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January/February 2014 321

Journal of Singing, January/February 2014

Volume 70, No. 3, pp. 321324
Copyright 2014
National Association of Teachers of Singing
Scott McCoy, Associate Editor
On Breathing and Support
Scott McCoy
One who knows how to breathe, knows how to sing. (Pellegrini-
Celoni, 1810)
ow many of you agree with this statement, which dates from
over 200 years ago? Based on countless articles, books, jury and
audition comments, master classes and clinics, and personal
conversations, I must conclude that this is a pervasive, if not
ubiquitous belief. Of course, this statement predates what ofen is considered
to be the Golden Age of singingan era in which misconceptions about
voice production were abundant. Many singers and teachers from that period
also believed the chest cavity was the most important resonator (the bigger
the drum, the bigger the sound), that vowels were created low in the throat,
obviating the need to move the tongue or jaw, and that the palate should be
lifed up and forward, blocking the entrance to the nose, but allowing a pas-
sageway to remain open into the head to access resonance in the true mask.
If singers would learn to breathe correctly, all of the many possible vocal
problems will be avoided. (Caruso, 1909)
Really? Tis statement reminds me of a conversation I had with a teaching
colleague. Tis person had sung with many of the most important profes-
sional companies in the world, was well educated in contemporary voice
science, and had become a consistently successful teacher. At issue was a
young tenor who was singing his higher pitches with a chronically elevated
larynx and a lowered palate, problems he believed could be fxed by better
breath support. Sundberg demonstrated that a large, low breath can indeed
induce a lower laryngeal position through the phenomenon of tracheal pull.
But something else was going on with this student; his lower pitches were
sung with a low larynx and high palateonly the high notes were altered.
(Perhaps a frmer stream of air would blow his palate upward, causing it to
seal against his pharynx?)
My diagnosis was that laryngeal elevation and nasality both were being used
to track formants in a manner that allowed the singer to avoid his passaggio. By
keeping the frst formant (F1) above the pitch of the second harmonic (2F
he was able to sing his open vowels on an ascending scale without needing to
cover or to access his upper extension. Te sound he produced was a nasally
yellnot attractive, but somewhat reliable. But he was a light lyric tenor
who could not sing above A
. My solution would be to ensure optimal vowel
Scott McCoy
322 Journal of Singing
tuning that permits the voice to turn over through the
passaggio by allowing F1 to drop below 2F
Which of us had the better teaching strategy? Alas,
well never know, as the student was working with
someone else. I suspect, however, that there was some
truth in both of our approaches.
I think it is reasonable to say that singers and sing-
ing teachers ofen fxate on breathing. Tis occurs in
response to the fact that breath is the power source
of our instrument, just as it is for a trumpet, fute, or
clarinet. And as with other instruments, additional parts
are involved in the creation of musical sounds. Along
with our power source, we have a vibrator (vocal folds),
a resonator (vocal tract), and a means of articulation.
Most other instruments accomplish this fnal task almost
exclusively through modifcations to the power source;
singers are unique in the layering of language on top of
music, which requires us to make the most of our articu-
latory gestures through modifcations to our resonator.
Tese four elementspower source, vibrator, reso-
nator, and articulatormust work in synchronicity,
mutually reinforcing each other to produce our best
sound. How is it, then, that problems with the vibrator
or resonator can be corrected by altering the power
source? Lets pause for an analogy, this time combining
two of my favorite subjects: automobiles and singing.
Your car requires the same four elements as your voice.
It requires a power source, which in this case is the fuel,
whether gasoline, diesel, or electricity. Tat fuel pow-
ers engine, which is the functional equivalent of your
vocal folds. Te up and down motion of the pistons in
the engine are transformed into rotational force by the
connecting rods, crankshaf, clutch, and transmission,
which together function as your cars resonators. Finally,
we articulate the movement of the vehicle through the
accelerator, brakes, and steering. According to this anal-
ogy, and if the original statement, One who knows how
to breathe, knows how to sing is correct, we can make
a new proclamation:
One who knows how to fll up a gas tank knows
how to drive. (McCoy, 2013)
Probably not. In fact, even the most mechanically
nave among us would bristle at a suggestion by our
auto mechanic that we could stop squealing brakes
by switching to premium gas. Clearly, the cause of car
problems not always is with the power source. Nor is
it with singing.
