Breath and How to Use It by Giulia Valda

Giulia Valda (1850-1925)
This, my second article will deal exclusively with the subject of breath control, which is the most important of all subjects to a singer—and the one that is the least understood. 

The so-called "art of breathing" is almost always represented or at least badly explained because the subject is one that is not understood simply and clearly. It is not the way we breathe, but it is the way that we control the breath that matters. Breath represents tone and tone should be left free to float. Tone, the real tone, must be pure and not mixed at all with the breath. Tone is produced by the proper attack of the vowel, and vowel, in order to produce the pure tone must be attacked, to quote the great Professor Lamperti, "up and in on the breath." 

And only by this way of attacking can we produce a pure tone, all other ways of attacking can only be attacked with the breath, thereby producing anything but a pure tone. 

This is what Lamperti taught, and so did Trivulsi, who was older than Lamperti; they were the only two teaching this method and were the two last exponents of what is now usually alluded to as the "old Lamperti method," which really means the Old Italian method. But I am sure that Lamperti would have resented its being called a "method" as that would appear to indicate that there were many methods of singing. To Lamperti there was but one method of singing and that was the Italian handed down through the great teachers, and of which Lamperti may be said to have been the greatest, as he was also the last of the really great. Lamperti taught his pupils how to sing; he had no thought of their being any other way to sing correctly. With him it was like the laws of the Medes and the Perisans, there was no turning to the right or the left, there was the straight road to be pursued to the end. 

By experience in teaching I have found that the less said about the breath the better. There has been so much said about breath and breathing that many pupils even before they begin their lessons have heard the subject discussed to and fro, until it has become a bugbear and they anticipate difficulties to be overcome that will demand all their strength of both body and mind. In singing, as in speaking, we breath just the same, but everyone seems to be instilled with the idea when they begin to sing of forcing as much air into the lungs as they can, taking a "deep breath" they may call it. But the fact is that they are not really holding air as much as they are holding muscles, thereby preventing the free use of the breath. As breath represents tone and tone must be free, necessarily breath must be free. In speaking we take the breath naturally and easily. My advice to beginners of singing is to tell the pupil to poise the breath as high as possible and then attack it on the breath by saying the Latin a (ah), which is the one vowel that opens the throat when pronounced correctly and properly. 

Tetrazzini in her book makes the truthful remark, "Do not interrupt or interfere with the flow of the breath," which corresponds to Lamperti's mode of expressing the same, as follows: "The breath represents the column of air upon which the tone floats." 

Explicit explanations are the result of cause and effect or result and to produce an affect or result one must always go back to the cause. We talk about breath and tone and poise and all the other details of the art of singing, but above and back of all, the great control of all is the mind- we direct the mind. It is through our mind that we must grasp all the essential points, unless the mind grasps and understands the lesson is lost. So it is the mind that the capable teacher is instructing when she talks of poise, of breath, of tone, and points out that there must be a perfect understanding of their relations to each other- inter-relations it might be called. The teacher must understand exactly what these relations are, what each one means and how they apply to singing. Given an intelligent mind to work upon and what a pleasure it is for the teacher to guide and direct. The alert mind responds quickly and eagerly and the pupil is said to "make progress." To train the mind and through it develop the beautiful voice is not a task, it is a reward for which the teacher hopes and to which she looks forward through, oftentimes, many discouragements. But when the result is obtained and the finished product stands forth, the faithful teacher rejoices in the culmination of her labor and views with pride the developed mind that has brought about the result. 

Tone is the result, the cause is the attack of the vowel on the breath which brings that result. If attacked properly, as Lamperti says, "in and up," it produces a pure tone.

The English speaking races have many bad habits to overcome. To begin with, in fact, the principle fault, lies in the throat. It is seldom that one is found with it open due to our language being filled with consonants, and also to lack of attention or education in pronouncing and study of vowel sounds. All vowels should be pronounced without breath. I may say the same of all consonants. But in singing especially, we sing on vowels supported by the breath, and this breath must not be interrupted in the pronunciation of consonants. 

The subject of breath is never ending, as it is inseparable with the tone and our highest goal is to produce the most beautiful and purest tone. 

I have worked to bring this method, which formerly was the only school of singing, down to a practical working basis, so that every one studying from an intelligent standpoint can grasp it and with it can produce the right result without fail. It is an exact science, but not one that can be attained without hard work and constant application. It takes just as much time to make a singer as it did in former years. The only thing is to find the right way, and then work. The teacher can only guide and show the way. The pupil must do his or her part. Ten years was not considered too much time to devote to the training of the voice for an operatic or any public career by the older Italian master; and that meant constant study, never ending work and practice. No point in the work can be slurred over; each forward step must rest on the solid foundation of the previous one. Passing to a higher point without understanding of all that has come before means disastrous failure. One bad habit may overthrow many good ones. The teacher has to be constantly on the alert. 

Today the manner of teaching used by the old Italians would not be tolerated for a moment, as they felt themselves autocrats to scold, to swear, to even "slap" the unfortunate pupil who misunderstood or misapplied their instructions. Patience was a virtue they did not possess, and they considered it a waste of time to continue to teach such pupils as did not study and advance in the art. 

I wish particularly to impress the pupil with the fact that in studying, the first and all important thing to be considered is the breath. That is the foundation. Upon that we can begin to build the superstructure. 

One of Lamperti's pupils was Gayarré, the great Spanish tenor, who created the tenor role in "Giaconda" at the Scala in Milan in 1875. 

One of Gayarré's greatest operas was "Lucrezia Borgia," and as there was no great aria for the tenor in that opera, Lamperti had him introduce the tenor aria from "Don Sebantino," which is most beautiful and difficult. In this aria he had an opportunity to display the length of time he could poise and sustain his breath. At one point of the aria he had to take a high D, which he did standing at the back of the Scala stage. This note he took pianissimo, and as he walked slowly down the stage to the footlights he made a crescendo on the note, until when he was standing directly over the prompter's box it reached the fortissimo. He would then diminuendo back to pianissimo and finish with the D an octave below, finishing the phrase with plenty of reserve force. Any one knowing the size of the Scala stage which is the largest in the world, will know the length of time that was occupied. In Paris and London, where I sang with him, this wonderful example of what true legato singing means always, electrified the audience, who would stand in their seats and cheer him. 

That was an example of breath control of which both teacher and pupil had every reason to be proud, and serves as an illustration of what can be accomplished by the proper use of the breath and the proper attack of the vowel. This is the great fundamental principle and underlines the whole art of singing. 

My next article will be concerning the vocal instrument and how to play upon it. 

Musical Courier, February 8th, 1917

Note: This article is the second in a series of five written for the Musical Courier. You can find the other four here.