Oskar Guttmann’s Breathing Exercises

Concerning the breath and much more besides, there is so much that is excellent in Oscar Guttmann’s ‘Gymnastik der Stimme’ that I can do no better than to refer to it and recommend it strongly to the attention of all earnest students.

Lilli Lehmann, How to Sing, 1899/English Version 1914.

Lilli Lehmann approved of Oskar Guttmann’s book ‘Gymnastics for the Voice’, 1884.

The beginning point of Guttmann’s gymnastics is to stand in base position.

Base Position for Oskar Guttmann’s Breathing Exercises
  1. Once in the Base Position, stretch upwards so that your ribs raise. The raised rib position is essential while singing.
  2. Stretch in different directions (refer to Guttmann’s book or watch the video below). Classical singers should not stoop, nor should they stand too rigid.
  3. Put your hand on your abs. Feel how your abs move out when you breathe normally.
  4. Put a hand on your lower ribs. Feel how your abs and lower ribs move out when you take a slightly bigger breath.
  5. Put a hand on your upper ribs. Feel how your abs and upper ribs move out when you take a good sized breath.
  6. Take a slightly larger breath. Now your abs, ribs and back expand.
  7. Don’t breath high. If your chest and shoulders are moving up and down when you breath in and out then you are breathing too high. Breathe low. Repeat 4, 5 and 6 until you can recognise the sensations of breathing low and wide. Not high and up. An example of breathing too high is to watch the song ‘Never Enough’ in the move The Greatest Showman. The actress’s shoulders move up and down. You don’t want to look like that when you are a serious classical singer.
  8. Practice suspension. Suspension of the rib cage in the outward position is critical for breath support. (I have isolated this exercise in the second video below ). Take a small breath to begin with and suspend for 5 seconds, increasing to a minute over time. It is such a nice feeling to feel your ribs outwards. You will feel big and strong.
  9. Practice the ‘Happy Surprise Breath’ (refer to Lucie Manen’s book ‘The Art of Singing’ or watch my demonstration below). This breath is inaudible. Classical Singers must take inaudible breaths. It is a matter of good taste. We don’t want to hear a beautiful vocal line disrupted by loud gasps. Save loud breathing for a special effect.
  10. Bring all of the above technique’s together by practicing ‘s’ with a lean on the chest. The lean on the chest is important for breath efficiency. You must not send too much air through your vocal chords. They don’t need it! Most people take in too much air and push. You must concentrate on efficiency. Maintain the outward position of the ribs as you ‘sssssssss’. Your abs will be working like crazy. This will be very important to you when you sing. For example, this is an instruction by Hermann Klein when singing the Great Scale.

Remember, it is not the outpouring of breath that secures increased volume, but the gradually augmenting pressure brought to bear upon the clear, pure tone itself, this pressure being sustained by the combined action of the contracted diaphragm, the raised lower ribs, and the support of the whole abdominal region. The chest is not allowed to “fall” during the entire duration of the note.

Hermann Klein, The Hermann Klein Phono-Vocal Method based upon the Famous School of Manuel Garcia, page 34.

I suggest you refer to Guttmann’s book, but, here is a 6 minute breathing warm up video using his ideas.

Warm up/practice your breath support every day before singing a note. (I didn’t demonstrate Guttmann’s sit ups because of the restraints of filming with a tripod. However, core work is essential for singers. I use the Les Mills Online which contains core training in every class).

Full 6 minute breathing warm up for Classical Singers based on Oskar Guttmann’s ‘Gymnastics for the Voice’ 1884.

I have isolated this Guttmann exercise for you below because suspension of the ribs outwards is such an important part of classical singing. You need to practice this in isolation. Train those muscles!

Breathe in through the nose, suspend for 5 seconds and then exhale through the mouth. As you suspend (“hold your breath”) take the moment to feel the sensation of your rib cage. The muscles controlling this suspension are the muscles you need to develop. Over time, increase the suspension from 5 seconds to 10 seconds, 15 seconds, 20 seconds, 30 seconds, 40 seconds, 50 seconds and 60 seconds.

Demonstration of the suspension of the rib cage outwards. Developing your muscles for classical singing!
The ‘Happy Surprise Breath’ as described in Lucie Manen’s ‘The Art of Singing’
Lilli Lehmann, my point of reference for my studies.
Good example of breathing too high. Shoulders and chest moving up and down. Great for this movie but not in the real classical singing world.

Coloratura Arias For Soprano

Today, I have great joy in sharing with you one of my Spotify Playlists called ‘Coloratura Arias for Soprano’. The Playlist is based on the G. Shirmer Opera Anthology called by the same name. I am a big fan of the Schirmer anthologies. I appreciate having so many arias in one book, as well as the accompanying diction and piano accompaniment CDs.