Before you rise up in mutiny, Ill acknowledge that
this was an imperfect analogybut I hope it made you
think a little diferently about breathing for singing.
Years of experience clearly have shown us that good
breathing technique is the foundation of good voice
production. Nonetheless, we have little agreement about
breath beyond that central concept. Richard Millers
seminal work on international influences on tonal
preferences and singing technique helped demonstrate
just how diverse our options are.
Tere is more than
one way to skin this cat. We have been advised to inhale
into our toes, pelvis, lower abdomen, solar plexus, lower
back, back ribs, epigastrium, stomach, chest, and of
course, the bottom of our lungs. (I particularly like this
last itemnext time you blow up a balloon, try flling
it from the bottom up.) We then manage our inhala-
tion by releasing the abdomen and moving it outward,
tightening the abdomen and pulling it inward, taking
the biggest possible breath at all times, taking the small-
est possible breath at all times, lifing the chest, relaxing
the chest, opening the back, opening the shoulders,
snifng a rose, or by doing nothing special at allyou
already are alive, therefore, you already know how to
breathe correctly.
Of course, we sing while we exhale. We manage this
phase of breathing by bearing down into the pelvis (like
defecation or childbirth), releasing all tension from the
pelvis and lower abdominal muscles, doing a Kegel
squeeze (clearly more efective for women than men),
tightening the abdominal wall and drawing it inward,
releasing the abdominal wall and pushing it outward,
holding the chest high and stationary at all time, keep-
ing the chest relaxed and low at all times, keeping the
back expanded, antagonism between the abdominal
muscles with the diaphragm and thoracic muscles, et
cetera, et cetera, et cetera. No wonder our students get
confusedtheir new teachers tell them to do exactly
the opposite of everything theyve previously learned!
Some of our diferent opinions about breathing are
real, but some also are rooted in semantics. And accord-
ing to researchers, many of us dont actually understand
what is happening in our own bodies when we breathe
for singing. Watson and Hixon noted in their famous
study of respiration in professional singers that their
Scott McCoy
January/February 2014 323
Voice Pedagogy
descriptions of how they thought they breathed during
singing bore little correspondence to how they actually
How can we teach someone else to do some-
thing when our self-perception of the activity is faulty?
As singers, we breathe for three fundamental rea-
sons. First, we must exchange oxygen and carbon
dioxide to stay alive. Second, we must supply breath
pressure to the larynx to initiate phonation (P
, typi-
cally measured in centimeters of water or kilopascals).
Finally, we must supply a steady flow of air to the
larynx (typically measured in milliliters per second).
Balancing these three factors requires us to walk a
pedagogic tightrope that has one huge complication:
as the volume of air contained in the lungs changes
during the singing of a phrase, our physical mechanism
for power and pressure regulation also must change. At
the beginning of a long phrase, we strive to hold back
an excess of air from whooshing out all at once. But
by the end of that phrase, we might need to contract
all of our expiratory muscles as strongly as possible to
squeeze out our last molecules of air. Somehow, we
must negotiate changes along this continuum seam-
lessly and with consistently beautiful sound. Tis is
where our concepts of breath management or breath
support come into the picture.
Tere has never been even a suspicion of proof
that mastery of singing is in any way dependent
upon a correct system of breathing. (Reid, 1972)
Isnt this statement heretical? Not if we read it with
the emphasis on the word a, as in dependent upon
one correct system of breathing. A single performance
at the Metropolitan Opera is sufcient to demonstrate
that multiple ways of playing our vocal instruments can
succeed. Te trick comes in discovering what is optimal
for each individual singer.
As we know, successful breathing, by whatever tech-
nique, requires some kind of juxtaposition of an inha-
latory gesture during exhalation. We typically call this
action muscular antagonism, which is used to help us
regulate the amount of air we direct toward the larynx.
Many pedagoguesmyself includedhave made dis-
tinctions between breath support and breath control; the
former is said to be a pulmonary event, while the latter
is a function of the valving action of the larynx. Others
eschew both terms, favoring more generalized concepts
of breath management or appoggio. As with registration,
we tend to get bogged down with semantics (are modal
and chest voice the same thing?). Nonetheless, I will
jump into the fray with my current thoughts on support.
