The present age is a time when everyone seems to have gone off the breath. Today's manic society has led to ordinary conversation being rooted in shallow, noisy breaths. When broadcasting bloomed in the thirties, forties, and fifties, one never heard announcers of any kind take a breath; their breaths were all silent. Indeed it was not possible to obtain employment if the breath was noisy. (In those days the microphones were also covered with a muffling material, today they are pinned to the speaker.) Nowadays many newscasters, pitchmen, and others can be heard wheezing and gasping into their microphones. If that is so at the highest levels of professionalism in that industry, it is no surprise that singers and instrumentalists are negligent in such a fundamental matter. But it has unforeseen ramifications in the matter of musical expression.
The principle of involuntary musculature is most evident and palpable when we breathe. Any mental intention of prior muscular action before we breathe is unnecessary; we just breathe. When we sing or play a wind instrument, the problem of breath is solved in the same way as when we speak normally. In speaking, we NEVER GRAB A BREATH or take a breath by voluntarily activating muscles (gasp) causing the throat to open. It is necessary to integrate our breathing to the flow of the musical phrases, but that, with practice, is an emotional coordination, not a muscular one. But, as stated above in the matter of attack, the breath must be silent and not rhythmically taken on the preparatory beat.
When the posture is correct and the series of releases begun by dropping under the base of the skull, there is a release of the jaw hinge, and also a concomitant feeling of the chest and the ribs opening wider. Finally, the stomach muscles under the navel release and give one the feeling of connection to the hips. This process is important for what follows as the performer begins to breathe.
This opusculum cannot give a thorough treatment of breathing. The author recommends Arnold Jacobs' detailed analysis in his book, Song and Wind". There is no better help for singers and wind players. Mr. Jacobs was principal tuba for many years in the Chicago Symphony. He was born with lung defects that he overcame through his study of breath, and we are lucky to have had him share his conclusions.
While one does not need much awareness of the breathing apparatus in ordinary speech, singing or playing a wind instrument requires a great deal of awareness of it. Physiologically, the activation of the costal muscles and the diaphragm produces expansion. When the performer cooperates with that musculature, it allows one to achieve the necessary air for singing and playing. When the next breath is needed, the same process obtains. The performer must not drop the spaces required for resonance including the torso areas, while the costal muscles and the diaphragm do their work. An excellent way to say this is to release the body not to move; never hold the body not to move in order to maintain the space needed for resonance. The axiom is deliberately stated in this way to emphasize the emotional nature of the process. A practical way to deal with this technique is to inhale through the last vowel (singers) or the last note (wind players) and re-enter without changing a thing. A baritone student had to attack a high E after a last note A below it. He was told to breath through the last vowel and speak the vowel of the E right there without moving a thing while letting go of his self (body). When he did it, he exclaimed, "That was easy!"
The most important aspect of breath is that inhalation is stopped by the inflection of the next vowel (singers) or note (wind players). To stop inhaling muscularly and then inflecting is a serious disorder in performances today. Inhale and speak; do not leave musical expression in limbo by stopping the breath and then speaking.
Wind instrumentalists must realize that their instrument is part of their very existence and an extension of their body, not a manipulable commodity. It is a true part of their physical body which, like all bodily manifestations, expresses the feelings that are deeply rooted in the whole of one's being.
We have observed that, if the breath is inhaled without prior intention of muscular control, the resultant expansion in all areas of the torso is devoid of tension. By the same reasoning, the lungs will not collapse detrimentally (push air) during a phrase if the performer keeps experiencing the expansion. The process is a very delicate balancing act and requires keeping the alignment released but not dropped to get the next breath. The feeling of balance is not to be confused with muscularly pushing out, no matter how gently, the result of which is tension in the neck muscles.
The phenomenon of sensation that links the jaw hinge to the initiation of the breath occurs because it is a part of the series of sensations that result from the release of the suboccipital muscles. The release of the jaw hinge triggers the breath, and it is this fact which allows breaths to replenish us when there is not much time. Conversely, if the release of the jaw triggers the breath, then the breath plays an important part in the continuing release of the jaw hinge and the space of the resonances during singing and playing. In other words these mutualities of breath, torso, and jaw create a complete sounding instrument for free resonance and vibration. The method is as true for wind players as it is for singers. Bach becomes more manageable when this is understood.
As stated above, the act of inhalation is stopped by the act of exhalation. Breath is a cycle and when you stop, you die. We noted above the habit, of choruses and orchestral wind players, of stopping the breath on the preparatory beat of conductors. Yet when they do so, they momentarily die musically and have to resurrect themselves by means that are not conducive to emotionally expressed music. Within the flow of a piece, too many performers (especially choruses) grab a breath and hold the musculature to await the next attack. The deleterious effects of this upon both music and instrument are palpable, with inconsistent tone being the principal result. Feeling the cyclic nature of breath subtly supports one's sense of connection to one's instrument and does not cut the instrument off from its sources of life and energy by stopping and holding muscles.
The easiest way to understand breath is to notice that in ordinary speech spoken by ordinary people the throat does not open and the lower abdomen and the lower back expand because the diaphragm is pushing the viscera downward to make more room for the lungs to expand. The principle is the same for musical achievement. Do not open the throat to breathe, especially for quick breaths. Breathing by opening the throat (gasping) makes for a shallow breath.
With all the releases described above engaged in the feelings, a perfect breath is achieved by forming an o in the mouth. Inhalation through an o allows for the lower back to become an important part of the support of the instrument, whether vocal or instrumental.
Keyboardists, percussionists, and string players should breathe with the phrases as if they were singing, keeping special watch for the awareness of the totality of the instrument that comes from proper placement of the head on the shoulders and the release of the suboccipital muscles.1 They, too, must regard their bodily alignment as a fundamental to the act of playing an instrument which is an extension of their very being. Thus, they take advantage of the body's capacity to react involuntarily to the technical needs of the instrument. Muscular control induces tension; tension induces stiff performance.
A perfect breath is taken when the mouth (not necessarily the lips) has an o shape, which settles the larynx into the optimal position for speech. In order to sing, the singer must speak all vowels clearly in that o shape and keep the chin down. The inhalation then becomes more a process of cooperation with atmospheric pressure than the noisy gasp so common today.
The process requires tremendous concentration because the sound of music so easily tempts us to forget the well being of the oral cavity and gasp for the second and third an all the other breaths until we get to the end of the piece.
To get a second or third breath, maintaining the last vowel or the last note of a wind instrument and breathing through it will make the next attack not only easier but tonally more consistent.
Glenn Gould was famous for singing during his performances.