I began watching some of Michael Trimble’s videos on YouTube and learned early on that he advocates for the belly to move in during inhalation. This flies in the face of what I’ve been told for years about the logic of the lungs displacing the organs below them, which should cause the belly to go OUT on inhalation and then gradually come in during singing. I am now reading Mr. Trimble’s book, in which he writes about personally asking many famous singers about technique, along with quotes from singers from before his time, including Tetrazzini, Caruso, and Lehmann. Mr. Trimble says that none of the old-timers advocated “belly out” for the inhalation. There were some who said the front of the body should be still, some who said the belly should come in during inhalation, and some who seem to have pulled the belly in before inhalation. In my observations of videos of many of the great singers of the past century, they seem to hardly move at all when they breathe. I think there are two things going on there: 1. They are using very little air to sing because they have an efficient technique and 2. There is expansion in the sides and backs of their bodies that doesn’t always show under gowns and jackets.
I had run into this “belly in while inhaling” idea before – in the Caruso and Tetrazzini book, among other places, but thought these were quirky outliers. Learning that it was more common than I thought has led me to conduct my own confirmatory research into what famous singers and teachers of long ago said about breathing technique. I am seeing the same things that Mr. Trimble sees.
So, why would the abdominal wall ever go IN during inhalation?
I’ve been trying it for the last month, and I really like it. My teacher recently told me that my breathing seems to be working “just right”. Then I told her about my new organizing principle – keeping the belly in and breathing down into the lower back. Keeping the abs in, keeps the chest up and full of air, and the lower ribs expand more. It helps a lot in keeping tensions away from my throat. By comparison, if I breathe abdominally with little chest or back involvement, I get a pulling down or sagging sensation that extends from my chest all the way up into the “mask” area that doesn’t feel as steady. In other words, with the belly kept in, the whole thorax feels very alive and energized without the downward hydraulics in the center of my body that the “belly breathing” has.
When I pull the abs in (softly, never hard or flexed), and take a deep breath into my back, it does make my chest expand some, but I also feel the breath lower and further back, and feel more connected to my whole body. On inhaling, a slight bulging out happens in the epigastrium area (just below the sternum), which is a natural consequence of rib cage expansion. This abs-in way brings my vocal folds together better as well. Keeping the abs in and SOFT for inhalation, is a very different feeling from pulling the abs in to create pressure against the vocal folds during exhalation/singing. It is also nothing like tensing the abs, as in a “crunch”.
Mr. Trimble addresses the advice to “breathe like a sleeping baby”. He points out that singing is not sleeping (hello!), and that babies do not strictly belly-breathe when they are active, laughing, and crying. He doesn’t see a convincing reason to use the baby’s sleeping body as a model for any kind of athletic action. So, calling it “natural”, as if we are going to sleep through our performances, is a little weird. Add to that the fact that a baby’s body is obviously different from an adult’s in other ways, and the “baby breathing” model is on shaky ground.
I have heard the argument “Women of the old days wore corsets which would not permit belly breathing”. It isn’t just a matter of corsets. Tetrazzini warned against wearing corsets and still breathed with the belly in. Men and women, girdled or not, have advocated this approach.
With the belly in, the body is still going to expand somewhere when air is taken in. There is more expansion in the ribs all around, not just in front. With the location of our eyes and mouths, we are very forward-oriented physical beings, and are sometimes not in touch with the different ways we can move and expand beyond forward and backward. Singing does not require restricting breathing to forward expansion only. Giving more responsibility to the rib framework can give a lot of steadiness to the release of air needed for singing. The ribs being mostly attached in the front and the back, can expand quite a lot laterally, with a more solid substructure than the abdomen. The effect of trying to breathe into the lower back expands the whole mid and lower rib cage.
Some of the singers that Mr. Trimble cites stated that this is the foundation for the sense of appoggio, or “lean”, unfortunately often translated to English as “support”. The sound is felt to be leaned against the front of the chest. Unwinding the old and new descriptions of appoggio is a big subject. I have read so many thousands of words by modern teachers around appoggio and “support” that say next to nothing – a rant for another time! Although attempting to describe it could require a lot of words, it is actually based on simple instructions that may take a long time to integrate.
Mr. Trimble begins his book by saying that there are instructions and sensations that sometimes do not reflect physical reality, but they get singers to create the right actions for singing. This is a very important acknowledgement! It gave me the confidence to explore what he was saying, even when much of it conflicts with what I had studied before. If we can bypass the current “voice science” demands for literal realness, and get into the psyche of real high level performers, we can learn a lot about the difference between “what happens” and “how we make it happen”. Sorry, but there will ALWAYS be a gap between those two things. Accepting this gap can help our learning and teaching greatly.
I find my larynx to be freer breathing this new-old way, so I’m going to stay with it for now. If none of the great singers I have investigated so far “breathed like a sleeping baby” I am willing to let that go. I am compiling a list of singers’ and old time teachers’ own words about breathing. So far the list of non-belly inhalers includes Caruso, Lehmann, Tetrazzini, Gigli, Manuel Garcia II, Shakespeare, Pavarotti, and Milanov. Some of these people, such as Pavarotti, further state that as they sing a phrase, they think down a little bit. None of these people have advocated using the abdominal muscles to propel the air up to the vocal folds. As Pavarotti says “up will come by itself. As the breath goes out, it comes up by itself, slowly, slowly, as you sing . . . as you speak. The great secret is to have the patience to let the diaphragm go down again before beginning the next phrase.” (Hines, Jerome. Great Singers on Great Singing, p. 221)
Lastly, there is the frequent citation of the Lampertis as promoters of abdominal breathing. Francesco Lamperti’s first well-known treatise was written before he and his son, G. B., adopted the ideas of the physician Dr. Louis Mandl, a non-singer. In that original treatise, F. Lamperti did not promote abdominal breathing, and very little was mentioned about breathing at all. In the later writings, both father and son were promoting the abdominal breathing that Dr. Mandl prescribed. The Lampertis were extremely influential. By including Dr. Mandl’s ideas into their writings, the abdominal approach to breathing became much more common in studios, despite disagreeing with many great singers. 130 years later, we are still sorting it out.