The Freedom To Breathe
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about breathing as it relates to the choral singer. As a singer and voice teacher myself, I obviously take the connection of air to sound very seriously. And certainly, increasing the physical integration of the breath in one’s singers is a priority for every choral director. To be honest, I could write a book on breathing in the choral context, and maybe one day I will. But what I’ve been reflecting upon lately is my approach to corporate breathing – how and when we breathe as an ensemble.
I was, as I believe many conductors are, raised to insist that singers breathe only where I want them to breath, musically. As a choral singer, I was called out for taking a breath where none was indicated, and I considered that to be appropriate – I should not have needed a breath there.
As a director, this regularly raised questions from my choirs – “Margot, where should we breathe in this phrase?” Often, I was asking for some very long phrases, and while I was always willing to spend time working on how to breathe through those long phrases, in practice I very often ended up having to rework the phrasing, or just put up with singers snatching breaths here and there.
Then a couple of years ago, I had a week of revelation. My barbershop chorus was in a coaching with a respected coach, who told them that they should feel free to breathe up to 30% of the time, so that they would only be singing for 70% of the piece. This seemed a little extreme to me (actually, it still kind of does), but it did put different spin on things: at the end of that session, the chorus had a more unified, consistent sound, and I couldn’t argue with that. Then later that week, I read a comment from the great Tim Seelig, “no singer should ever take a breath because they need one”. And the lightbulb finally went on above my head.
If an amateur singer is taking a breath because they feel they need it, then it is most likely that their tone has already suffered for lack of support. Multiply that by 45 people in a choir, that’s a lot of choral tone we’re leaving on the table! Obviously, I was going to need to pay some attention to our breathing practice.
Over time, I’ve come up with three discrete approaches to ensemble breathing, each of which is useful in a specific type of situation. There is, of course, the staggered (or, more elegantly, dovetailed) breath, where singers breathe individually throughout the phrase. It’s worth noting that this is a complex approach which requires rehearsal, both in and out of context. I say this because in 25 years of singing in choirs, I never once had a director even really explain “staggered breathing”, let alone practice the technique (“just stagger through there” is what we mostly heard – and stagger we did).
There’s what I call PCBs (Personal Choice Breaths), wherein singers breathe individually as needed, even if they have regular breaths called for in the music. Although I would like them to be able to sing through a long phrase without needing to stop for air, the fact is that I don’t feel so strongly as to be willing to sacrifice our sound to achieve it.
Finally, sometimes I still insist on singing through a phrase. When I do this, I know that I may need to spend time rehearsing not only the phrase, but also the breaths leading into and out of it. But it’s worth taking the time, given the results – better ensemble, better tone, better intonation, better musicality. Because as it turns out, the breaths are part of the music, too.