Respirazione costo-diaframmatica: supporting the voice

The traditional Italian method of singing, and the various International schools linked to Garcia, taught a type of breath support linking diaphragm with abdominal, lumbar, and lower intercostal musculature. 

It is my experience that many singers don’t even know how to involve the lower ribs in singing, so pervasive is this lower breathing that keeps the ribs completely collapsed.  Where did this pushing the lower abdomen out come from?  It is certainly not the Italian method of singing.

In the Italian tradition the lower abs are kept contracted, acting as a floor for the descending diaphragm. When this occurs, a deep breath triggers the expansion of lower ribs, and epigastrium (the abdominal area above the navel).  The intercostals, upper abdomen, and lumbar musculature are all involved in supporting the voice.

When you take a deep breath, you can proceed to do two things:

  1. You can hold the breath as if you were lifting weights.  You will feel the closed vocal folds holding back the air pressure.  The breath pressure in your lungs is higher because the diaphragm is relaxing and the support musculature is pushing it back up; reducing the space for the lungs, and thus for the air.  Smaller container,and same quantity of air, equals higher air pressure – basic physical concept.  If you open the cords in this scenario you get a sort of popping sound as the air pressure is released.
  2. On the other hand, you can take a deep breath, expand the bottom ribs, back, and abs, and then not have that same pressure in the lungs described in point 1.  In fact, try this: take a deep breath as if you were going to lift a weight, and then suspend the breath so that you can speak gently. Open the cords and don’t let any air in or out.  Do you feel the suspension? No pops this time in the sound are heard….

So what does this mean for us as singers?  Write this down now:  taking a deep breath does not equate to air pressure for singing.

When we sing, we must take a deep breath.  My friend J.R. LaFond just wrote a magnificent post on his blog (which I have referenced to the side) about the need for substantial inhalation, or intake of breath.  Let me give you my take on the reasons, based on my technical view, along with my take on the physical science behind it (I hate going scientific, but my decade long training in physics really helps here…).

A singer can breathe with a shallow breath, or with a thorough one, and still sing in either case.  On one occasion a very breathy singer I worked with could not grasp the idea of using breath efficiently, so I had him sit down on a chair with his legs and arms crossed, all crunched up in a sort of fetal position.  I had him take a breath, then exhale most of the air, and then asked him to sing a long phrase without inhaling, and manage.  It was excruciating for him and for me.  But after a few minutes of trying he started adjusting and using what little air he had differently.  That was just the beginning for him.  Those were brief encounters as I didn’t have time to teach, but he has since learned to manage air very successfully and is doing well vocally.  Notice, what I had him do was a wrong thing to do technically, but in that circumstance it taught him something right, which he then used in the context of a more correct global technique.  Having less breath to work with caused him to do two things: close his cords more firmly and cause his diaphragm to continue its fight against the muscles that would push it up.

The point is this: when the diaphragm descends during inhalation, it will start a fight with the ribs, the abs, and the lumbar muscles.  These want to beat it back and send it home.  The diaphragm is the losing party in this battle, but not without a fight!  As we sing the diaphragm should resist being pushed back up by continuing its contraction.  The “lotta vocale” spoken of often is in part the struggle between support musculature and the diaphragm.  The other part of the equation is our voice, that “calls on the diaphragm” – more later.

OK, basic physics… if the diaphragm resists ascent, then what does this mean in terms of air pressure?  It means that the container’s volume is not decreasing significantly, which means that the air pressure is steady, and because the cords have a significant closed phase in singing, the pressure is slightly more than outside the lungs.  So the actual air pressure beneath the cords is not that different from the air outside in the environment; certainly not like when we lift weights.  This is why when we sing we don’t get a grunt, but rather a flow. 

If you listen to Bjoerling , and pay close attention, you will hear a slight sigh incorporated in the voice – a velvety core surrounded by a very bright and resonant tone.  This central core, which by the way corresponds to the fundamental harmonic (O’Mara’s head tone exercise which I hope he will write about here sometime soon), is a very velvety sound, and cannot be nourished when there is excessive pressing of the cords.  When you sing a very hooty falsetto efficiently you should be able to hold the note at least over 20 seconds.  I can sustain the note for almost 50 seconds.  The sensation of air right in between the cords is not air being wasted, otherwise you wouldn’t be able to hold the note that long.  If you are  seemingly “lifting weights” while singing, you will “crush” this core of release, meaning that the excessive closure of the cords diminishes this sense of gentle air buffer.  Phonation is then pressed.

The type of slight increased air pressure needed to sing does not require a full breath.  You can create that pressure even with little breath.  Then why breathe so deeply?

I got this answer for myself when singing Lucia di Lammermoor for the first time.  I was on stage, had just successfully navigated through Tombe degl’Avi Miei, and the chorus had carried Lucia on stage.  The emotion was overwhelming.  The INTENTION in my mind was so very active.  I could feel the pain and the sorrow, and new exactly what vocal approach would express that human truth.  The intention came to my rescue when I got to “se divisi fummo in terra ne congiunga il nume in ciel,” and from there proceeded to my ascending scale.  The natural emotional reaction accompanying my tears was to breathe shallow.  That would have been natural.  But I had trained my intention to associate that moment with a very deep breath.  I struggled with it!!  My diaphragm didn’t want to do that; but because I had associated the learning of that phrase, that emotion, with that movement of the diaphragm, I knew exactly what to do.  In one instant I could sense the breath was not deep enough, so all I did was focus on making my diaphragm go down when I breathed in, and there it was, ready to go.

