on Breath Management

by Shirlee Emmons

            At least fifteen years ago one of my students (now a very successful voice teacher in Venice) discovered a flautist who was becoming renowned in the vocal community for his method of breath management for singers and woodwind players. At the time, I paid little attention to the details, but noted that my student’s breathing had improved a great deal. Some time later I began to hunt for this gentleman whose name was Keith Underwood—with no luck.

            In May 2005 I was invited to give two classes on recital program building at the second convention of the Classical Singer magazine in New York. Checking the program to find my class times, I happily discovered that the elusive Mr. Underwood was giving two classes in breathing for singers. Much conjecturing as to how Classical Singer had discovered him and his reputation, and how they had come in contact resulted. As I entered his room that fateful morning, I introduced myself and proclaimed that I had been hunting for him for fifteen years. He said, “Well, I am gone a lot, especially to Japan.”

            As he began to speak in his typical modest, retiring but confident fashion, his audience—the singers and I (the only voice teacher attending)—started to think that perhaps he was not the expert we had come to see. His recommendations were so simple, so easily accomplished. How could they possibly make the huge difference touted. Then he invited two participants to step up and sing something. As the soprano and the baritone sang their arias, both revealed conspicuous flutters in their voices. Within five minutes of following Underwood’s instructions, however, the flutters disappeared completely. This marked the beginning of our rapt attention.

            Underwood has spent at least twenty years studying with every flute teacher who had a special way of breathing, working at the Alexander method and yoga. He has reduced his findings to an absolute minimum effort, distilled all his information into total efficiency, proving once again that simplicity is the hallmark of genius. When I left the class, I said to him, “Mr. Underwood, through all your studying you have found your way to the appoggio, and it is better than my version of the appoggio because it is less rigid. I am going to steal it, but I shall give you credit each and every time I do.” His answer, typical of his modesty, “What’s an appoggio?” provoked uproarious laughter.

            By now, your curiosity must be aroused. I will keep you waiting no longer. (Recall for a minute what the appoggio is: with each inhalation ribs must be extended to the utmost, with a concomitant raising of the sternum, and without tensing or raising the shoulders.) Underwood has discovered that an inhalation achieved by vigorously sucking in the air will, without fail, stimulate a maximum expansion of the ribs extending even to the back of the body. To make sure that the effort is strong enough to set up the proper rib expansion, he has devised a way to inhale: holding up the left hand in front of your face, the thumb touching the palm, the second finger vertical before your mouth, surround that knuckle with your mouth. Then, making a loud, vulgar sucking noise, pull in the air. You will immediately note that the upper torso is relaxed except for the ribs, which expand greatly. After all these years of hearing how the back is so important, and, in many cases, being unable to a strong back expansion, you will finally feel the back fill with air. So simple, so sure a result. It is the strength of the sucking that makes the ribs respond.

            Underwood insists that the loud noise be as low a sound as possible. Of course, this produces a slightly lowered larynx without any pushing or pulling. He asks that you stand on the arch of the foot, not the ball, not the heels. He suggests that you not try to take in an enormous amount of air, but that you concentrate on expanding the ribs as far as they can go with every breath, that you not consider the quantity of air you are drawing in. The quick catch breath must also expand the ribs as far as possible. It can be practiced by counting to 5 while expanding slowly and completely. Then take in the same amount of air in 4 counts, followed by the same amount of air in 3, 2, and 1 count. The 1 count complete inhalation is your catch breath.

            So far we have thought only about inhalation. How does one manage the exhalation, the singing air? Herein lies the essence of his genius and his profound understanding of musicality. With the inhalation being accomplished by sucking past the knuckle of your left hand in front of your face, raise your right arm straight in the air above your head. As you begin to sing, trying at the same time to keep the ribs expanded for the entire phrase, move your right arm down toward your leg. The arm must move at the same speed for the entire trip down to the leg. If you start fast, you must continue fast. If your right hand arrives at your leg early (before the phrase has finished), you must try again, until the movement coincides exactly with the phrase you are singing. The arm must not stop during the movement downward. (This generally happens when you think about some vocal technical problem.) If you move the right arm too slowly, and do not arrive at the leg until after the phrase has finished, you must try again. The faults in the descent of the arm demonstrate that you have been using too much air or too little air, or stopping your air in various places. When the arm arrives at the leg exactly at the end of the last note, having made the entire trip at the same speed, your singing will have improved immensely—musically and vocally—and appear to possess more air than ever before.

            Thus the mantra is no longer Up! and Sideways! but Suck! and Tend to the arm!

            Perhaps this result appears impossible to you. The solution is so simple. Not so. My students and I spend many minutes exclaiming, “Amazing! Incredible! How can this be?” The arm movement focuses your attention on the music itself. In the end, you will know the music better than ever before. The improvement in the tone issues from the relaxation of the throat musculature and the power of the appoggio. Try it. In my experience since the convention, it works for everyone: improving the tone, giving more air, raising the musicality.

            Bravo and thanks to Keith Underwood for pursuing this issue until he solved it.

© Shirlee Emmons

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