Until recently, I described support as the interaction
of inspiratory and expiratory muscles that regulates the
air supplied to the larynx. But this view is adequate only
if voice production occurs strictly on a linear basis, that
is: the power source drives the vibrator, which excites
the resonator, which is modified by the articulators.
Reality is much more complicated. For example, we
can increase pressure below the glottis by contracting
our expiratory muscles more firmly; but we also can
increase this pressure by adducting (closing) the vocal
folds more tightly. We can reduce P
from either end as
well, by increasing muscular antagonism, decreasing
the contraction strength of the expiratory muscles, or
by decreasing glottal adduction and/or adding a degree
of abduction (glottal opening). Furthermore, resonance
and aerodynamics above the glottis can return to infu-
ence the manner in which the vocal folds oscillate. And
weve all worked with singers who have excess tension in
their articulators, especially the tongue and jaw, which
prevents free phonation. As I said, it gets complicated.
Taking all this into account, Im updating my personal
Support: the dynamic interactions between the respira-
tory system, larynx, and vocal tract that enable singers
to produce their desired sounds. (McCoy, 2013)
I like this definition because it acknowledges the
interdependency and nonlinearity of the parts. Breath
pressure cannot be regulated solely by the breathing
mechanism; it also requires resistance provided by the
larynx. Te vocal tract, both through resonance and
resistance to airfow, is also vital, assisting in glottal
closure and potentially lowering total airfow to increase
glottal efciency.
By this definition, support is variableit must be
appropriate to the task at hand. Brnnhilde requires
a different kind of support than Despina, and even
though I am no expert on voice production for the huge
range of music found in popular culture, the varying
vocal demands they pose certainly warrant diferent
approaches to support. One size fts all works no better
in pedagogy than in fashion.
324 Journal of Singing
How, then, can we help our students fnd their opti-
mal method of support? Perhaps we need to complete a
large-scale study that explores the relationships between
physical and acoustic characteristics versus vocal tech-
niques of successful singers in diferent genres. With a
broad enough sample, we might better predict which
breathing method and/or resonance strategy is most
likely to succeed for an individual singer. We could
enter a variety of parameters into a program, such as
height, weight, body type, physical proportions, lung
capacity, vocal fold size, vocal tract size, jaw opening,
and neck length. An acoustic profle could be compiled
that explores the intrinsic timbre, amplitude, and pitch
range of the singer. We might even want to include a
psychological profle. Put all of this into the mix, and
we can have a better idea of which approach is more
likely to succeed. Nothing would be guaranteed, but we
might wind up pursuing fewer technical dead ends. Of
course, there always will be exceptions; some sopranos
who weigh a hundred pounds and stand barely fve feet
tall actually do have voices suited to dramatic repertoire!
My research team at Te Ohio State University would
gladly serve as the center for a multisite study on this
topic. If you or your institution would like to participate
in the research design, collection and analysis of the data,
let me know. A larger participant pool and sample size
will greatly enhance the reliability of the data. If you are
interested, contact me at
1. Anna Maria Pellegrini Celoni, Grammatica o siano regole de ben
cantare (Presso Pietro Piale, e Giulio Cesare Martorelli, 1810).
2. Enrico Caruso and Luisa Tetrazzini, Caruso and Tetrazzini on
the Art of Singing (New York: Metropolitan Opera Company,
3. Johan Sundberg, Breathing Behavior During Singing, Quar-
terly Progress and Status Report (Stockholm: Department for
Speech, Music and Hearing, KTH, 1992).
4. Richard Miller, English, French, German and Italian Tech-
niques of Singing: A Study in National Tonal Preferences and
How They Relate to Functional Efficiency (Metuchen, NJ:
Scarecrow Press, 1977).
5. Peter J. Watson and Tomas J. Hixon, Respiratory Kinemat-
ics in Classical (Opera) Singers, Journal of Speech, Language,
and Hearing Research 28, no. 1 (March 1985): 104122.
6. Cornelius Reid, Bel Canto: Principles and Practices (New York:
Joseph Patelson Music House, 1972), 145.
Scott McCoy
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