The Playlist is the result of months of exploring Spotify. Every week I add a recording of two because there are so many recordings available. Some are difficult to find because they are misnamed or are buried within a compilation CD.

This Playlist includes nearly a century and a half of recordings. There are some exciting examples of how diverse the various singers’ interpretations of the same aria can be. There are some exciting new singers like South Africa’s Pretty Yende on the Playlist, as well as singers from the turn of the 20th Century. You will see I favour the earlier singers, singers like Frieda Hempel, Claudia Muzio and, of course, Lilli Lehmann. Lehmann’s recordings, made when she was in her latter years, are a very useful addition to her book, biography and reviews.

In a recent Masterclass this year in Capetown, South Africa, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa cautioned singers about imitating recordings. Dame Kiri wanted to hear the singer’s unique voice. I hope this Spotify Playlist demonstrates how the great singers, since the invention of the gramophone, have had the courage to display their own unique voice. Encouragement to us all to keep searching.

There is ten hours of listening at the time of uploading this link. I hope you enjoy, as much as I do, the brilliant technique of these singers.

The standard of today’s singing

Herman Klein

…the standard of singing is lower than it was, both upon the operatic stage and in the concert room. The voices of contemporary singers do not compare for beauty with those of the past; nor does their technical training, save in the rarest instances, nearly approach the same height of perfection.

Herman Klein, Essays on Bel Canto, 1923.

Herman Klein’s book Herman Klein and the gramophone : being a series of essays on the Bel canto (1923), the Gramophone and the Singer (1924-1934), and reviews of new classical vocal recordings (1925-1934), and other writings from the Gramophone is a gateway into developing your ear for the sound Bel Canto.

On the internet there are people claiming to teach Bel Canto but it is not even a shadow of the method.

By reading Klein’s book (available for free on Internet Archive) and combining this with old recordings freely available on music streaming sites like Spotify and historical vocal pedagogy freely available on internet sites like IMSLP, you can begin your journey to piece together what Bel Canto is supposed to sound like. (My websites has references for you to start you on your way).

I suggest this is an excellent way to begin if you are thinking of taking classical singing lessons. Don’t dive into classical singing with the first singing teacher that comes your way. Ask yourself the following question: ‘Do I like the way my prospective teacher sings?’.

The chances are that you will come out sounding just like them, so browse before you buy! Ask the teacher to sing for you. Audition the teacher!

This is why I am demonstrating and singing on my website. I am auditioning for you before you part with your money and time.

Here is a beautiful recording of Lilli Lehmann with a woman who may be her pupil, to labour the point. Herman Klein remarks in his essay on Lilli Lehmann’s recordings that he believed Hedwig Helbig was a pupil of Lehmann’s. Listening to the recording, it may be true. Why? One can hardly tell them apart. The same flawless technique and beauty of sound, despite the primitive recordings. However, there also may be another reason. On page 590 of Herman Klein’s book, Herman Klein and the Gramophone, in a letter to the editor, N. Marschall writes that Lilli Lehmann’s sister’s daughter was Hedwig Helbig. Helbig, he says, was Lehmann’s devoted companion and accompanist. To me, this is also a good explanation for the technique because Lilli and her sister, Marie, had both been taught to sing by their mother.

Lilli Lehman and Hedwig Helbig – Sull’Aria from La Nozze di Figaro by Mozart

What sort of training do classical singers need?

The principles of the vocal art, as I shall here describe them, are classified under the following heads:


Adjustment and Attack

Vowel Formation


Management of Registers



Tone-Colour and Expression

Herman Klein, Phono-Vocal Method, page 9.

This post addressed the question: what sort of training do classical singers need?

Above is a quote, by Herman Klein, writing at the beginning of the 20th Century. Klein was a pupil of Manuel Garcia. Klein, for me, sums it up. Singers need a method. They need to be able to isolate the techniques, perfect them and then apply them.

Daniel Shigo’s You Tube Channel is the most reliable gateway for you to listen to the technique Klein describes in the quote above. On Mr Shigo’s You Tube channel, perfect demonstrations are executed of Klein’s Phono-Vocal Method by, the Contralto, Janet Spencer. The techniques are then applied to examples of solfeggio and songs.

Classical Singers should aim to spend several years on technique after which they should sing only songs and only the ‘simpler’ arias for several years. The songs or simpler arias of composers such as Handel and Mozart should be the focus for a developing singer. Why Mozart?

