Control Your Breath!

The wonderful baritono Piemontese Giuseppe Valdengo recalls a conversation with Jussi Bjoerling at the Met:

Bjoerling was always helpful; he explained to me that one should breathe high in the chest and when we sang together,  he would sometimes point to his diaphragm to remind me to keep the breath high.  He became really angry when we heard once that a singing teacher advised that the sound should sink toward the abdomen.  “Jackass!!” he exclaimed. “That is the perfect way to ruin the voice!”

Take a look at Bjoerling singing Salut in this Youtube clip.  I draw your attention to a few things.  Notice the bottom white tips of his shirt around the hips.  What do they do when he breathes in and sings?  They go up.  Why?  Because when he breathes in the lower abs contract and the whole torso moves up.  If you were to look at your belly button when you do this you should see it move up as the lower abdomen contracts and the whole abdomen moves up.

Now look at Bjoerling’s chest as he breathes in.  Put your mouse pointer on his shirt buttons and see how his chest goes up.  Why?  Because lowering the diaphragm to its lowest requires that you open the ribs, and they will not open unless the lower abs are in and the torso is extended upwards.

You can’t just breathe in at the epigastrium (the soft stomach spot below the sternum) and push out there.  You have to expand that whole area of the bottom ribs. This means that the whole torso is expanding and getting slightly higher.

Now remember, the Italian tradition is Costo-Diaframmatica!  Its not just intercostal action, but also diaphragmatic.  If you breathe in just expanding the torso you can’t sing well.  Science tells us that you can’t really feel the diaphragm, but rather feel the muscles that are connected to its movement.  So the feeling related to inhalation is one of expansion of the ribcage.  If you touch the sides of the ribs you can see that they extend quite a ways down your flanks.  As you breathe in according to Respirazione Costo-Diaframmatica, the lower abs contract, the lowest ribs are felt slightly going upward.  The epigastrium (soft spot of stomach below sternum) and the ribs at that height of the torso expand forward along with the sternum.  So it is not just a bulge in the stomach, but it is a   contemporaneous expansion of ribs and stomach so that they stay at the same relative position one toward the other as they expand together.

This is important because you want to avoid any pushing out of specific areas.  This should be an elastic movement of the torso. If you push out isolated parts of the torso you are going to get this wrong.  You have to think of this as a global expansion.

Here is an exercise.  Go get yourself one of those cocktail straws, the ones that are very narrow.  Relax.  Now take a deep breath by contracting inward the lower abs, and slowly inhale expanding slowly above.  You will feel the breath moves toward the circumference around the body that is half way between the chest bone and the belly button. This is the low region of breath expansion, NOT THE PUBIC AREA.  That lowest part of your torso should be contracting, not pushing out.

As you continue to slowly breathe in, at a certain point you will feel that your lower ribs have expanded and then you must lift slowly the whole ribcage upwards and out forward by breathing into them.  You will feel there is more room for breath to come in now as you expand the sternum.  You don’t just expand mechanically, but you expand thanks to the breath.  You  must always think that expansion is inflation…like a balloon.  Don’t ever just expand… it is the breath that expands… at least this should be your mental intention.

Do this inhalation and make it last for 20-30 seconds.  Breathing in for 2o seconds is no slouch’s effort!!  You have to focus!  Those 20-30 seconds will make you very aware of the relation between lower ribs and sternum.  It will also make you very aware of the abdomen: how the lower part contracts in order to lift the torso, and how there is a functional tension felt deep inside in the upper abdomen, even in the spine.

Now breathe out through the straw for 20 seconds.  Do so by thinking of pressing down with your diaphragm, and EVERYTHING (abs, ribs, sternum, back, spine…) is resisting that downward movement.  Its not just the abs resisting the downward movement, IT IS THE WHOLE TORSO.  This is really key.  Don’t think you are pressing against the abs.  It is the whole torso that wants to push up and move the breath out.  Instead, you are resisting their pressure to move the breath out.

As you breathe out think of how you use your breath for lifting and for bowel movements, etc.  That same force is the one that is opposing the inward movement of the torso.  It is resisting the expulsion of the air.

