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(The following is an excerpt from Michael's article published
in the Journal of Synagogue Music, Fall 2010)

 

Breathmaster:  
An Insight into the Biomechanics of Great Singing

 

 

 


Down to Basics
The essential blocks that are integral to my teaching are a result of many influences, including the encounters and friendships I nurtured with great singers during my developmental and professional years as an operatic tenor.  From 1960 through 1975, I met, sang for, and took lessons and coachings with a number of historical singers.  My great friend, Lawrence Shadur (1935-1991), a wonderful baritone with the Metropolitan Opera, was Lauritz Melchior's god-son.  Through Larry I had the opportunity to meet Lauritz Melchior (1890-1972) and the great Richard Tucker (1913-1975).  Trying to find out the technical secrets from these historical singers was like studying with the Zen master described in Eugen Herrigel's book, Zen in the Art of Archery.   I was young and full of enthusiasm then and the advice given by these legendary singers seemed so vague and undefined.   The management and/or use of the breath, however, were the root of all discussion. When I sang for Richard Tucker for the first time, the first words out of his mouth were "...get a good breath under that."  "How?"  I asked. "What should I do?"  Richard Tucker was the master technician, the tenor's tenor (because of his great technique).  He could sing everything from Mozart to Verdi, and beautifully.  My favorite roles he sang were from La forza del destino, Ballo in maschera and Vespri siciliani.  He was the best Verdi tenor I ever heard.  (Of course, I loved his Cosi fan tutte, also).  

 

At a later coaching, Mr. Tucker said:  "I've only got two things to tell you, kid.  Breathe behind you and keep it light, like this."  He then proceeded to demonstrate a gigantic, thrilling, free high note that seemed to threaten the layers of paint on the walls.  I was sure the rafters would come down from the incredible vibrations bouncing off the walls and off my head.  When the tone ended, Mr. Tucker said, "See what I mean?  Always keep it light.  It is all done by the breath and not with the vocal cords."  I'll never forget that day!  It was 1962, I was a 24-year-old lyric tenor with great promise.  After a few months of study, Mr. Tucker said, "...too bad Paul Althouse (1889-1954) died (his only teacher).  He could have helped you."  Mr. Tucker repeatedly said:  "Breathe in your lower back and don't let the belly wall or the chest move at all, especially on the attack."  This was the same approach to breath control I received in conversations with Cantor Charles Bloch in New York and with Cantor Irving Bushman in Cleveland (I was Chairman of Vocal Studies at the Cleveland Institute of Music where Cantor Irving Bushman was teaching), both beautiful singers who had very long careers.

 

Great singers echo again and again the same approach to breath control. The following quotations are taken from the writings of Enrico Caruso, Luisa Tetrazzini and Lilli Lehman:

 

"To take a full breath properly the chest must be raised at the moment that the abdomen sinks in.  Then with a gradual expulsion of the breath, a contrary movement takes place.  It is this ability to take in an adequate supply of breath and to retain it until required that makes or, by contrary, mars all singing...With the acquisition of this art of respiration, once acquired, the student has gone a considerable step on the road to Parnassus."
- Enrico Caruso

 

"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, upper part of the lungs.  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."
- Luisa Tetrazzini

 

"In order to have the throat perfectly open it is necessary to have the jaw absolutely relaxed."
- Luisa Tetrazzini

 

"This feeling of singing against the chest with the weight of air pressing up against it is known as breath support. In Italian we have even a better word, appoggio, which is the breath prop or lean.  Never for a moment sing without this appoggio, 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."
- Luisa Tetrazzini

 

"I learned this:  To draw in the abdomen, 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--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 very strongly, but immediately relaxed his abdomen again as soon as he began to play.  I tried the same thing with the best results."        
- Lilli Lehmann

 

"The breath pressure, which includes abdomen, diaphragm and chest muscles, is often named Atemstauen (breath stop) or appoggio, the breath lean or breath prop."             
- Lilli Lehmann

 

We really need to discuss the singing methods that have been successful for singers who have had long careers without vocal problems.  Giovanni Lamperti said that all success and all vocal problems are a result of the management or mismanagement of the breath.  Lilli Lehman called her control concept the 'breath stop'.  Breathiness is considered bad in classical singing and it can cause many vocal problems like hoarseness, nodules, bowed vocal cords, etc.  It should be understood that any excess of breath, especially under pressure, can be disastrous for the vocal cords.

 

I met the great tenor Giovanni Martinelli at the Metropolitan Opera in 1961.  He was seventy-seven years old at the time and still singing!  I, of course, asked him what his ideas were about how to sing.  He answered very energetically, "...primo respirare (first breathe), poi appoggiare (then lean)".  I asked:  "...how should I breathe?"  He grabbed my lower ribs in the back and said: "...qui, qui e profondo (here, here, and deeply)".   

 

I heard Lauritz Melchior sing a concert when he was seventy-years old.  His voice was still clear, strong and remarkably youthful.  When I asked him to describe his singing technique, he began to explain how he breathed.  It is always the same story.  Breathe into the lower back, lean on the diaphragm, never sing into the nose.  Let the breath open the throat.  No action in the throat, only reaction to the low back breathing.

