Matt Edwards

Associate Professor of Voice, Shenandoah Conservatory Artistic Director of the CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute

Mix it up Monday: Thinking about body type and age when teaching breath management

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lungsIn Your Voice: An Inside View, Dr. Scott McCoy identifies three types of inhalation patterns: clavicular, thoracic, and abdominal. In a clavicular breath, the singer elevates the upper chest by lifting the shoulders and clavicles. While this approach fills the lungs to full capacity, the singer loses their ability to effectively manage exhalation. In a thoracic breath, inhalation is caused by contraction of the diaphragm and the external intercostal muscles. Singers will usually feel lateral expansion along the lower ribs and possibly some movement of the epigastrium (the space between the sternum and the navel). Singers are able to control exhalation by managing the interaction between the external and internal intercostal muscles. Abdominal breathing relies primarily on contraction of the diaphragm and relaxation of the abdominal wall. The direction in which the body expands is dependent on which abdominal muscles are relaxed. If the singer releases the obliques and transverse abdominal muscles, the expansion will be in the sides. If the singer releases the quadratus lumborum, the expansion will be in the lower back. If the rectus abdominus is relaxed, the abdominal wall will expand anteriorly. If all muscle groups are relaxed, the singer will expand in all directions. Exhalation management in abdominal breathing is managed through contraction of the abdominal muscles, which push the viscera into the diaphragm helping it return to its resting position. There are also teachers that combine features of multiple approaches into one, the most famous hybrid being the Italian appoggio technique (McCoy, p. 88-91).

If you carefully watch professional singers, you will notice that there are a wide range of approaches that are used with great success. While it would be helpful to identify a  universal technique that guarantees results, that is not possible. One of the reasons is our bodies are unique. A 2009 paper by Jennifer Cowgill in the Journal of Singing examined respiration among singers based on their somatype. Her paper examined three body types: endomorphs (those who have a higher percentage of body fat), mesomorphs (those who have more muscle mass than body fat), and ectomorphs (those who are lean with limited muscle mass and body fat). The results indicated that endomorphs had the largest degree of abdominal movement, mesomorphs had a large degree of lateral and vertical rib cage movement, and ectomorphs displayed the highest degree of lateral and vertical rib cage movement. The most interesting statistics in the study come from the measurements of forced vital capacity (FVC), forced expiratory volume (FEV), FEV/FVC-%, and peak flow. ANOVA analysis indicated there was no statistically significant difference in these measurements among these three very different breathing patterns. If there are no statistically significant differences, it is impossible to say that one type of expansion is universally better than the other.

The other factor we must consider is the way aging affects the respiratory system. The Life-stageslungs reach their maximum number of alveoli at around 10-12 years old. Maximal lung function is reached somewhere around 20 years old for females, and 25 years old for males (Levitzky, p. 102). From there, things go downhill. First of all, the chest wall stiffens with age due to calcification of costal cartilages, rib-vertebral articulations, and narrowing of the space between the vertebrae. This has an affect not only on the ribcage movement, but also the movement of the diaphragm (Levitzky, p. 105). Due to changes in the alveoli, rib cage and diaphragm movement, elastic recoil pressure decreases by nearly 50% from the late teens/early twenties, to the mid 50’s (Janssens, Pache, Nicod, p. 199).


As the ribcage stiffens and elastic recoil weakens, there is an increase in residual volume of the lungs (the amount of air remaining in the lungs after exhalation) and a decrease in vital capacity (the amount of air that can be expelled from the lungs after a full inhalation). The exact percentage of change is rather alarming. From the age of 20 to 70, vital capacity is reduced by around 75% of best values (Janssens, Pache, Nicod, p. 200). That is a massive change! Forced expiratory volume (FEV) tests show that 25-39 year olds see a decrease of approximately 20mL per year on the one-second FEV test. By the time we reach 65 years old, the rate of decline increases to 38 mL per year (Janssens, Pache, Nicod, p. 201).

7cf88301-ea88-4571-84cd-4d2a3f01322dWhen you combine this information with the research on body types, it is clear there are several critically important considerations for voice teachers who work with a wide variety of ages and somatypes. If you are teaching a student who has a six or eight pack, it is going to be nearly impossible for her to expand abominally when singing. The good news is, according to Cowgill, her respiratory measurements are likely to be no different than her endomorph colleagues. The mesomorph is going to need a thoracic approach to breath management, while her endomorph colleague may function best when using an abdominal approach.

In regards to aging. If the respiratory system is constantly changing, then it is logical that breathing strategies may need to change as well. Many older singers find that a contracted abdominal wall is essential for vocal production. If their elastic recoil is weakening and their lung volume decreasing, abdominal contraction would theoretically help increase flow and/or pressure. However, if we attempt to apply the same strategy of a sixty year-old singer to the body of a 25-year-old male who has just reached full lung capacity and recoil strength, we could easily over pressurize his system. Many young singers are prone to pushing and I often hear teachers say that it is because they are not using their breath correctly and they teach the student to use more abdominal support. But what if the use of abdominal support is actually causing them to push?

