Breath Management

by Shirlee Emmons


Before reading this article, it is suggested that visitors to this website read the previous article entitled "Breathing for Singers...why is it so difficult to learn (or to teach)?"

            Although there is virtually no doubt in any singer’s mind that breath management is the most important facet of great singing, the trouble comes in defining breath management. In addition, another need is for simplifying the singer’s execution of the physical requirements that give control. No singer in this world can cope with overseeing or micro-managing each of the thirty-six (36!!) muscles that work together to produce the specialized breathing used by singers. And even if there were a singer who could manage it, he/she would have no time left over for a few other important things like legato, interpretation, tone colors, passion, dramatic truth, etc.


            A few years ago I was asked by Oxford University Press to review a new book by the eminent Richard Miller, called Training Soprano Voices. Thus, I was privileged to read the book in advance. It is a splendid book, and one of the best chapters in the book is the one on breathing. The differences between my usual way of training breath management and Miller’s way are slight, but I find them significant. Miller has been closely allied to the work of the international research team that worked for ten years (1983-1993) to clarify breathing for singing. This long study has concluded that the singer’s critical breathing task is slowing down the ascent of the diaphragm. Because the results of this work have strongly influenced me and because I find Miller’s chapter on this subject so clear and straightforward, I shall be quoting from his book.

            Breath management is best achieved by maintaining Lamperti’s “noble position,” which elicits cooperation between the chest muscles, the ribcage muscles, and the muscles of the side walls of the abdomen—that is to say, by maintaining an appoggio. This word appoggio is clearly derived from the Italian verb appoggiare [to lean on]—hence an appoggiatura, a grace note that leans on another note. What will an appoggio do for your breathing and your singing? Miller says, mincing no words, “The internationally recognized appoggio is a breath-management coordination that must be learned if the singer is energy and freedom for successfully meeting the tasks of professional vocalism....the term breath energy refers to the results of appoggio coordination (my emphasis).”

A few details to help you understand the physiology of the appoggio:

                        1. Relatively high sternum = ribcage greatly expanded, diaphragm at its lowest

                                    (this is the posture of inhalation during speech)


                        2. Fallen sternum = slow collapse of ribcage, diaphragm at highest position

                                    (this is the posture of exhalation during speech)

The above cycle, which takes place during speaking, is contra-indicated for singing because of factors encountered in part 2. But, by maintaining the appoggio, the normal speech-breathing pattern (the ribcage collapse and the high position of the diaphragm) is avoided. The appoggio makes it possible to keep the inhalation posture of the sternum and ribcage, which, in turn, does not allow the diaphragm to ascend so rapidly. As you will recall, this was the desired execution indicated by the European breath study. Miller’s definitive analysis is as follows:

                        Neither physical exertion nor excessive energy produces skillful singing.

                            However, beginning singers of all ages tend to use energy levels befitting

                            folk-like [singing]. The normal breath cycle appropriate to speech is not

                            identical to that required for singing....the tasks of skillful singing require

                            higher rates of breath energy....Elongation of the breath cycle for singing

                            is dependent on a learned technique--appoggio--that results from the

                            concerted action on diaphragmatic movement by the muscles of the thorax

                            and the abdominal wall [the transverse abdominis, the internal oblique,

                            the external oblique and, to a lesser extent, the rectus abdominis].

                                                                                                           Training Soprano Voices

            Here are some bits of information that you should keep in mind.

                        Diaphragmatic action is still a puzzle to the most knowledgeable of the vocal community.

                        The descent and ascent of the diaphragm are not directly controllable.

                        The diaphragm does not descend so far down as most singers think.

                        The diaphragm is passive during singing.

                        In speaking, the sternum falls, the rib cage collapses, and the diaphragm ascends

                                    rapidly (all of which represent the least efficient method of breathing for singing).

                        Using the appoggio avoids the rib collapse of normal speaking.

                        Appoggio singing retains the inspiratory posture of the sternum and ribcage,

                                    retarding the ascent of the diaphragm, by far the most important
                                    ingredient of the breath management mix.

                        Control over the muscles of the side abdominal walls can be learned.

                                    This is support.

Here are Miller’s masterful discussions of other breathing systems, with some additions of mine.


            1. Bear in mind that the cords are apart for inhalation and closed for singing. Some teachers encourage a sighing technique (high air flow), in which the breath issues fast. Some teachers encourage what might be called a grunting technique (glottal closure), in which the larynx holds back the air. When the breath is let go, one hears a grunt. “In the international professional singing world, sighing, minimal breath, or grunting maneuvers do not play an acceptable role in balanced voice production.”

            2. As for the efforts commonly made by some singers to increase the amount of breath that can be inhaled or exhaled, Miller has this to say, “It is not the job of the singer to see how large a volume of air can be inhaled and expelled during the singing of a phrase, nor is it advisable to conceive of the diaphragm as a piston that drives air upward to the larynx.”