Mozart demands everything. To begin with, a beautiful voice controlled and directed by correct scientific breathing; ample resonance; an equal scale achieved by the perfect blending (or if you like it better, the obliteration) of the registers; a clean attack; a steady sostenuto; a smooth, pure legato, an elegant use of the portamento; a well graduated messa di voce or management of crescendos and diminuendos; flexibility, agility, and brilliancy of execution; and, not least of all, the capacity to sing absolutely in tune.

Herman Klein, Bel Canto, 1923
The wondrous voice of Dame Kiri Te Kanawa.

And what is the reason for all of the above. The years of toil? The focus on the Old Italian School Method? The focus on singing what is appropriate?

Opera’s lost generation of stars…a whole generation of singers seems to be missing in action. Where are the stars now in their 50s? There are precious few of them. The blight extends to some in their 40s. So what has happened? A significant cause is a lack of proper education, not only about how to sing, but about which roles are appropriate for which voices and, equally important, how to say no.

Anne Midgette, The New York Times, May 28, 2006. Quoted in Denes Striny’s book ‘Head First’

The quote above brings me to Lilli Lehmann. Lilli Lehmann was the opposite of what is described above. Here is a wonderful summary of her talents.

Among the singers of that date whose superiority over their successors is most evident I count Plancon, Schumann-Heink, Battistini and Lilli Lehmann. The last-named, a frequent Covent Garden visitor about the turn of the century and an early pillar of the Salzburg festivals, deserves a place among the wonders of musical history. To begin with, her versatility was astounding; she sang 165 operatic roles, ranging from the Queen of the Night and the Forest Bird in Siegfried to Carmen, Fricka and Ortrud; among the most famous were Brunhilde, Isolde, Norma, Donna Anna, Constanze (in the Seraglio) and Leonora (in Fidelio). I have thirty of her recordings, mostly made about 1907 when she was nearly sixty, and including some of the most taxing music ever written for the soprano voice – such things as “Casta Diva”, “Ah, For’ e lui”, “Non mi dir”, “Martern aller Arten” and “Abscheulicher! Wo eilst du hin?” Of course there are moments when the strain of age is felt; but the sheer technical mastery, and the command of various styles, are such as to put singers of a later day to shame.’

Desmond Shawe-Taylor, Covent Garden, page 52.

When I read the quote above, in a little book on Covent Garden, I was fascinated to learn more about this wonderful singer. Once I discovered she wrote a singing book, biography and diary notes, and, her recordings were reviewed by Klein, I was hooked. Lilli Lehmann loved technique.

It is not enough to sing well; one must also know how one does it.

Lilli Lehmann, How to Sing.
Lilli Lehmann

Lilli Lehmann is my point of reference for this website. Why? I had found what I needed most of all in my classical singing training – inspiration.

Lilli Lehmann's 'How to Sing' (Meine Gesangskunst)

This post marks the beginning of three years of study to refresh my voice and prepare myself to teach singing responsibly. I have called these three years, 2020 -2023, ‘The Lilli Lehmann Project’.

The Lilli Lehmann Project will use Lilli Lehmann’s book ‘How to Sing’, as well as her other writings, reviews of her singing and her recordings of her singing, as a point of reference. ‘How to Sing’ is available for free on IMSLP. You can also listen to an audio version on Spotify or purchase it for a couple of dollars on Kindle. I will also be studying other historical vocal pedagogy and historical recordings which are now available on the internet.

My companion on this journey is my beloved guitar. Specifically, a Romantic Guitar custom made by Dr Sue Court to produce as much sound as a little guitar can make and to be as light as possible so that I can stand while I sing. The guitar is strung with synthetic strings that replicate the 19th strings which were made of gut. And, most importantly for singing, I will be re-tuning the guitar. For example, my reference will be 432HZ when I sing Verdi etc. 421HZ when I sing Mozart. Why? Because I am intrigued by Herman Klein’s comments on this subject in his essay ‘Bel Canto’.

Before I start looking at the technique in ‘How to Sing’, it is important to get back to the basics of how to stand, how to form vowels and consonants and how to breathe. To do this, Lilli Lehmann approves of Oskar Guttmann’s book ‘Gymnastics for the Voice’. This book is also free on IMSLP. It is also a wonderful little book and I will be continually referring to it.

Today’s post begins with how to stand while practicing. Mr Guttmann suggests to stand in the base position (see below) for breathing practice. I now always use it. It is fantastic. Nobody has ever suggested this posture to me before for singing. In this position one cannot stand in a slovenly manner or sway. It is not a performing posture but is excellent for the studio.

Now, let’s stand in base position and get started!

Lilli Lehmann
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