from The Singing Cure by Paul Newham

Breath can be thought of as two simple processes:

-chest expands, air is drawn in

-the chest compresses, air gets pushed out

inhalation – exhalation

The Greek word psyche, meaning ‘soul’, has the same root as psychein, meaning ‘to breathe’; and the Greek word pneuma, meaning ‘spirit’, also means ‘wind’. Furthermore, the Latin words animus, meaning ‘spirit’, and anima, meaning ‘soul’, come from the Greek anemos, which is another word for ‘wind’. Similar connections also exist in Arabic and German and they remind us that in many cultures the notions of psyche, spirit and soul have been related to the idea of the movement of air.

This connection between air and soul is also contained in the fact that the human voice as the audible expression of the psyche can only be created through the emission of air from the body.

Our exploration of Respiration centres on its use for voice and speech. We won’t spend any time exploring how the gas exchanges take place, for instance, and for that you might look elsewhere. We will look at the structures involved, (the anatomy), the physics of breathing – just how we do what we do, and its application to the work of the performer.

Many theories exist about how an actor should apply breath to the process of performance. Singing actors in particular often struggle with integrating the process of breathing they learn for singing, that may be rather sophisticated, with some other breathing technique for speaking. What is most important, in my eyes, is an awareness of what is going on, and through that awareness one can integrate all the uses one has for breath.

The Physics of Breathing

You may remember from your high school physics classes that “nature hates a vacuum”. This principle drives the action of the breath.

Receiving various signals from the nervous system, the diaphragmatic muscles contract and the diaphragm moves DOWNWARD. As the diaphragm depresses, it creates a vacuum in the lungs and air rushes in to fill it.

As the diaphragm relaxes, it pushes the molecules closer together, increasing the internal pressure in the lungs. The air flows from the lungs into the lower pressure outside the body.

Or in other words…


-diaphragm contracts and drops

-lung volume gets larger, creating a negative pressure difference

-air rushes in


-diaphragm relaxes and rises

-lung volume decreases, creating a positive pressure difference

-air rushes out

The Application of Breath to the Work of the Performer

Initially, every person approaches the study of breathing in her or his own way, often without much awareness at all. Part of the process of studying voice and speech is developing an acute awareness of the actions involved in breathing and exploring them in depth. A teacher is essential to gaining confidence and trust of your own breath, and to guide you towards a greater understanding of the potential that breath carries for the performer.

In the early part of this century, there was one overwhelming strategy regarding breath for the performer in the European tradition: Rib Reserve. This technique has largely fallen out of fashion today and involved lifting the ribs and maintaining their position while using the diaphragm and abdominals “as a bellows”. The rib “reserve” was there for “emergencies”, when one could rely on an extra helping; unfortunately, in learning how to artificially hold the ribs up, many who used it got stuck with them there and could never let them back down. This lead to very stiff actors with artificially distended upper chests in many cases.

Today, there are two main schools of teaching about the breath, though there are many, many different approaches, often based on the work of a master teacher of voice, speech or singing. The two basic ideas involve either:

  1. “supporting” the breath by compressing the abdomen during phonation (i.e., on the

exhalation), or

  1. its opposite, relaxing the abdominals as much as possible during inhalation and phonation,

allowing the diaphragm to work on the inhalation, and riding its relaxation on the out going

breath (i.e., phonation).

Support works by contracting the abdominal muscles, creating higher pressure in the abdomen and thorax, allowing the diaphragm’s relaxation (and upward rise) to be more carefully controlled. It is important to remember that there is less control in relaxing a muscle than there is in contracting it, so support gives performers a means of controlling their phonation. There is a variant on the “support” form where people distend their lower belly, creating “reverse support”; this is currently thought of as inefficient by voice scientists, but it does work for many singers.

All of these styles of working with breath for phonation are “natural”, in that they occur in the body at different times, depending on need. The extent to which action of the ribs is encouraged varies within most techniques, though it is evident that most teachers recommend that the upper torso, especially the shoulder girdle, be as relaxed as possible even during the most extreme vocal demands. Ultimately, one wants access to all the ‘breath resources’ available without jeopardizing the ability to phonate freely, that is without unnecessary tension.