Making Your Breath Last the Whole Phrase

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Breath control is a work-in-progress for all of us. Our past selves were less good at it than we are now having worked on it, but we all find that we could just do with a bit more. Like many aspects of technique, there are both physical and mental dimensions to this. The development of muscular control is to significant extent a matter of fitness: if you've not sung for a bit, you find it harder work to access the control you have at your command when you're in practice.

But training the muscles alone won't make your breath last to the end of the phrase. It's also a matter of how you mentally engage with the music. This is a theme I have explored previously in posts on Singing Long Phrases and Resonance, Legato and Support, and back in March, a comment from Trish articulated the relationship between continuity of breath and continuity of thought beautifully:

When the flow of breathing is interrupted, concentration is broken and the flow of awareness progresses in jumps and starts.

I'd like to share a rehearsal tactic I developed recently with Magenta to work on this - partly in my usual spirit of generosity, but also because writing about it helps me work out why it was so effective.

We used this with a song that is prevailingly legato, and in which therefore extra sneaked breaths do show up. My notion was that, having been working on breath consistently for some time, we should actually be able to sing it without the extra breaths - or at least be closer to the level of technical control to do so than we were giving ourselves credit for when we topped up mid-phrase.

The goal of the exercise was therefore to get our musical minds out ahead of our bodies and turn the act of breathing into an entirely conscious and deliberate act rather than an involuntary, automatic one.

First we went through and examined where we were supposed to take breaths. There are actually enough breath points in the song for every part, though they're not always in the same place for all parts, and the length of phrase each breath is needed for varies. We then sang through the whole, deliberately noticing these breath points. I may have omitted this stage had we sung the piece recently, but part of the reason for including the song that week was to refresh memories, and I wanted people to have reactivated their knowledge of the song before we made more complex demands on ourselves.

Next we sang through the song a part at a time, raising our arms as we sang through each phrase, and only dropping our arms at the breath point. For the purposes of this exercise, if we ran out of breath before the end of the phrase we should just mime to the end of the phrase, and take the breath at the point scheduled. The point of the exercise, that is, was to breathe in the right place, not to have the whole phrase audible.

A couple of things about this phase deserve remark. First, the thing about singing through each part in turn: in typical Magenta fashion, we had everyone sing every part. This is less of a challenge than it might sound as we do this when we learn songs, so it feels quite normal, and everyone has enough of a familiarity with each other's parts to muddle through using a combination of aural memory, using the sheet music, and keeping an ear on those around them.

Now, the reasons we did this, rather than having just the people on that part singing (which I did consider as a possibility) were twofold. First, it supported our wider goal of developing people's musical awareness, of getting everyone feeling that they are singing the music, not just their part. Second, it simply gave everyone four times as much practice at the exercise. I suppose it's also worth saying that doing it part-by-part gave the opportunity for individuals to resolve any uncertainties they had with their notes, and also put each line under the spotlight so that anyone who sneaked an extra breath instead of sticking with the rubric of the exercise would be noticed.

Which brings me in turn to the business of raising the arm through the phrase and dropping it at the breath points. The point of this was, first, for each singer to have a very clear physical signal linked to the act of breathing only where scheduled. It needed to be overt enough to override habit and keep us on task. Second, it provided a very visible cue within the group, so everyone got strong social reinforcement of what they were doing. Third, the raising of the arm counteracted any tendency for the posture to collapse through the phrase, thus helping the breath to last.

I think everyone was pleasantly surprised at how well this went. The song had previously felt like it was demanding on our breath because it was quite slow and very legato, but when we actually measured out each phrase with our arms, it revealed that there are actually more short phrases sprinkled between the long ones to relieve any strain on our stamina, and that the few genuinely long phrases are actually well within our grasp these days.

We finished by putting the four parts back together, but keeping the same rubric. What was interesting here was that with the added complexity of singing in harmony and overlapping phrases, we did have just a couple of instances of people running out of breath at the ends of phrases. But having started to develop the discipline only to breathe where scheduled meant that people were now able to consciously clock where those places were. And having managed those same phrases while singing in unison, the response was no longer, 'That phrase is too long for me,' but was now, 'Ah, I must remember to prepare for that phrase'.

I was hoping the exercise would show us how near we were to having the technical control to execute the breathing plan without compromise - and we learned that it is already within our grasp. The flip side of this is that it also validated the breathing plan itself. If the exercise had shown it to be way beyond what we could manage, we would have needed to revise it. There's no point setting ourselves up to fail - but there's every point in giving ourselves tasks that we can achieve if we only stretch ourselves a little and commit to them.

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