Dr. Cathcart on Modern Views of Breathing

DDr. Cathcart has appeared before on these pages before (click on his name in the labels section of this post). I think he's a rather curious fellow since he was an MD and studied singing in Italy with Domenico Scafati - a student of Crescentini. The discussion below follows an address he gave to the wizards of the voice teaching profession in 1894. Simply put, the argument revolves around the matter of what should happen during inhalation: does the abdomen go in or out?

The participants fall into two different camps. On one hand there is William Nicholl, a student of Manuel García (he also has appeared on these pages) who was of 'the-lower-abdominals-must-come-in-on-inhalation' school, while on the other there is Dr. Lennox Browne, he of 'the-lower-abdominals-must-go-out-on-inhalation' school. Dr. Browne was a follower of Mandl, whose work made its way into Lamperti's book on singing, causing as much confusion as García's words did about "Coup de Glotte'. Why confusion? There is evidence to suggest that Lamperti was far from from being a distend-the-abdomen guy (the matter deserves a separate post/article).

One interesting thing is Cathcart's assertion/observation that deep breathing can "not take place unless the inner ends of the collar-bones" are raised.  

Dr. Cathcart on Modern Views of Breathing

The Musical Herald and Tonic Sol-Fa Reporter 

April 2, 1894

A paper that evoked lively discussion was read by Dr. Geo. C. Cathcart on the 17th before the Tonic Sol-fa Association in the hall of the Y. M. C. A., Aldersgate Street, London. Dr. G. Sims Woodhead presided, and said the lecturer's views deserved attention, for when the Cathcarts took up "muscles" it was well known that something of interest would be elicited. Various models and diagrams assisted to make an involved subject clear to the numerous specialists present. To the lay mind, however, the anatomical questions raised were too deep for immediate endorsement; but it is important that a summary of Dr. Cathcart's views should be presented, as they contradict- in the most cheerful manner, the almost unanimous experience of existing teachers.  
He objected to the principle of a successful voice-trainer, that all or any movement of the collar-bone during breathing was injurious. Such rigidity was unnatural; indeed, anatomically and physiologically incorrect. The inflated lungs protruded from 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 inches above the collar-bones, which should be slightly raised to prevent pressure on the lungs, attention being directed chiefly to costal breathing. Neither need there be any alarm that injury would be caused to the larynx by collar-bone breathing. This was demonstrated by an experiment; the finger placed in the neck of a rubber water-bottle could easily withstand pressure from the weight of a man standing on the flexible bottle, and with the same ease the larynx withstood any pressure of air from the lungs.  
Dr. Cathcart also objected to the well-known experiment of singing before a candle flame without unsteadying it. The difficulty of doing this frightened some people unnecessarily, for the tremor was merely akin to that on the hand when the biceps were kept rigid and the arm slowly extended, in the way the lecturer showed. His Italian singing master in Naples said that the abdomen must recede and not obtrude during inspiration. The nearer the breath was kept up to the vocal cords the stronger, rounder, and more sympathetic would be the tone. When we inspired deeply we felt as if we drew the breath up to the upper four or five ribs. A greater enlargement of the breathing cavity was made by the ribs than by the diaphragm. Medical writers centred their attention chiefly upon the action of the ribs, and dismissed the action of the diaphragm in a few words. The most natural way was to let the diaphragm act involuntarily. The diaphragm played practically no part in deep inspiration, and must be regarded merely as an organ of respiration. The old Italian school was founded on a correct anatomical basis, and was more rational than the modern school, especially as it called into play a large number of muscles, and it met the requirements of good voice-production. Dr. Cathcart depreciated the value of the laryngoscope, which showed the vocal ligaments only when bad tone was produced, owing to the false vocal cords being open. He contended that the old Italian school best produced power, purity, and endurance. He concluded with a remark of the vocal writer and male soprano, Crescentini, who said, "When you are master of your breath you are master of your voice, and when you are master of your voice you are master of all the music that ever was written for it." 
Dr. Lennox Browne said he could bring as much evidence on the other side with regard to the old Italian school and drawing in the abdomen. The laryngoscope need not interfere with the muscles of the larynx as had been stated. Dr. Cathcart had been thorough in his investigations, but did not properly represent what were the views of the speaker. "If you were going to fill your shelves or cupboards," said Dr. Browne, "you would no doubt fill the lower ones first," and the same principle applied to filling the lungs. Text-books of physiology, notwithstanding Dr. Cathcart's statement, always said that the diaphragm and lower ribs were the primary agents in breathing. It was a disgrace that singing was the only art that was founded on empirics. After thirty years' professional experience, Dr. Lennox Browne could not think that his science was all wrong, nor could he consider that all the teaching of Lamperti was wrong. Dr. Cathcart claimed a scientific basis for his views, but to draw in the abdomen was unscientific. 
Miss Kate Behnke related her experience of some pupils who came to her for voice lessons, and who were also swimmers. Swimmers who adopted collar-bone breathing soon tired, and when she had cured this fault in teaching singing, their difficulties also disappeared. She had been demonstrating with the laryngoscope since she was eight years of age, and could produce fair tone with it, but good tone could not be obtained owing to the difficulty of adjusting the resonance when the mirror was in the throat. 
Suhgeox-major Dixon vigorously attacked Dr. Cathcart's statements, but his remarks were more of the nature of assertion than argument. 
Mr. Thorpe, speaking fluently and lucidly, traced the action of the vocal apparatus. The entire breathing surface must be used to the greatest extent. The fake vocal cords were the proper agents for making equal the vibration of the true vocal cords. 
Mr. Nichol, an experienced vocalist, had altered his method to costal breathing by Dr. Cathcart's advice, with a marvellous gain in quality and control of the voice. 
Mr. J. A. Birch said that deep breathing, a simple term which met all his requirements, necessitated the inflation of the upper part as well as the lower part of the lungs, but he certainly believed in costal breathing. Singers who confined themselves, however, to clavicular breathing, did not last long. Not one singer in fifty that came to him breathed deeply. While it was bad to obtrude the abdomen too much, ho thought the happy mean was between the two schools represented. For good tone, however, he depended most upon the form of the mouth. 
Messrs. Venables, Field-Hyde, and others having briefly spoken, Dr. Cathcart replied that his method had cured him of a serious speech defect. The best tone he noticed was obtained from voice-trainers who taught and got a good compression of the breath. He explained that he did not advocate clavicular breathing alone, but deep breathing could not take place unless the inner ends of the collar-bones were raised. When one style of breathing alone was used teachers often effected cures by changing the breathing. The abdomen could not be obtruded without drawing down the collar-bone, so pressing it upon the lungs. Their chairman had been a champion runner of Scotland, and the lecturer was secretary of the greatest of our athletic clubs, and both could say that the practice of athletes was to draw in the abdomen just before starting to run.—Votes of thanks closed the discussion. 

Image of Girolamo Crescentini from the New York Public Library Digital Collection.  


D. Brian Lee said…
I see that there was as much agreement back then as now.
Of course. What should be noted is that neither Dr. Browne nor Mandl were - to my knowledge- singers. Is that an argument against their view? Not exactly. I think, however, that its important to distinguish who is saying what and why.