#21  Systems of Air Flow


Ask a roomful of good singers about how they manage their air flow for singing and you may come up with a room full of answers! 

Physical differences abound, and thinner builds tend to sense the expansion during inhalation to the sides in a lateral sensation, while rounder builds may experience the same expansion to the front, or even to the back. As teachers we need to recognize that one size does not fit all, and that teaching the concepts of “support”, “resistance” and “breath energy”  requires tuning in to each student as an individual in how they sense their own body.


Clarifying the science of how respiration functions for singing  is an essential first step. 


As we inhale, the diaphragm contracts downward creating a vacuum that pulls air into the lungs, the viscera are pushed forward, the abdominal muscles release letting the belly expand, the pelvic floor releases downward, the ribs lift and widen as the intercostals contract , and the spine shortens (!) due to the rotation of the ribs at the vertebrae.

As we exhale the reverse sequence occurs. The diaphragm releases upward, which expels the air from the lungs, the pelvic floor muscles spring upward, the abdominal muscles if well-toned from doing sit ups spring back (!), and as the intercostals release, the ribs rotate downward and the spine lengthens.


The natural sequence of breathing occurs over about a 4 second cycle;  inhalation is quick, and exhalation is longer, and the cycle occurs in a dynamic equilibrium of contracting muscles balanced by releasing muscles. 


If we take a breath and then hold it we are activating antagonistic musculature in balance,  and we are essentially keeping ourselves in the gesture of inhalation. 


During singing,  antagonistic balancing in the gesture of inhalation occurs so that the exhalation phase is elongated to accommodate the length of the phrase. 


Historically, the great singers of the Bel Canto used a system of air flow called appoggio.  The direct translation of the term is from the Italian “to lean upon”. The term  may refer to maximum muscular involvement occurring at a number of sites in the body, including the diaphragm, the chest, the neck and the articulators.   According to Miller in “The Structure of Singing” …the region between the sternum and the umbilicus moves outward on inhalation, but the chief  outward movement occurs on the lateral plane”, which describes a system where the primary sensation is to the sides.


In another system of air flow for singing which is related to the German school of singing,  Bauchaussenstutz (outward belly position); a low outward shape to the abdomen is induced, which describes a system where the primary sensation is to the front.   


Our goal as singers is for a comfortable and flexible system of air flow.

This requires both the dynamic equilibrium of contracting and releasing muscles working in the cycle of  inhalation and exhalation, and of the antagonistic balancing of the musculature for sustaining the air flow.


How you experience this in your own body may take some experimenting.



Try This:


Sit quietly and place one hand on your chest the other on your belly.  Notice the movement of your chest and abdomen.  Do you sense your breathing to the front, sides or back?


Stand and take a breath in slowly to the count of 4.  Hold for 4 counts and then release for 4 counts.  Once again let yourself notice where your strongest sensations occur.


Standing, take in a breath and hum for 8 counts on a single pitch.  Notice where your strongest sensations occur.   


Experiment with humming a single pitch for 8 counts after taking in too much air, which is called overcrowding the lungs, and with taking in too little air.

Notice where those sensations occur. 


Place your hands on your lower ribs as you take a breath. Expel the air making 4 short plosive puffs:  F! F! F! F!  Notice how your ribs move. Experiment with your hands on your belly, and then on your back. 




I hope this has been helpful for your finding in your own body how you manage your air flow!

Have a very fine week,




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Copyright © 2010 by Sarah Oppenheim-Beggs