May 6, 2021

“Kirsten Flagstad is quoted as saying that the subject of breathing is ‘almost impossible to learn or understand and almost impossible to teach’”—The Singing Voice, by Robert Rushmore.

There are three basic types of breathing, Rushmore tells us: upper chest breathing—the quick, shallow breaths we take when, say, we’ve been running and need to catch our breath; intercostal, where the abdomen is held in and the ribs push out to the front and sides above the navel; and deep abdominal breathing, where the abdomen protrudes as the diaphragm flattens out. The major complication is that we can breathe in any combination—and in any proportion—of these ways.

He includes part of a review from Opera magazine by Rupert Bruce Lockhart, written after he attended a meeting of the Union of Singing Masters in Paris; the evening’s subject was breathing: “I was taken by one of the most famous musicians and singing professors in Paris. We laughed helplessly all evening. There was almost a free fight. No two people in the entire assembly seemed to agree on a method of breathing. Insults were hurled around and two of the doctors finally turned their chairs back to back and refused to speak to each other.”

In the middle of my senior year of college, while I was struggling to come to terms with my death despair, my father cut off the small college allowance he’d promised me—to punish me for not writing him recently.

(Reading a passage, only last week, from a letter I wrote him when I was seventeen, I belatedly recognized the irony of this. “What’s new with you?” I asked. “ I have no idea, you know, since you never write. If you’ve moved or married, I wish you’d tell me. I don’t even know if you get my letters. All I can do is to keep writing.”)

I sent him a letter telling him that without the allowance I couldn’t continue my voice lessons, which meant everything to me. When he turned a deaf ear, I went to my mother and begged for help. She’d come to one of my recent lessons and cried when she heard me sing. But…

Doug had dropped out of Hayward State three years earlier, though his status as a student was his best hope of staying out of the war in Vietnam. He thought he could beat the draft by claiming he had a physical disability or, if that didn’t work, that he was a conscientious objector. Since then he’d spent his days playing golf.

My mother told me she couldn’t give me more financial help than she already was—she was giving us both a small allowance—and, besides, it wouldn’t be fair to Doug. I argued that Doug should get a job, at least part-time, to ease our financial straits, pointing out that I’d worked at the language lab part-time and maintained a Regents’ scholarship throughout my college years to help defray the cost of my education. But my logic only made her furious. She screamed at me, “You want everything—and you want it now!”

(A couple of things strike me in retrospect as I read her accusation. One: I’d waited ten years to realize my dream of becoming a singer. Two, another irony: Just as my mother’s father refused to help her pursue her dream of going to college—something she was still bitter about, though the G. I. Bill ultimately allowed her to get a Master’s degree—she refused to help me pursue mine.)

Mrs. Unruh told me if I were to quit at that time, I would never sing; I can’t say that I believed her, but I did sense that I was at a critical point in my training, that I was standing on the threshold of mastery. It was then that she also told me I was the most gifted student in her studio. Nevertheless I did quit, feeling that I had to graduate and hoping that when I got a full-time job, I could pick up my voice training where I’d left off.