The importance of knowing what you’ve got

Do you know where your lungs are?

Seems like a simple question, doesn’t it? So take a moment. Put your hands on where you think your lungs are. I’ll wait for you.


I asked my acting students in Cardiff recently to show me where their lungs are. I have a class of fourteen teenagers. Thirteen of them put their hands halfway down their torso, just below their ribs. I asked them if they were sure, and they all agreed that they were.

Then I showed them a picture of where the lungs really are. It caused some consternation.

lungs lungs2

You see, they’d been trying to breathe down into their abdominal cavity. They’d been told by various drama and voice teachers that breathing down there was good, so they assumed that was where their lungs were located. They also assumed that any movement that happened in the chest must be bad, and some even admitted trying to stop it happening. Sadly, all they were doing was stopping the free movement of their body to allow their lungs to fill!

FM Alexander said that we all think and act according to the peculiarities of our psycho-physical make-up.* In other words, what we believe about our bodies and the world at large determines how we move and interact. If we don’t know the basics of what we’ve got bodywise and how it works, then we’re a bit like a runner starting a race off a handicap. We’ll be struggling from the very start.

So if you’re involved in a specialised activity like singing or playing tennis or skiing (or anything else), or if you’re finding a particular activity difficult, please do spend a bit of research time. Find out what muscles and joints you’ve got. Find out where your lungs are. Get some knowledge. Because once you know what you’ve got, you can begin to plan effectively how you’re going to use it.

* FM Alexander Consctructive Conscious Control of the Individual, Irdeat edition, p.293.
Image of the lungs taken from Grant’s Atlas of Anatomy, 10th ed., Lippincott, Williams, and Wilkins, p.30.

“I can’t sing!” – the difference between CAN’T and DON’T, and why it matters


I recently had this exchange with a young student.

Student: I can’t sing.
Me: Really? Who told you that?
Student: Well, no one. But I can’t sing.
Me: What evidence do you have for that?
Student: I’ve heard myself.
Me: What, on a recording?
Student: [scornfully] No!
Me: So how have you heard yourself?
Student: As I’m singing.

At this point I took a little time to explain that this doesn’t really count, as you can’t hear yourself the way an audience hears you. All you can hear of yourself is a combination of internal resonance and whatever bounces back off the walls of wherever you are singing. Back to the dialogue.

Me: So have you heard yourself sing?
Student: No.
Me: So how do you know that you can’t?
Student: I guess I don’t.
Me: Do you sing at all?
Student: As little as possible.
Me: In that case, all we can say is that you don’t sing. Until you sing, we have no evidence that you can’t.

It sounds like I’m splitting hairs. But I’m not. It is a very common thing for me to have students say “I can’t” do something, when what they mean is that they tried it once and weren’t very good. So they decide not to try it ever again.

But this isn’t sufficient evidence to decide. It’s a bit like me picking up a tennis racquet for the first time and expecting to be able to play like Roger Federer. It’s possible, but the likelihood of it happening is vanishingly small. If I want to decide if I’m any good at tennis, I will need to spend some time learning the game and practising.

FM Alexander said that the centre and backbone of his work was that the conscious mind (the reasoning mind) must be quickened (made alive).* And one of the ways that we can do that is to be careful not to confuse ourselves with our language. If we say ‘can’t’ when we really mean ‘don’t’ or ‘haven’t tried’, we cut ourselves off from the possibility of experimenting and discovering whole new areas of skill and delight in our lives.

Where have you said “I can’t” where you really should be saying “I don’t yet” or “I haven’t tried”, and what would happen if you changed the way you spoke and thought?

* FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the IRDEAT Complete Edition, p.39.
Image by graur codrin from



Belly breathing vs chest breathing: why it’s a fake battle


Today’s post talks about the belly breathing backlash, and why I think we fall into a trap when we want to compare it to other ‘forms of breathing’.

I think it is fair to say that I encountered some resistance to my article last week on belly breathing. A small number unsubscribed from my email list, and I had a number of people (none of them singing teachers, by the way) wish to take issue with me over my characterisation of belly breathing.

The gist of many of the comments I have had rest on the creation of an either/or pair. Either we belly breathe, or we chest breathe. Either we do diaphragmatic breathing, or we do clavicular breathing. On rare occasions we may do both, but only in extreme circumstances, with the understanding that we are endangering our sound quality.


If there’s one thing I have learned from reading FM Alexander, it is to be wary of either/or thinking. Alexander describes this as going from one extreme to the other:

“They are, in fact, too constricted in their mental attitude to give play to their imagination. From one extreme they have flown to the other, and so have missed the way of the great middle course…” *

What if, in our human desire for either/or extremes, we have created concepts of breathing that are too rigid in conception, and lead us to make distinctions that limit our ability to be flexible? What if there really isn’t such a thing as ‘belly breathing’ or ‘chest breathing’?


The evidence.

I’ve been doing a lot of extra reading** on all the different types of breathing people have mentioned. From my research, it seems to be the case that:

  • The diaphragm contracts, pushing the abdominal contents down. They have to go somewhere, and can’t go back (because of the spine) or down (pelvis in the way), so they go frontways instead.
  • This creates a pressure change between the cavity occupied by the lungs and the outside atmosphere. Air rushes in to equalise the pressure. The lungs fill. This is breathing in.
  • Now things get more complicated. If you’re lounging around in front of the TV, you probably aren’t going to need much oxygen. So your diaphragm won’t move much, and your lungs won’t fill very far. Therefore, your ribs and chest probably won’t move much, certainly not enough to trouble your intercostal muscles (they live between your ribs).
  • However, if you’re singing long phrases from Handel or Bach, you’re going to need more air. So your brain tells your diaphragm to get moving, and organises the intercostals to move, too. Everything is on the move, like in this image kindly supplied by Bill Conable.

The point here? You don’t, generally speaking, directly control what is going on. Your brain takes care of that for you, depending on what the activity is that you’re engaged in. Alexander compares it to a king, or the controller of a well-run office. If the office is running well, the controller doesn’t need to micro-manage every bit of filing.*** Similarly, if our mind and body are running smoothly, we don’t need to tell our diaphragms how far to contract!

A take-away point, and a challenge:

  • Try not to indulge in either/or thinking. You might be missing a wonderful wide middle path.
  • What would happen if you didn’t focus on your breathing while singing or speaking? What if you focused on something else, then let your brain take care of the details for you? What else could you think about that would be helpful?



* FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the Irdeat Edition, p.84. Or here: “The human creature continues to rush from one extreme to the other on the ‘end-gaining’ principle in his attempts at reform or ‘physical’ improvement…”, in Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, p.393.
** Contact me if you’d like a book list. For a good intro, go to this University of Leeds lecture transcript.
*** in Man’s Supreme Inheritance, p.60.