from her castle in Wales by the exaltation of the young soprano, the legendary Adelina Patti attended the second performance of La traviata at Covent Garden and informed Tetrazzini and the press that she had conquered by merit the crown she had laid aside. In 1909 she participated in the writing of the book Caruso and Tetrazzini on the Art of Singing, in which both enunciated the fundamental rules that allow to tear away the veil of mystery that is thrown about singing and tried to bring the students to the first principles of the art of singing naturally.

There is only one way to sing correctly, and that is to sing naturally, easily, comfortably. The height of vocal art is to have no apparent method, but to be able to sing with perfect facility from one end of the voice to the other, emitting all the notes clearly and yet with power and having each note of the scale sound the same in quality and tonal beauty as the ones before and after. There are many methods which lead to the goal of natural singing—that is to say, the production of the voice with ease, beauty and with perfect control. Some of the greatest teachers in the world reach this point apparently by diverging roads.

Around the art of singing there has been formed a cult which includes an entire jargon of words meaning one thing to the singer and another thing to the rest of the world and which very often doesn’t mean the same thing to two singers of different schools. In these talks with you I am going to try to use the simplest words, and the few idioms which I will have to take from my own language I will translate to you as clearly as I can, so that there can be no misunderstanding.

Certainly the highest art and a lifetime of work and study are necessary to acquire an easy emission of tone. There are quantities of wonderful natural voices, particularly among the young people of Switzerland and Italy, and the American voice is especially noted for its purity and the beauty of its tone in the high registers. But these naturally untrained voices soon break or fail if they are used much unless the singer supplements the natural, God-given vocal gifts with a conscious understanding of how the vocal apparatus should be used.

The singer must have some knowledge of his or her anatomical structure, particularly the structure of the throat, mouth and face, with its resonant cavities, which are so necessary for the right production of the voice. Besides that, the lungs and diaphragm and the whole breathing apparatus must be understood, because the foundation of singing is breathing and breath control. A singer must be able to rely on his breath, just as he relies upon the solidity of the ground beneath his feet. A shaky, uncontrolled breath is like a rickety foundation on which nothing can be built, and until that foundation has been developed and strengthened the would be singer need expect no satisfactory results.

From the girls to whom I am talking especially I must now ask a sacrifice—the singer cannot wear tight corsets and should not wear corsets of any kind which come up higher than the lowest rib. In other words, the corset must be nothing but a belt, but with as much hip length as the wearer finds convenient and necessary. In order to insure proper breathing capacity it is understood that the clothing must be absolutely loose around the chest and also across the lower part of the back, for one should breathe with the back of the lungs as well as with the front. In my years of study and work I have developed my own breathing capacity until I am somewhat the despair of the fashionable modiste, but I have a diaphragm and a breath on which I can rely at all times.

In learning to breathe it is well to think of the lungs as empty sacks, into which the air is dropping like a weight, so that you think first of filling the bottom of your lungs, then the middle part, and so on until no more air can be inhaled. Inhale short breaths through the nose. This, of course, is only an exercise for breath development. Now begin to inhale from the bottom of the lungs first. Exhale slowly and feel as if you were pushing the air against your chest. If you can get this sensation later when singing it will help you very greatly to get control of the breath and to avoid sending too much breath through the vocal chords. The breath must be sent out in an even, steady flow.

You will notice when you begin to sing, if you watch yourself very carefully, that, first, you will try to inhale too much air; secondly, you will either force it all out at once, making a breathy note, or in trying to control the flow of air by the diaphragm you will suddenly cease to send it forth at all and will be making the sound by pressure from the throat. There must never be any pressure from the throat. The sound must be made from the continued flow of air. You must learn to control this flow of air, so that no muscular action of the throat can shut it off. Open the throat wide and start your note by the pressure breath. The physical sensation should be first an effort on the part of the diaphragm to press the air up against the chest box, then the sensation of a perfectly open throat, and, lastly, the sensation that the air is passing freely into the cavities of the head.

The quantity of sound is controlled by the breath. In diminishing the tone the opening of the throat remains the same. Only the quantity of breath given forth is diminished. That is done by the diaphragm muscles. “Filare la voce,” to spin the voice from a tiny little thread into a breadth of sound and then diminish again, is one of the most beautiful effects in singing. It is accomplished by the control of the breath, and its perfect accomplishment means the complete mastery of the greatest difficulty in learning to sing.

