Soapbox: On Choral Breathing

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soapboxWhilst writing my recent post on making your breath last a whole phrase, I suddenly realised I had developed an opinion on something I had previously felt quite mildly about. This is the practice of 'choral breathing'. By this I mean the technique whereby individuals can manage their own breath within the choral sound, most succinctly summarised by the instruction, 'You can breathe wherever you like, so long as I don't hear you'. The object is to preserve the integrity of the overall musical flow as perceived by the audience.

There are a number technical elements choristers need to master to make this happen. First, you need to stagger your breathing with your neighbours so you don't all take your sneaky cheat top-up breaths at the same time. Second, you need to resist the temptation to breathe in the obvious mid-phrase points. Third, you need to avoid closing word sounds early to breathe - so you need to learn to take your breath when your mouth is open on a vowel.

I recognise that this technique is found useful by many choral groups, and often the better ones. It certainly marks a level of skill up from the kind of random involuntary breathing that interrupts the resonance and disrupts the synchronisation of an ensemble. It signals a considerable degree of conscious control over the performance - of being in control of the music, rather than the music being in control of the performers.

But I can't help thinking it encourages a rather unmusical relationship with what you're singing.

The basic problem is that it allows (even encourages) individual singers to hold themselves askance from the musical narrative, opting out and back in according needs driven by their own (lack of) vocal technique rather than the expressive agenda of what they're singing.

If you think about it, each element of the technique is explicitly counter to what you would do naturally, intuitively. The interpersonal coordination of singing together with others is fundamental to satisfaction of choral singing, yet choral breathing requires you to unhook your breathing from that of those around you. You have to disconnect from musical meaning to breathe independently from the periodicity of melody and the sense of the words. The Manager stays in control of the performance, leaving the Communicator in the shadows.

So choral breathing systematically distances singers from the emotional essence of the repertoire they sing. And I suppose I could accept an argument that said that the effect of the whole on the audience is more important than the experience of the individual singers if I didn't hold, along with people like Tom Carter, the idea that the emotional engagement of the singers is central to quality of the audience's experience. Technical control is of course desirable, but its value lies in how it serves musical meaning.

Choral breathing also systematically limits individual singers; it is an industrial technique, designed to get acceptable results from minimum investment. There are all kinds of debates about the overlaps and differences between choral, solo and small ensemble singing, but the fact remains that choirs are a primary training ground for singers' musicianship. You start off in choir, then progress to singing lessons or singing in a quartet. You'll learn different things in these different musical environments, but you'd generally expect them to build upon the grounding built in choir. If you've learned to rely on choral breathing to get through a performance, you have a major obstacle to succeeding as a soloist or chamber singer.

Now, the Manager is a useful chap to have in the house for emergencies, and part of me still thinks it useful to have the capacity to use choral breathing techniques if you find you've mismanaged your breath in the heat of the moment in performance. But because the elements of choral breathing technique are so very counter-intuitive, it takes a lot cognitive effort to master them.

So I can't help thinking that if you're going to invest that much time and trouble into breath management techniques, why not just make the effort into learning how sing phrases? It takes more care and more commitment - more personal investment from both conductor and singers - but since it is both more meaningful and more rewarding, it doesn't necessarily take much more time. So as a short-cut to a polished performance, choral breathing may well be a false economy.

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