Breathing and Musical Time

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One of the things that distinguishes skilled from less skilled choral groups is the relationship between breath control and musical structure. To be sure, there are lots of other things that distinguish them, but I find this one interesting for the way that it allows a fundamentally imaginative function – conception of musical shape – to be audible through a physical response.

All singers seem to breathe according to their understanding of musical shape. However, more skilled singers have developed the capacity to choose where this might be. They think about the music and, through a combination of intuitive response and conscious decision, place the breath points in places that group the words and/or notes into meaningful gestalts. That is, they work in phrases.

Less skilled singers seem to experience music in two-bar chunks, and will breathe after each pair of bars whatever is going on in the music and lyrics.

The archetypal example is the rendition of the harvest festival hymn:

We plough the fields and scatter [breath] the good seed on the land

Every September, church choirmasters across the land tease singers who break this sentence with a breath about ploughing the fields and running away in all directions.

A lot of the music designed for young children is built on two-bar units: ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’, ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’, ‘The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round’. Grown-up songs that get appropriated for children also work this way: I sang ‘We all Live in a Yellow Submarine’ happily at nursery school without even having heard of the Beatles.

So, when adults sing in two-bar units, it’s a sign that they are experiencing more complex music through this fundamental filter of musical shape learned young.

Now, if an entire choral group sings this way, it tells us that the director is thinking in two-bar phrases. But more often, you’ll hear a middling-level choir in which the director is leading some singers through the phrase according to its sense, but there are audible holes in the sound at the half-phrase boundaries where some singers are taking breaths.

Our usual way of dealing with this is to address breath control directly – to help those singers sustain breath over longer phrases. But I have a hunch that the issue is not so much that they can’t make their breath last, but that they are taking involuntary breaths at points imposed by an experience of musical structure that works in small units. That is, they are not in control of the music, but the music is in control of them.

Helping them develop conscious control over their breathing patterns will certainly help this, as it develops the capacity to do things on purpose. But if we only address this through the breath, and not also through the understanding, it will be harder work than it needs to be. If we want people to sing in whole musical phrases, we need to help them learn how to think in whole phrases too.

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