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Every Breath You Take: Part 2

In last week's blog I introduced the idea that our breathing pedagogy for singers has two equal parts: philosophy and mechanics. If you've not read last week's post or visited my website to get the materials I provided to help out with that, I'd encourage you to spend some time thinking through how you think about the breath. An unexamined pedagogy can lead to confusion, but an intentional pedagogy can lead to clarity and compassion.

The Mechanics of Breath

Breathing, like so much in our bodies, is not static, either. It will change with age as a part of our natural aging process, and things like illnesses, injuries, and emotions can influence our breathing patterns and efficiency. Like so many other things, as voice teachers, our responsiveness to our individual clients' needs will help us as we figure out how to teach them well.

In this post, I'm not going to get into what is "correct" or not. As I mentioned last week, my own personal bias is that however a singer can breathe to accomplish the goals in the moment in a way that keeps the body from getting all bound up is "correct" breathing. Not all voice teachers would agree with me, and I think we're both right. It's a matter of philosophy that will influence how we teach the mechanics. For our purposes today I'm simply going to address what anatomy is there and a very brief overview of what it all does. How to apply all of that information is a longer conversation that we could have at another time.

Skeletal Structure

In reality, the whole skeleton supports the act of breathing, at least indirectly. But these skeletal structures directly work with breathing:

  • Spine

  • Costals (ribs)

  • Clavicle

  • Pelvis

  • Jaw

  • Skull

  • Scapula

These bones provide the anchor points for the muscles to work against. The bones cannot move themselves, but they are rather influenced by the movements of the muscles.


Cartilages between the ribs and those of the larynx have three functions, depending on where they are. They can either allow for some flexibility between bones, such as the cartilages in between the ribs, or they can be protective surfaces between bones at joint junctures, or they can be structural such as the cartilages in the larynx. Cartilages tend to wear down and harden as we age, which can effect the flexibility


There are approximately eleventy-hundred muscles that can influence breathing, but the main ones in the torso to focus on are:

  • External intercostals

  • Internal intercostals

  • Subclavius

  • Sternocleidomastoid

  • Pectoralis major

  • Serratus anterior

  • Scalenes

  • Transversus thoracis

  • Serratus posterior inferior

  • Latissiums dorsi

  • Levatores costarum

  • Quadratus lumborum

  • Lateral iliocostalis cervicis

  • Lateral iliocostas lumborium

  • Diaphragm

And the muscles in the larynx:

  • Thyroarytenoid

  • Interarytenoids

Muscles contract to move tissues or structures around, allowing for expansion or contraction of space and tissues. The muscles allow for the lungs to expand and contract to breathe.

The Lungs

The lungs themselves are tissues that are passive in how they operate in the act of breathing, being acted upon by the muscles pulling against bones and cartilages to allow for opening and contracting in the torso. The structure of the lungs themselves are incredibly complex, so I'll be getting into that in more detail later this year.

All of these parts of the anatomy work together to allow us to breath. And because it's such a complex system, there are also countless ways that students can have anomalies or compensations that can make breathing more difficult. Understanding how it all works together can help you find ways to get your clients to more free and easy breathing.

Keep tuned in to the blog for more in depth looks into parts of these anatomical miracles, and more about how they can work well. This system takes quite a bit of study to learn it thoroughly and well, but that effort and time is worth it. More is coming later this year! However, if you just can't wait, book some time with me and we'll get right into it. I'd love to help you out.


Hixon, T. J., Weismer, G., and Hoit, J. (2014). Preclinical Speech Science: Anatomy, Physiology, Acoustics, Perception, Second Edition. Plural Publishing.

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