June 28, 2010

Plain Words On Singing

A jewel of a book, Plain Words on Singing is the culmination of a life-time of voice teaching by William Shakespeare, a highly influential student of Francesco Lamperti. Published in 1924, Shakespeare carried the teachings of his master - the last great empiricist - well into the 20th century.

It is the Lamperti School, perhaps more than any other, which emphasized breathing. And Shakespeare's teaching on the use of the breath is clearly and elegantly stated, and certainly worth a spin around the block. 

Breath Control

The management of the breath is to the singer what the use of the bow is to the violinist.  More breath is required for singing than for ordinary talking, and the ample breaths that have to be taken, often rapidly cause the respiration of the singer to become somewhat gymnastic in character, entailing considerable fatigue.

The lungs are packed into the chest. We know the chest is airtight, for on closing the mouth and nostrils no breath can be drawn in. On freeing the nose and opening the mouth, we can expand the chest, and cause the air to rush in as it would do through the nozzle of a bellows.

We can rightly fill the chest in two ways, (1) By our will causing an expansion of the soft part of the body just under the breast bone, and (2) by causing an expansion of the sides of our body as far up as to the shoulder blades.

The first causes the air to enter and fill the lungs at their base. The second way causes the ribs to be pulled upwards by powerful muscles attached to the shoulder blades; the result being an enormous expansion of the sides and back of the body.

For the strenuous breathing of the singer, both of these modes must continue; their simultaneous action forming a method of inspiration which leaves the throat in entire freedom.

In order to send out the breath, we must oppose the two ways of drawing it in by willing (1) a contraction of the soft place under the breast bone, and (2) by drawing downwards the ribs and causing the side and back to collapse.

Experiment: By feeling with the hand the soft place, we can observe how much we expand when we draw in the breath, and how much we collapse as we press out the breath. Further, by extending the arms outward and drawing together the elbows, we can note the enormous expansion at the back during inspiration, and the descent of the ribs during expiration. Thus, by raising the ribs at the back, we draw in the air just the same as by causing the expansion of the soft place at the waist; and we send the breath out again, by pulling down the ribs just the same as by pressing in at the soft place under the breast bone.

If you have followed our observation on the balance of muscles, it will be obvious that we can prevent any waste of breath, by imagining while sending it out that we are also drawing it in; this being the opposition of the inspiratory to the expiratory muscles.

When we succeed in attaining this balance, we shall avoid the faulty method of holding up the chest or raising and fixing the shoulders. The student must beaware of this awkward mode of breathing, as the tongue and throat are certain to become constricted, and gasping should will then be heard. Moreover, by fixing  the shoulders, we prevent the important balance between the muscles which raise and those which pull down the ribs.  p 5-7

Shakespeare also gives the reader instruction on many other teaching concepts like 'open throat', as well as 'drinking the tone' - another Lampertism that still causes waves within the vocal pedagogy community. He also gives much attention to the historic writings of the 17th and 18th century, thus wittingly or no, placing himself in their canon.

A last gasp from the School of Empiricism, Plain Words on Singing isn't yet available online. To read this book you will need to search Worldcat or Abebooks.com, the latter an excellent source for obtaining a hard copy for your library.


  1. Hi Daniel,
    A layman's question for you: Is it really true that, without proper breath control as is acquired in the course of a conservatory education, a singer singing opera would be hoarse within give/take 5 minutes? In other words: Is it not enought to be a "natural"?
    Hope you're doing well!
    All the best,

    PS: Would love to hear what you have to say about Renata Tebaldi's breath control in the aria I recently singled out on my blog -- check it out if you find a few minutes. :-)

  2. Hi Michael,

    I read somewhere that it is easy to find a singer on a street corner in Italy, but it is another matter to move that person to the stage. In short, it takes years of training to acquire and maintain the high level of skill that is necessary for the operatic singer. Having an 'ear' for it is just be beginning.

    There is a very interesting book titled Talent is Overrated which notes that it takes 10 years to be a master in any field. This is very true of singing. Singers, like pianists, need to practice their scales for technique!

    Wishing you a lovely summer Holiday (I see you are off to Greece),



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