The Sacred Cow of the Low Breath

The internet forums are really wonderful sources of stimulation for a blogger. There is so much strangeness out there. Finding things that defy truth and rationality is very easy. There is a forum for voice teachers that I read daily, in which people pose problems and many people propose solutions. It seems that every conceivable vocal problem is a “breath” problem, and a “breath” solution will therefore fix almost everything.

Terms like “good, low breath” are used as if everyone knows what that means. Sometimes someone will define it for a neophyte, or for a picky person like me who mistrusts most lingo, since most of the definitions are soon proven to mean many things to many people. I don’t buy the worship of the low breath. I know all the reasons and rationalizations, but I am convinced that they only make singing self-conscious and difficult. If there is truly a breathing “problem” then an easier way of breathing must be found, but never a harder way. A well-trained, healthy larynx will take the air it needs if the posture is good and the body is free to move.

I submit for your consideration some video footage of three grand ladies of opera’s past (1960s-1970s). These videos offer side views of these sopranos singing very challenging operatic repertoire. Notice how little they move to breathe. Most of the movement is in their chests – where the lungs are! There is virtually no visible movement in the abdominal area. Lastly, notice how quickly and easily they get a new breath. This is not complicated, deliberate, slow, low breathing. This is reflexive, quick, and easy. They aren’t “managing” the breath with low muscles. They are singing well, in a manner that doesn’t waste air, and their body is responding to that excellent use of the larynx accordingly. It seems natural, because it is very close to natural breathing, compared to the conscious expansion of specific flesh and bones in order to get the “low breath”.

This allows one to breathe when it feels right to do so, and to let it be a true refreshment to the system and the expression of the song or aria. Managing machinery during performance kills art. The singing teachers of the Bel Canto era never advocated a “low breath” and would probably have been horrified to see the current Cult of Breath as such an important part of singers’ training.

Beverly Sills: “Willow Song” Ballad of Baby Doe (Douglas), especially starting at 2:06:

Eileen Farrell: “Pace, pace mio Dio” La forza del destino (Verdi), starting at 0:41:

Birgit Nilsson: “Liebestod” Tristan und Isolde (Wagner):

7 thoughts to “The Sacred Cow of the Low Breath”

  1. What I can see, in both Nilsson and Farrell, is the upper abs raising beneath the sternum. The upper abs require work from the lower abs to raise. I wonder if the reason there is no movement in the belly is that the primary work is through the back, in which case the belly is more liable to go back and up? I’m only a vocal student and so I can interpret what I see only through my own experience.

    1. You have an interesting borderline between “abs” and “chest”. By “chest” I mean rib cage. As the rib cage lifts and opens, it will of course carry the flesh in the inverted V below the sternum with it. Ribs opening does not “require work from the lower abs”. Maybe if the lower abs were going out, you could say that the area above it is carried along by the lower abs. We cannot see whether the lower abs are firm or soft, but they are not moving, and the breaths are quite quick. That is what we are actually seeing. I’m not trying to guess about things that are not visible nor audible. The reason that the belly is not moving is because the ribs ARE moving, and they move to the sides much more easily than the back. Path of least resistance.

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