Matt Edwards

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

Mix it up Monday: Singing is not ALL about the breath

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Chi sa ben respirare e sillibare saprà ben cantare

(He who knows how to breathe and pronounce well, knows how to sing well)

Attributed to Gasparo Pacchierotti, 1740-1821 (Stark, p. 91)

“The breath becomes voice through the operation of the will, and the instrumentality of the vocal organs. To regulate the breath, to prepare a passage of the proper form through which it shall flow, circulate, develop itself, and reach the necessary resonating chambers, must be our chief task….The seat of the breath, the law of its division, as well as the resonating surfaces, are always the same, and are differentiated at most through difference of habit.”

(Lehmann, p. 8-14)

Respiratory SystemThe two quotes above are variations of a fairly common viewpoint in traditional voice pedagogy – good singing is all about the breath. While some singers may get great results with that philosophy, I do not believe this is an absolute rule for all performers and there is voice science to back up my opinion. Today I want to quote a few modern pedagogues on the importance of focusing on the entire system when considering breath and then talk about how to distinguish the difference between issues concerning breath flow and breath pressure.


First, let us review vocal fold vibration from a scientific point of view because in order to understand the respiratory system’s role in vocal production you must first understand how the vocal folds vibrate. Dr. Wendy LeBorgne, CCC-SLP and Marci Rosenberg, CCC-SLP describe the myo-elastic aerodynamic theory of phonation in their book “The Vocal Athlete.”

“The aerodynamic component refers to the Bernoulli effect, which aids in pulling the mucosal cover of the vocal folds together to perpetuate vocal fold vibration. The myo-elastic component refers to the adduction (coming together) of the vocal folds via neuromuscular muscle (myo)contraction of the adductory muscle of the larynx, and the elastic component refers to the biomechanical properties of the layers of the vocal folds allowing for both displacement and recoil of vocal fold tissue during vocal fold vibration. The displacement occurs via actions of external forces including both aerodynamic and muscular forces. The recoil, or return to a neutral state occurs when these forces cease. For example, when the CT is active, the vocal folds will elongate. This elongation is permitted to occur because of both the stretching properties of the TA muscle and the elastic properties of the epithelium and lamina propria. When the vocal folds are elongated via contraction of the CT, the vocal folds become increasingly tense and taught, resulting in a faster vibration rate. When CT contraction stops, the muscular and non-muscular layers of the vocal fold return or recoil back to their resting state when unopposed by other external forces.

Therefore, vocal fold vibration is reliant on: (1) neuromuscular control to adduct or approximate the vocal folds, (2) biomechanical attributes of displacement and recoil allowed for by the elastic properties of the vocal folds layers, and (3) driving force of air pressure, to facilitate aerodynamic activities of subglottal pressure and Bernoulli effect to help perpetuate vocal fold vibration. All of these must occur in order to initiate and maintain vocal fold vibration. A disturbance of any of these actions results in suboptimal phonatory efficiency and vocal output.” (Leborgne & Rosenberg, pp. 60-61)

Essentially what Leborgne and Rosenberg are saying is that airflow is only one contributing factor in producing tone. If the air is flowing but the adductors are not involved, you will produce nothing but an exhale.

Another important term for describing the interaction of the vocal folds in the regulation of breath pressure/flow is “glottal resistance. The following comes from Dr. Johan Sundberg’s book “The Science of the Singing Voice.” Glottal resistance is a term used to describe the resistance against airflow at the vocal fold level. This cannot be controlled by the respiratory system alone. Dr. Sundberg says:

“The glottal resistance is determined mainly by the degree of adduction activity in the laryngeal muscles. If glottal adduction is increased, the glottal resistance increases. Certain types of phonation, which we will call “pressed” or “tense,” are characterized by high subglottic pressure and low transglottal airflow, or, in other words, by high glottal resistance. In such cases, the voice sound strained. In the opposite case, when the glottal resistance is very low, the vocal folds fail to make contact, so air consumption becomes high and phonation becomes “breathy.” (Sundberg, 38-39).