I think one of the best exercises for learning to control the voice by first getting control of the breath is to stand erect in a well ventilated room or out of doors and slowly snuff in air through the nostrils, inhaling in little puffs, as if you were smelling something. Take just a little bit of air at a time and feel as if you were filling the very bottom of your lungs and also the back of your lungs. When you have the sensation of being full up to the neck retain the air for a few seconds and then very slowly send it out in little puffs again. This is a splendid exercise, but I want to warn you not to practice any breathing exercise to such an extent that you make your heart beat fast or feel like strangling. Overexercising the lungs is as bad as not exercising them enough and the results are often harmful. Like everything else in singing, you want to learn this gradually. Never neglect it, because it is the very foundation of your art. But don’t try to develop a diaphragm expansion of five inches in two weeks. Indeed, it is not the expansion that you are working for.

I have noticed this one peculiarity about young singers—if they have an enormous development of the diaphragm they think they should be able to sing, no matter what happens. A girl came to see me once whose figure was really entirely out of proportion, the lower part of the lungs having been pressed out quite beyond even artistic lines. “You see, madam,” she exclaimed, “I have studied breathing. Why, I have such a strong diaphragm I can move the piano with it!” And she did go right up to my piano and, pushing on this strong diaphragm of hers, moved the piano a fraction of an inch from its place. I was quite aghast. I had never met such an athletic singer. When I asked her to let me hear her voice, however, a tiny stream of contralto sound issued from those powerful lungs. She had developed her breathing capacity, but when she sang she held her breath back. I have noticed that a great many people do this, and it is one of the things that must be overcome in the very beginning of the study of singing. Certain young singers take in an enormous breath, stiffening every muscle in order to hold the air, thus depriving their muscles of all elasticity. They will then shut off the throat and let only the smallest fraction of air escape, just enough to make a sound. Too much inbreathing and too violent an effort at inhaling will not help the singer at all.

People have said that they cannot see when I breathe. Well, they certainly cannot say that I am ever short of breath even if I do try to breathe invisibly. When I breathe I scarcely draw my diaphragm in at all, but I feel the air fill my lungs and I feel my upper ribs expand. In singing I always feel as if I were forcing my breath against my chest, and, just as in the exercises according to Delsarte you will find the chest leads in all physical movements, so in singing you should feel this firm support of the chest of the highest as well as the lowest notes.

I have seen pupils, trying to master the art of breathing, holding themselves as rigidly as drum majors. Now this rigidity of the spinal column will in no way help you in the emission of tone, nor will it increase the breath control. In fact, I don’t think it would even help you to stand up straight, although it would certainly give one a stiff appearance and one far removed from grace. A singer should stand freely and easily and should feel as if the chest were leading, but should not feel constrained or stiff in any part of the ribs or lungs. From the minute the singer starts to emit a tone the supply of breath must be emitted steadily from the chamber of air in the lungs. It must never be held back once. The immediate pressure of the air should be felt more against the chest. I know of a great many singers who, when they come to very difficult passages, put their hands on their chests, focusing their attention on this one part of the mechanism of singing. The audience, of course, thinks the prima donna’s hand is raised to her heart, when, as a matter of fact, the prima donna, with a difficult bit of singing before her, is thinking of her technique and the foundation of that technique—breath control.

This feeling of singing against the chest with the weight of air pressing up against it is known as “breath support,” and in Italian we have even a better word, apoggio, which is breath prop. The diaphragm in English may be called the bellows of the lungs, but the apoggio is the deep breath regulated by the diaphragm. The attack of the sound must come from the apoggio, or breath prop. In attacking the very highest notes it is essential, and no singer can really get the high notes or vocal flexibility or strength of tone without the attack coming from this seat of respiration. In practicing the trill or staccato tones the pressure of the breath must be felt even before the sound is heard. The beautiful, clear, bell-like tones that die away into a soft piano are tones struck on the apoggio and controlled by the steady soft pressure of the breath emitted through a perfectly open throat, over a low tongue and resounding in the cavities of the mouth or head. Never for a moment sing without this apoggio, this breath prop. Its development and its constant use mean the restoration of sick or fatigued voices and the prolonging of all one’s vocal powers into what is wrongly called old age.

Text excerpted from Caruso and Tetrazzini on the Art of Singing; Enrico Caruso, Luisa Tetrazzini; New York, 1909.


  • My Life of Song, Luisa Tetrazzini, Philadelphia, 1922.
  • Caruso and Tetrazzini on the Art of Singing; Enrico Caruso, Luisa Tetrazzini; New York, 1909.