Breathe out for 20-30 seconds, while you are in this struggle – lotta vocale, sostenutezza di petto. As you do so, DO NOT think of pushing air out the straw more aggressively.  The pressure is inside you, not in the straw.  The whole point is to learn how to not send too much air out.  So you have to learn to have that pressure inside while not letting the breath escape.

Why do you do this?  Because that expansion and opposition to expulsion of air is what keeps the throat open and the larynx relaxed down.  The tug down on the larynx is NOT with the tongue, it is with this strength in the torso. It is as though this inside expansion pulls the whole trachea downward gently and slightly.  As you feel this, move the tongue around and see how there is absolutely no connection between downward larynx and tongue activation.  The tongue will follow the larynx in its back part, but only passively, not through contraction.

All this is the intake of your first breath.  As you sing, especially long phrases, you don’t collapse the whole chest and start over.  You keep this position somewhat intact.  Arrigo Pola once admonished me to make sure at the end of phrases I exhaled and then breathed in to replenish the oxygen.  I think there is value in this, but the movement of exhalation does not need to be one of complete collapse, but rather should maintain the posture.

Remember, the diaphragm is the losing party in this battle, but a slow loser.  Do not get into a grunting mode where you don’t let any breath go.  You must find flow, just like you breathe out through the straw.  You don’t just paralyze everything and not breathe out!

Do not raise your chin in this mode.  Look at Bjoerling in that video, how straight he stood.  Your alignment is very important.  You will notice at 3:24 in that video how when Bjoerling approaches the higher range there is a slight movement of the torso backward, a slight lean back.  Even so, the alignment between head and spine remain intact.  Its the whole torso, not just the head, that pivot slightly back.  You will learn how this is important to engage a greater compression of the breath for the top – a compression inside you not on the cords… a potential breath pressure increase inside your torso that the mind can call on to feed the voice as needed.


23 responses to “Control Your Breath!

  1. I was given an interesting exercise that I think would compliment your “straw” one, that of draping the torso over and exercise ball and releasing all tension in the spine. then focus on the abdominal excusions with this mildly resisted respiration. Very nice visual with the straw…I can make 45 seconds…LOL! Maybe the intent is not to see if you can pass out. Also, just a reminder that the diaphragm is a completely involuntary muscle, meaning, try as we may, we cannot control it! It is only that we get everything else out of the way to allow completely un-impeded relaxation of the diaphragm when we breath properly. Thank-you for your most excellent blog!

    • This is an interesting comment about the involuntary nature of the diaphragm. My understanding was that the diaphragm is both voluntary and involuntary, depending on the level of oxygen in the blood. That notion, from what you are saying, may be wrong. I will have to do some research on that. In the end it doesn’t matter, what I know for sure is that the relation between diaphragm and muscles that oppose it in exhaling are under voluntary control as long as we have sufficient oxygen in us.

  2. Fantastic post, of great interest, it always was a question of mine, why do many of the greats at their inhalation have a raising of their sternum and upper body. I always thought, it must be impossible that it is due to shallow breathing, it must be something else. To be honest I tried this out and I must say that it immediately was of great assistance, because now I feel the taughtness of my abdominal musculature during inhalation and singing, which gives me a feeling of a motor force with pressure (appogio I guess) giving flow and making many other areas of my technique work.
    I do have a question, is there an increase in pressure low in the abdominal area in the higher range i.e increased support???

  3. Hey there Mr. Li Vigni.. the email you provided for lessons doesn’t work. I’m a tenor from Brooklyn who’d love to have a lesson!

  4. Very well put Jack. Last year I participated in a Masterclass with Baritone Roberto Serville where he emphasized the sensation of appoggio starting in the epigastrium, with the intercostal expansion, WHILE the lower abs came in and supported the appoggio throughout the whole phrase. He insisted that the breath pressure inside must be kept constant at all times. My former teacher, late tenor Benito Maresca, used to say the same, just confirming your post. Thanks for contributing to a better awareness of our singing apparatus! Best regards,
    Luiz Alberto,
    Brazilian Tenor.

    • Its was a great pleasure to work with Roberto Servile. He was Enrico and I Edgardo in a production of Lucia di Lammermoor, and he was a wonderful colleague with a great voice!