There are a lot of holes in the research that need to be investigated. For instance, it is quite possible that long-term vocal training may reduce the impact of aging on the respiratory system. However, that would require a longitudinal study that would take 25-40 years to complete. Obviously, there are limitations to that type of work. While we may not have concrete proof right now, the evidence clearly suggests room for discussion and multiple reasons to think outside of the box.

think-outside-the-boxWhen I first read the Cowgill article, it forced me to challenge my concepts about breath management. Instead of teaching what I was taught, I dove into research on respiratory function and began approaching each student as an individual. When I did, the results were mind-blowing. I found that my dancers (with six packs) who had been struggling with tongue tension and weak high notes while breathing abdominally experienced huge changes when they breathed more laterally and vertically. One particular student lost all breathiness in her head voice immediately. Another quickly started mix belting instead of pushing chest as high as it could go, something she had struggled with for years. Another saw the instant release of chronic tongue tension. I also found that my college students could get great results taking in 50-75% of the air they were capable of whereas I felt like I needed to inhale at 75-100% of my capacity. Thinking outside of the box in terms of respiration was a huge breakthrough and I have never turned back.

There is a great Oren Brown exercise for finding a “natural breath.” I find that exercises such as this are a great way to discover where the student’s body wants to expand and how much air their lungs actually need.

  • Place one hand on the sternum and one on the epigastrium. Ask the student to empty her lungs completely while maintaining her posture. Instruct her to not inhale until her body demands oxygen. When she must inhale, let her inhale rapidly and pay attention to where her body expands.
  • Next, do the same but make sure that she inhales only through her mouth by dropping her jaw open when she must inhale.
  • Finally, do the same exercise but this time breathing through the nose. (Brown, p. 29)

These quick breaths should encourage the body to expand in whatever way is most efficient for that individual. Use that information and your knowledge of various approaches to breathing to develop an individualized approach for each student. While it may go against everything you believe, you are likely to be amazed by the results.

Do you have other ideas for helping your students find the best breathing strategy for their body type and/or age? If you do, please share them in the comment section below. If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it on social media and if you are not yet following the blog, be sure to sign-up on the bottom of this page to receive an email each time there is a new post. As always, thank you for reading and have a great week of teaching! ~ Matt

5 comments on “Mix it up Monday: Thinking about body type and age when teaching breath management

  1. David Neal
    November 6, 2017

    Matt, this is a terrific summary of a complex subject. While all of us search to find the “key” to breath management in our students and in ourselves, the reality that there are multiple methods of achieving optimal support depending on body type, age, and other factors, is liberating. If I remember correctly, Hixon published an important paper on this in 1986, and also found that the singer’s perception of breath and support was often paradoxical to what they were actually doing. A complicated and endlessly fascinating topic, though I have to say that the data you cite on the changes in vital capacity with increasing age are really shocking!


  2. Dr Daniel K. Robinson
    November 6, 2017

    Great article (as always) Matthew. Thank you. Like you, I have been recently challenging my learnt concepts around breath management strategies and have observed similar differences across my current teaching cohort of singers. Your article adds further support to my ongoing investigations and explorations.We continue to learn…wonderful.


  3. Joanne Bozeman
    November 6, 2017

    Thanks, Matt, for sharing this valuable information. When singers learn that body type has a great deal to do with how they manage breath, it may relieve some confusion as to why the ideas that seem to help everyone else don’t “work” for them. And when guided to alternative approaches – terrific! Personal experience: when I was an undergrad, lo, those many years ago, I was a pretty serious dancer with typically strong abs and had difficulty establishing a low breath and feeling of “support” for singing. Though I must have figured out some way to get the job done, I felt a little strange that I didn’t feel what other singers seemed to find easy to do. But the body continues to change with age and circumstance. When I was about 5 months pregnant with my first child: Ah! — finally then I could feel that elusive expansion in my lower torso. And now, as an older singer, I perceive the lessening elasticity in the rib cage (i.e., I am not “making it up”). As you point out, knowing this information should help singers of all ages avoid recruitment of small muscles in trying to “do” support.


  4. Kim Lauritsen
    November 7, 2017

    Once again, EXTREMELY insightful and helpful, Matt. I have an 80 year old man who will now be thinking a lot about his abs (he has had two open-heart surgeries, which has made breath control quite challenging, but he is very physically fit), and a young dancer who will be exploring her best method.


  5. Pingback: Mix it up Monday: Balancing breath and tone with lip trills | Matthew Edwards

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This entry was posted on November 6, 2017 by in Misc. Thoughts.

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