           3. Disparaging those attempts to push the air out with the diaphragm, Miller uses one explicit sentence: “It should be emphasized that there is no way in which a singer can consciously exercise direct mechanical control over the diaphragm [my emphasis].”

             4. Miller dispenses a forceful demurrer to those who believe in “belly” breathing. “The lungs supply the larynx with breath; the column of exiting air does not have its origins in the pelvic or abdominal areas from whence it is directed upward by the lower abdomen to feed the larynx. Air is already present in the trachea, ready for immediate use. It does not occupy spaces below the lungs; ‘belly breathing’ is an unachievable aim.”

          5. For those who work assiduously at holding the breath for a long time, thinking that it will extend their air duration, Miller says, “Breath management is not improved by attempting to hold the breath for long periods of time, by sustaining isolated long notes and phrases.”


            Enough of the negatives. Now for the positives of the appoggio maintenance. It is my experience that acquiring the appoggio as a reliable technique gives the singer:

                        a longer and more reliable air supply,

                        greater stability in the tone,

                        easier execution of large skips,

                        improved agility passages with regard to clarity, accuracy, and speed,

                        far better management of pianissimo tasks,

            thus--true confidence in his/her vocal skills.


                        Let us now get down to the nitty-gritty of how to find the appoggio and maintain it. As ever, what should be done is the easiest to explain. How to do what should be done is much harder. I pride myself on being the most pragmatic of teachers. Although I scrupulously give credit to the author, I do shamelessly listen to and copy anyone’s ideas if they are useful. By the same token, I then always create my own method of passing on the ideas. I create my own “regimes” based on the knowledge of the scientist-teachers. Richard Miller is one of them, together with William Vennard, Ralph Appelman, always the incomparable Berton Coffin, and others.

            At the cost of much repetition, I have tried to convince you that the most important part of your breath management is the appoggio. If I have succeeded and you wish to try it, you must first learn the physical position of the appoggio, and then you must learn how to maintain it.

The position:

            Your effort should be focused on finding a high sternum position, without relying on inhaling for help. If you discover that lifting your sternum without inhaling is difficult for you, try this. Lift both arms above your head, pointing to the sky. Then, careful to leave the chest where the high arms put it, lower your arms. You will find your chest much higher than it was originally, your ribs expanded farther than they were originally, and you will be highly conscious of your back muscles. This high-chest, ribs-expanded, shoulders-relaxed position is the one you want to main-

tain at all times.

Maintenance of the appoggio position:

            This is the harder part. For the first week or so, doing it might actually hurt, and your back muscles may ache. This will soon go away, however, and the result is well worth it. Start by doing onset exercises of repeated single quarter notes followed by quarter rests. Concentrate on keeping the chest up as you inhale sideways between notes. Concentrate on not letting the chest recoil as you finish the first note and inhale for the second note. The chest should not move more than minimally. Shoulders should be relaxed, taking no part in the maintenance of the high sternum or the inhalation. No, it is not simple at first, but it is achievable.


            How should one inhale?

                        1. Before inhaling, raise the sternum without breathing in. Then, stop thinking how low the breath must be. Stop thinking about how much air you must take in. Stop thinking about whether you want your abdomen to bulge out or tuck in. All of these things will automatically take place in the proper manner providing that you can manage not to move your chest up and down and providing that you inhale sideways.  

                        2. Yes, that’s what I said. Inhale sideways, not frontwards. Put your hands around your waist with the thumbs in the back, four fingers in the front. Your index finger should tuck under the bottom rib, and the little finger should touch your hipbone if possible (some of you will have more trouble than others in doing this). Breathe sideways where your hands are. You will feel the expansion of your side walls and your back (exactly as your teacher kept telling you). Perhaps it will seem as though you are not getting enough air, but you will soon find out that you are--precisely because the diaphragm is rising so slowly that the air you took is sufficient.

            Being a performance psychologist, Alma Thomas, my coauthor for the Power Performance for Singers book, insists that singers should have short but meaningful verbal cues to help modify old technical habits into new ones. I have found that she is absolutely correct in this. Therefore I offer you the appoggio formula in the form of verbal/mental cues:

                                    1. UP!

                                                (Lift sternum without inhaling.)

                                    2. SIDEWAYS!

                                                (Make your conscious breathing effort only with the internal

                                                and external obliques and the transverse abdominis, with

                                                whatever unconscious help the recti abdominii wish to contribute.)

                                    3. STAY UP!

                                                (Do not allow the chest to recoil when replenishing the air.)

            After you have the correct appoggio position and the sideways inhalation down pat, start to practice difficult breathing maneuvers with the formula intact--approaches to high notes, pianis- simo sections, agility passages, low notes, big skips, etc. Repeat the verbal cues as you practice.

All technical skills will be aided by your new breath management. You have to remember one rule only, not six or seven: Keep that chest up at all costs! Soon it will be automatic, and you will

even look like those singers you so admire, who seem never to be breathing. Good luck. 

            See the article titled "Update on Breath Management" for more.

© Shirlee Emmons

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