One of the things my voice teacher tells me constantly is to take calmer breaths. Don’t rush to inhale right before the beginning of a phrase. Inhale early, so you can do it calmly, even if that means getting off the end of the previous phrase sooner so you have more time. I’ve sometimes wondered whether learning this lesson is just a matter of practicing a lot — noticing the hasty inhalations and correcting them until better habits are ingrained — or whether there’s some fundamental change in mindset that would make it all easier.
Today I went over to NEC to observe a masterclass by the great baritone Thomas Hampson and he made a few comments to the student singers that shed light on this very question. I scribbled these phrases down on my program sheet:
never lose the feeling of inhaling
air is coming to you while you’re expending it
air is not gasoline for a car
My initial reaction to Hampson’s statement that “air is not gasoline for a car” was “Yes, so true!” But in considering the comment further, I realized that I do tend to think of air as a kind of fuel for singing. Even though it’s relaxing to exhale, I’m usually aware that I’m “expending a resource” that will need to be replenished before I continue. I sometimes find myself wishing I had more air so I could sing longer without the interruption of an inhale, and as I get close to the end of my reserves there’s sometimes a sense of anxiety about “running out of air” before I finish the phrase. What would it actually mean to not think this way, to not think of air as a precious resource for singing, to not think of it as a substance like gasoline that’s constantly being spent and needing to be replenished?
Hampson’s assertion that a singer should “never lose the feeling of inhaling” seemed to me, at first, like one of those many pieces of singing advice that’s evocative but also perplexing and contradictory. If inhaling and exhaling are “opposite” activities, ones which can’t be performed simultaneously, how could a singer “never lose the feeling of inhaling” even while exhaling?
When I got home from the masterclass I decided to try an experiment and sing a long note on an ah vowel while thinking of inhaling. The idea was not to try combining inhalation and exhalation in any physical sense (a problematic endeavor!) but merely to keep the thought of inhalation in mind as I exhaled. My experience is that thinking about one thing while doing the opposite usually feels awkward or creates a sense of cognitive dissonance; I expected that to be the case with this experiment, but it wasn’t. To my surprise, it actually felt quite comfortable and natural to think about inhaling even while exhaling, and I found that doing this caused a shift in mindset where I stopped feeling I was “losing” something as I exhaled and instead felt that my overall sense of energy was increasing as I continued. Just keeping the idea of inhaling in mind throughout the phrase made me feel less “in a rush” to inhale at the end of the phrase and yet it made the ensuing inhalation feel more natural and come more quickly. That inhalation seemed to be the mere continuation of something I had already started moments earlier.
I wondered if “thinking of inhaling while exhaling” might be a bit too convoluted a mind game to play regularly, but as I considered it further I realized there’s actually some solid logic here. Every bit of air that you exhale can be thought of as making way for new air that you will inhale in a few moments. So in some sense, each exhalation can be seen as a preparatory part of the upcoming inhalation. The idea that the two activities are “opposites” may be unnecessarily dualistic — they are just different facets of the same cycle. There’s a real coherence to the idea that exhaling is not about “spending” or “losing” air but rather about getting ready to gain new air, and the longer you exhale the more new air you’ll soon gain. Thinking of exhaling as gaining potential makes a big difference psychologically, because at the end of a long phrase you can avoid considering yourself as “depleted” but instead consider yourself as fully prepared to take in more air and keep going.
Of course, there’s a limit to how far this mental reframing can go, and if you simply wait too long to inhale, no matter whether you’ve been thinking about inhaling throughout the phrase, you’ll end up depleted and rushing to breathe at the end. It’s still necessary to manage breaths well and make conscious choices about where to take breaths. But from the little experimentation I’ve done so far, I’m hopeful that maestro Hampson’s suggestion to think “air is coming to you while you’re expending it,” may be just the shift in mindset I need to really internalize the lesson my own teacher has been reminding me of so often. In any case I thought I would share these reflections from the masterclass for the appraisal of anyone else out there who cares about this stuff.
Addendum: my teacher mentioned that some of these ideas are reminiscent of a concept called inhalare la voce tracing back to Lamperti.