      Thanks for contributing Luiz.

  5. Jack I want to ask you a question regarding the alignment between the head and the spine. The head must stay a bit tilted down and not allowed to go high like in a throat swallowing position ? Right ? Thank you!

    • The head should not be tilted down. The head should stay in alignment with the spine, not extremely elevated, but definitely not looking down. If you look straight out and you look up 20 degrees, that is enough of an upward tilt.
      Here is a good example: look at Lauri Volpi on his high notes (

      Looking down is the wrong way to keep the larynx down.

  6. It’s a common misconception that the diaphragm is involuntary. However, we can easily see that it is indeed under conscious control: simply take a full breath (as described in Jack’s article above) and then hold it, without closing the glottis. If you had no control of the diaphragm, this would be impossible.

    What IS true, is that there are brain centers that control the diaphragm at both the conscious/voluntary (neocortex) and unconscious/involuntary (brainstem) levels. A very interesting and exceedingly rare disorder demonstrating this is Ondine’s curse, or congenital central hypoventilation syndrome; patients with it stop breathing during sleep because their brainstem breathing centers do not function properly. Of course, any of us can test the involuntary respiratory drive by attempting to hold the breath for a long time: carbon dioxide levels in the blood will rise and trigger sensors in the brainstem (ventral medulla) to override our desire not to breathe.

    • I stand corrected! Thank you Mr. Johnson. I may have confused diaphragmatic function in general with diaphragm function in exhilation. Inspiration is the contraction of the diaphragm, exhilation is the relaxation of the diaphragm. We as singers resist the relaxation with the accessory musculature of respiration, the intercostals and abdominal muscles. I found this quote to be useful in understanding.

      “There are three types of muscle in the body: skeletal, smooth and cardiac. Skeletal contracts in response to a nerve impulse at the individual muscle cell’s neural plate. It is not propogated to other muscles. Smooth muscle also uses a stimulus to contract, though its type of contraction is less forceful than skeletal muscle and can propogate to other smooth muscle cells. Smooth muscle is in intestines, for example. Cardiac muscle contracts spontaneously, but that’s a separate topic.

      The diaphragm has ONLY skeletal muscle, not smooth muscle – none. It will not contract spontaneously as cardiac muscle. It MUST have an impulse delivered to contract. That impulse can originate in the higher brain centers as when we voluntarily inhale and exhale or in the lower brain as when low oxygen levels or high levels of acid or carbon dioxide are present in the cerebrospinal fluid or blood. There are MANY sites of modulation of breathing in the brain too complicated for this forum.

      I will repeat what I have said before: the diaphragm muscle is skeletal and *not considered voluntary or involuntary* – it is the NERVOUS SYSTEM which is either voluntary or involuntary depending on whether we are consciously or unconsciously breathing. The phrenic nerve carries motor fibers that originate in the upper brain – the cortex which serves voluntary actions, and lower brain – brainstem which serves involuntary actions. There are NO SYMPATHETIC OR PARASYMPATHETIC nerves to the diaphragm. (Lungs, yes; diaphragm, no.)

      We determine whether our diaphragms are at rest, contracted or forced up into our thoraces by the proprioceptive (position) sensation in our abdominal and chest walls and the nociceptive (bad feeling) fibers in our intestines and lungs. When it is contracted, our abdominal organs are pushed down and our abdominal walls are pushed out. When relaxed, this reverses. To exhale fully, it requires us to contract the abdominal wall muscles and the intercostal muscles (between the ribs) since our diaphragms can not move any higher than fully relaxed.

      I hope this clears it up.”


      John Messmer, MD, Medical Director
      Penn State Geisinger Health Group, Palmyra, PA

      • There isn’t much I can add accept to add my experience as a singer and teacher to say that exercising measure and control in breathing, both inhalation and exhalation, there is a cascading effect on vocal function, namely immediate improvement in phonation. Not one student with whom I work has not had significant improvement by applying the principles learned in slowing down the breathing cycle while exercising the musculature intensely. It’s age-old classical vocal training.

        Sent from my iPhone

  7. Can you please tell me what I can do to improve on this ? ( Sorry the pianist makes mistakes a couple of times and the piano is a bit out of tune).