The closure of the vocal folds will affect the way that air is released from the lungs. If there is significant glottal resistance due to the vocal fold configuration, the singer will experience more subglottal pressure and the voice will sound pressed. If the vocal folds are only lightly adducted, there will be less glottal resistance, and the singer will produce a breathy tone while experiencing very little pressure beneath the larynx. Addressing breath alone will not fix either issue because both involve issues related to adduction of the vocal folds, which is controlled by the intrinsic muscles of the larynx.

Because of the complexity of respiratory management, Richard Miller says we must be careful when using some traditional phrases as they may not produce the results we are seeking. Miller says:

“Subjective expressions such as ‘Sing on the breath’ are perilous. Singers told to sing on the breath often misunderstand that expression to mean they must initiate a flow of air on which tone is then introduced (‘Ride the tone on the breath’). Some teachers believe that such language helps the singer to stay appoggiato, or that it avoids vocal-fold resistance to airflow. However, if loose breath is passed over the vocal folds before adding tone, the activity of the abdominal wall in its air-retention role is slackened, and efficient glottal closure is negated. It is far better to be specific about how to routine the regulation of airflow.” (Miller, p. 27-28)

So while it is of course necessary to address the respiratory system during vocal training, it is not the end-all-be-all of vocal production. Traditional approaches were built upon the information of the day and therefore it is understandable that teachers of earlier eras believed that breath was the most important element of vocal production. However, now that we have modern research to improve our understanding of the interaction of the respiratory and phonatory systems, we need to adapt our teaching.

If you are getting great results by focusing solely on the breath, then great! There are always exceptions and there are teachers who will be successful doing the exact opposite of what I suggest. However, if breath alone is not producing the results you are looking for, please consider the alternative point of view presented in this post. If you think a singer’s system is over pressurized and you are trying to adjust breath pressure, think about how the vocal folds are functioning in addition to how the respiratory system is working. You can adjust vocal fold adduction by focusing on registration and vocal onsets. If you feel like the adduction is appropriate but the airflow is unsteady or under-energized, you may be able to improve vocal production by focusing on the respiratory system. However, if breathing exercises fail, you will usually have to focus on the vocal folds in order to effectively correct the issue.

If this science based approach appeals to you, I would like to encourage you to consider joining us this summer at the CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute where you will have a chance to learn from Dr. Wendy Leborgne and Marci Rosenberg first hand. Not only do we show you the science behind vocal production in all styles, we also give you practical and immediately applicable techniques for getting the results you are seeking. We present the information from multiple viewpoints and approaches so you can find your way of teaching using the most current information available.

If you are not currently following the blog, please enter your name and email address below to receive an email whenever there is a new post. If you enjoyed this article, please consider sharing it on social media. As always, thank you for reading and have a wonderful week of teaching! ~ Matt


4 comments on “Mix it up Monday: Singing is not ALL about the breath

  1. ketsiaj
    March 20, 2018

    This is one of the subjects that I learned at CCM Institute last summer. It was new to me. I appreciate the work of all the faculty explaining to us the new findings in voice science and how to apply it to our teaching. This has been a big upgrade to my teaching and I am having better results in my students and myself!


  2. Pingback: Mix it up Monday: The hair dryer vs. the car | Matthew Edwards

  3. Yvonne
    April 21, 2018

    Thank you Matt, this is an issue I see often from well-meaning teachers. I would just like to add another related favorite quote about breathing and valving that you may appreciate, McKinney’s description summarized by McCoy: Your Voice an Inside View p88 ““Breath SUPPORT is a dynamic relationship between muscles of inspiration and expiration that are used to control pressure in the air supplied to the larynx- a PULMONARY function. Breath CONTROL is a LARYNGEAL function, a valve that regulates airflow through larynx, control determined by efficiency of this regulation. Support enables production of beautiful sounds; Control allows those to last to the end of long phrases. They are independent but related functions.”


  4. June Lawson
    August 29, 2018

    Hi Matt, thanks for this article (blog), Very informative. I attended Shenandoah summer 2006 where I completed Levels 1,2 & 3 Certificate. of Somatic The LoVerti Method. (Jeannette LoVetri) I l learnt so much, I am hoping to return next summer (2019) God’s willing.


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This entry was posted on March 19, 2018 by in Breath management, Mix it up Monday.

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