What did I feel when the breath was more shallow?  The vocal set up collapsed.  There was not enough space in my throat; the larynx was not in a relaxed low position, and I sensed I wouldn’t have the energy to sustain the long phrase.

When we breathe in thoroughly we trigger the lowering of the larynx.  The yawn becomes effective in keeping the larynx in place.  Without the deep breath, the yawn can’t help you! The deep breath opens the throat with morbidezza. 

The deep breath connects you to the body; and following is a key concept.  The deep breath creates potential energy… potential breath pressure, which you will call upon automatically as you sing.  Answer this question:  how fast should the diaphragm lose the battle against the ribs, abs, and lumbars?  How fast should it give in?  The answer to this question is – THE VOICE WILL TELL YOU.  When you sing correctly, the voice will tell your diaphragm how much pressure it needs.  You will never regulate mechanically the ascent of your diaphragm… or I should say that you SHOULD NEVER do so.

The voice calls the diaphragm into action based on its needs.  The deep inhalation along with the yawn position has lowered your larynx, opened your throat, and created a reservoir of POTENTIAL breath pressure.  Now, if the mind sends an impulse to the diaphragm saying “more air pressure” the diaphragm will instantaneously relax a little, allowing itself to be pushed up so you can have more air pressure. 

So a deep breath lowers your larynx, and along with the yawn, opens your throat, and creates a reservoir of potential breath pressure.  The mind transforms the potential breath pressure into real breath pressure based on the needs of the voice.

Now to bad ideas…  What happens when you press down with your diaphragm while singing?  Physics 101: the diaphragm descending increases the volume of the container in which the air is housed.  An increase in volume equates to a drop in air pressure.  What happens if you need more air pressure and your diaphragm goes down instead of up?  It becomes the equivalent of singing while out of breath… same exact thing.  Both scenarios are characterized by phonation with insufficient breath pressure beneath the cords.  Spontaneously the mind reacts by closing the glottis (vocal folds) more aggressively to harness what pressure is available.  So, the result is pressed phonation.  The voice will get brighter immediately, but smaller in the house.  The sound will feel narrower, but also will lack substantial strength in the lower harmonics, which means that your open throat sound will go bye-bye. 

Well now… there are tons of people who push the diaphragm down while singing, and sing well.  How do they do it?  Answer: they collapse the chest.  The ribs are forced to collapse into a neutral position and all the attention is now on the lower abdominal musculature.  This is not correct Italian traditional technique, nor correct traditional International technique.   I don’t know where this came from… some say Germany.  I don’t know, but in my mind it’s just wrong.  So, there –  if you sing that way, I think you sing wrong.  Sorry.  But since you probably make more money than I do, what does it matter?  Reality is, that there are many ways to accomplish things, and a global technique is not always limited by one part.  But I will go on the records as saying that the type of control and success linked to respirazione costo-diaframmatica is unparalleled.  Bjoerling, Caruso, Del Monaco, Sutherland, Corelli, Battistini, Lauri Volpi, Gigli, etc., all sang according to the tradition.

The deep breath serves no purpose without correct phonation.  The two combined yield correct breath support.  You can’t learn breath support without the voice informing the brain how much air pressure it needs.  The mind triggers the transformation from Potential Breath Pressure into Real Breath Pressure, required for singing…   PBP —> RBP

So, science tells us that in order to sing high notes we need increased air pressure.  Then how does engaging the diaphragm in the fight supply us with that air pressure?  By engaging the diaphragm and the support muscles – one fighting to stay down, and the others fighting to push it back up, you increases the potential breath pressure.  It’s like a rubber band being pulled.  When you let go, it spring into action.  The increased PBP is regulated by the voice; and when you are on the high note the diaphragm retreats in microspurts that equate to stronger pressure because the PBP was stronger due to the increased fight between diaphragm and support musculature.  Had there not been as big of  fight, there would not be as big of  potential breath pressure; and consequently not as big of a real breath pressure.  But it is the mind that does this through the voice.

Proof of this is when you press down really hard with the diaphragm and engage the support muscles with closed cords.  I invite you to do this but then keep the cords open, not letting any air in or out.  See how you can have the fight in the body with no air movement through the cords?  Why no air movement?  Because all that physical pressure is only potential breath pressure.  Your mind is keeping the diaphragm in check so that it does not retreat.  But as soon as you start singing, the mind will tell the diaphragm to retreat.  When you sing well, the voice (mind) will tell the diaphragm how much to retreat.

The same happens in singing piano.  The fight increases between diaphragm and support muscles.  You support more, but this does not equate to increased pressure in the breath.  In fact, it’s a scientific fact that piano singing requires less breath pressure than normal singing.  Then why do we engage that way?  Because we need the open throat and low larynx still. 

So the trigger for open throat and low larynx is not the breath pressure, but rather the potential breath pressure.


4 responses to “Respirazione costo-diaframmatica: supporting the voice

  1. WOW I JUST HAD A LESON WITH J.R. LaFond TONITE AND WE ADRESSED EXACTLY WHATS WRITTEN IN THIS ARTICLE. Never had I heard this info. taught wit such clarity and the results were
    a light bulb moment for me.

  2. jeanronaldlafond

    Another superb post Jack! Thank you!

  3. “if you sing that way, I think you sing wrong. Sorry. But since you probably make more money than I do, what does it matter?”

    IMO it is all that matters. Money cannot make you sing well and most of the people you allude to I would not pay one cent to listen to. I enjoyed the article very much. Thanks.

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