  8. Jack you magnificent guy! Thanks to your tips I finally got that F***** 2800 hz harmonic everywhere in all vowels. It’s as easy as thinking mellow and easy and crying or something. I finally see that it requires no intentional mechanical changes. It all comes naturally from the brain once you think about the sound in the right way. Recording here : (Romanian pop song, doesn’t matter, that’s what came into my head and it was late and I didn’t want to disturb my neighbors). It’s amazing how much MORE resonance and easyness comes from this. MY MIND IS BLOWN !!
    [audio src="" /]

  9. Hi again Jack, I’m having some problems with the fundamental being too strong once I get over Middle C. Strangely enough this feels very comfortable and high notes come easy but I sound like a bass-baritone. I’ve tried adding more Cry and going towards EH or I and it doesn’t seem to help. Can you listen and tell me what’s going on ? Thanks a lot 🙂 – Should I try even more whiny ?

    • Hi, it sounds like a tenor, not a baritone. The voice is dark because you are head voice dominant. To get brighter you need to have more chest voice in the tone. This is hard to explain in a way that is useful without being present. Think of the ringing quality of the voice starting just above the vocal chords and striking in the mask. The sound in the laryngeal area should come from a narrow space at the center. Now most importantly you need to try to sing in the lower and middle voice with the AH vowel as bright as possible. This should help you to start activating more chest voice.

      Sent from my iPad

  10. This is my try at making the Ah brighter without compromising the larynx position(If I sing a true Ah the larynx goes UP UP UP) ( my voice is a bit hoarse at the end because I’ve been singing a bit too much this week)
    Here’s another recording where the larynx really is where I think it should be, it feels floaty and nice but somehow I get a Corellish lisp, is that normal ?
    I have one more question for you, when supporting by keeping the lombars out and the lower ribs expanded, this is should not be a humungus effort right ? Cause sometimes I’ve tried to really support and my back and chest hurt. It’s gonna be flexibile right ? It only gets a bit harder higher and when you’ve consumed a lot of air ? I weirdly enough now find italian I to be the most easy vowel in the high notes and A and O, U the most difficult . E is also easy especially if I do it like Pavarotti towards I ( keep 4th harmonic dominant). Thank you so much for all your help. I don’t understand why my teacher is letting me sing with a speech level larynx when other students of him do not this. Weirdly enough he talks with the larynx in almost the singing position ( He sings 3 harmonic dominant + 4,5,6 almost as strong in the above A region).

    Thank you so much for all your help. You’re an incredible guy, willing to share this much information. If I’m ever gonna be in the US again I hope I’m gonna have a chance of studying with you. No chances of you coming any time soon to Europe/Romania ah ? We have great food and great both sea side and mountains. 😀

  11. Hello, Mr. Li Vigni:

    I was wondering whether the teachings about breathing are worth only for male voices or female singers could also follow them. I have watched a Master class by Montserrat Caballé in which she puts all attenders – both men and women – on the floor and have them support with their lower abs lots of books, like book-lifting as a means to strenghten one’s diafragm, and I am pretty baffled about it, because the quality of her sound is really nice. And my former teacher used to say that the support was in the very low abs. In fact, I have tried myself the contraction of the lower abs and it feels great, because it was on then that I could really feel the diafragm work.

    I hope my question be useful for more singers,

    Best regards and thank you one more time for the great job of sharing your knowledge of the bel canto tradition with us, singers from around the world!


  12. Thank you for your reply. My question is about the video
    What is the purpose of lifting the weights with the lower abs if one is suppose to breath high as Bjoerling says?



    • My answer is as before. I think she is just trying to make singers aware of the action of the diaphragm, which is to lower and displace outward the bowels. This doesn’t mean that while singing we actually let go of the abdominal contrast, or that we don’t expand the ribs. I think that is clear from the video that I referred you to that Caballe wanted the singer to use the lower abs to lift upward. That doesn’t mean that the diaphragm is not descending. They both happen. There are many who think you should push out. That is not the tradition of the Italian school, or of the Garcia line of European singers.

      > Date: Mon, 20 Aug 2012 11:11:44 +0000 > To: >

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