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.