 

George London (1920-1985), with whom I had a wonderful working relationship, said the ribcage should not move independently.  The ribs move only if the breath moves them.   He called the process 'the machine' and said to me many times, "...Mike, make the students work the machine.  Open the back, close the back, repeatedly!"  There were many instances during those years when I would ask singers how they sang.  Cesare Siepi (1923 - 2010 ) and Cornell  MacNeill (1922-  )   
would not say a word about technique.  Jan Peerce (1904-1984) said: "...don't move anything in the front of your body when you breathe or sing."  
 
Dame Eva Turner (1892-1990) was the only singer I ever met who used the term 'psychomotor system'.  She said:  (in 1962, long before computers were so common, we sat down together and talked about vocal technique)  "The mind must be programmed through repetition to do the right thing as a habit, thus training the psychomotor system to sing for you."  "How and what must I repeat over and over, Dame Eva,"  I asked. Again, I heard those magic words..breathe, breathe, breathe and NO ACTION IN THE THROAT.  The next thing she said has stayed with me for decades:  "...even a grain of salt or sugar dropped in the throat would be TOO MUCH ACTION."

 

"Leave your voice alone, and train your breath. "
- Giovanni Battista Lamperti

 

In summary to this point:   
Breathe into the lower back, either drawing the abdomen in or not allowing the belly to move outward, thus sending the inspiration toward the back, into the lower portion of the lungs.  Make no action in the throat or jaw or tongue (the 'invisible throat', the 'invisible jaw', the 'invisible tongue', as if you could pass your hand through them, as if nothing were there).

 

Only the tip of the tongue should be allowed to move in order to produce the dental consonants, which is an up and down movement that does not react in the throat.  No forward or backward movement of the tongue is allowed.  Do not pull the tongue back into the throat (no action in the tongue or throat).  Breathe in a way that relaxes the throat, much like yoga breathing.  Robert Merrill and Helge Roswaenge (1897-1972) were advanced yoga practitioners and when asked how to breathe, they both demonstrated deep, slow, low back yoga breathing.  Strong yoga breathing, like any strong form of back breathing, causes a completely relaxed tongue, allowing the tongue to depress in the back using only the power of the inhalation and thus creating a v-shaped groove down the center of the tongue (sometimes called 'inhaling the tongue'). This type of breathing will also cause the soft palate to rise in an upward and forward direction (read Lilli Lehmann's book How to Sing).  This action will seal off the nasopharynx, creating a resonating cavity behind the nose.  This is the resonance referred to as 'the mask'.  Singing in 'the mask' is different from singing in the nose.  If the singer sings 'NG' as in the word hung, a nasal placement of the resonance can be identified across the bridge of the nose.  

 

"Never sing into the nasal cavity--it is against all the rules of song.  There are a number of wrong sorts of voices, which should be mentioned to be shunnedthe white voice, the throaty voice, the breathy voice, the nasal voice and the bleat (goat voice).   After all, however, those who have practiced the art of right breathing need have none of the defects mentioned above."
-Enrico Caruso

 

The singer must avoid placing the voice into the 'hung line'.  Below the hung line causes the voice to resonate in the throat cavity and bring up a predominant chest resonance into the tone which has no carrying power over an orchestra.  The true mask is found over the hung line.  If a singer wishes to direct the voice by singing into the mask, every tone and every vowel must be placed over the hung line.  This would explain why both Jussi Bjoerling (1911-1960) and Zinka Milanov (1906-1989) insisted that young singers practice holding the nose closed with the fingers to make sure that no tones escaped into the hung line, thereby eliminating nasality.
 
Leonard Warren (1911-1960) used to vocalize using the 'B' consonant.  We could hear him backstage at the met singing bah, beh, bee, boh, boo, and blah, bleh, blee, bloh, bloo.  Vocalizing on the consonant 'B' causes the nose to close (as opposed to the consonant 'M' which opens the nose).  The students called him 'The Genie' because he lived in a bottle (He sounded so stopped up).

 

Joan Sutherland (1926-2010 ) and Lucianno Pavarotti (1935-2007) leaned forward while singing, as did tenor Jan Kiepura (190 2-1966), keeping the chest out, keeping it still and not allowing the resonating breath of the chest to collapse.   Tenor Benjamino Gigli (1890-1957) also kept the chest high and out while singing.

 

So, why should the young singers today be required to vocalize using an 'M'' instead of a 'B'?  The 'M' opens the nose, placing the voice into the hung line thus creating nasality.  'B' as in 'Bob' places the voice over the hung line and into the true mask.  According to a long list of great singers, the 'M' is to be avoided as much as possible.  All of this discussion could be eliminated if the singers would go back to the old, proven system of breathing and/or learn yoga breathing.  The soft palate will automatically find its correct function and position.   One of my students counted the number of times Enrico Caruso mentioned breathing in his book.  The count was 60 times!  Considering the small size of the book, Caruso was obsessed with the art of right breathing.

 

Copyright 2010/Michael Trimble

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Fundamentals of Great Vocal Technique