Breathing is, of course, the life-blood of everything your choir does. The initial exercise in our warm-up routine should help your singers to respect and think about their breathing. Apart from that I do no specific breathing exercises, but I do devote a considerable amount of rehearsal time to it. If singers' breathing and their use of the breath is imperfect, tone and pitch will suffer immediately. So ....
Getting the breath in (1): Frequently remind them to maintain good, upright posture, keep the shoulders relaxed, and feel the ribs rise with the inward breath. Discourage them from breathing too deeply - they don't need a complete lungful so they feel stuffed, but a comfortable three-quarters or seven-eighths.
Getting the breath in (2): where there is time to do so, insist that your choir breathe in rhythm and together, so that the inwards breath is as much part of the music as the actual sound. For instance:
Getting the breath in (3): encourage them to "feel" each other breathing - look out of the corners of their eyes, let their heads and elbows lift slightly as they breathe and be aware of the rest of the choir doing the same. By the same token, breathe with them yourself while conducting. The choir that breathes together, sings together!
Getting the breath in (4): in between phrases there is often very little time to take a breath. It will take a lot of practice and nagging, but you need to persuade them to make the time to take the breath. At the end of the phrase, support the sound to the end and "look after" the last note, not cutting it short or allowing it to sag. Then take the breath; then without any sense of urgency begin the next phrase. If this means that the music will lift off the tempo for a moment and the accompanist has to be flexible, that's fine. That's what we have good accompanists for. Practise and practise and practise this over and over to get it together, and to convince them that there is always time to take a breath however quick the music. Reassure them that it is they who are in charge of the music, not the music in charge of them!
Getting the breath in (5): your choir need to breathe frequently, and you should avoid making them go too long without a breath. However, there are some places that are very bad to breathe in. These are usually the places where everyone wants to breathe, and because of this they are very obvious to the listener. Sing this for example .....
All right, so you will naturally take a breath after "sun" - that's self-evident. But then don't you feel yourself dying to take a breath towards the end of the first crotchet of "day", before getting into the semiquavers? Of course you do! Or if not there, then certainly at the end of the next crotchet, or the one after that. And in the second phrase you probably want to do the same after the first note of "lark". However, these places are so obvious that you absolutely must not breathe there. In fact the second phrase really needs to be sung entirely in one breath. In general, then, to give your audience the impression of a single, seamless flow of sound, seek out all the places where your singers will naturally tend to breathe, and don't let them!
Getting the breath in (6): well, you may be saying, that's all very well but how do I avoid having half my choir turn blue and fall off the stage? The answer lies in the old idea of "secret breathing". While singing a long melismatic run or holding a long note, you breathe and then join in again, but you make sure that you don't do it at the same time as the person next to you - and the audience is none the wiser.
With children you can take this a step further. They love the mischief of it, and you can make it a wonderful game - "look, I want to hear this long phrase sung entirely in one breath. You can breathe, of course, but you'd better not let me hear you or see you! Now then, I'm going to be watching like a hawk ...... 1,2 ......" You will find that with practice they become very good at this. Strangely, when you do catch them out it is usually because you have heard the breath, not seen it being taken.
Getting the breath in (7): your choir's pitching and intonation will be greatly improved if you teach them to breathe "at pitch". For instance, look at the beginning of one of my favourite pieces, Saint-Saens' Ave Maria, already quoted above .......
This opening is difficult to bring off. They only have three beats to listen to the piano and think about finding their own notes before it is time to breathe and go for it (assuming that they are breathing in time on the fourth beat, of course). Consequently, they often grope for the first note. The answer is (a) to prepare the notes by internalising (imagining) them throughout the three beats, (b) to prepare their bodies by standing in exactly the same posture they will use when they begin singing, and most importantly (c) to breathe in on the fourth beat "at pitch". That is not to say that they can actually breathe in and make a top E or C sharp, but they can pretend to. And having done so, you will find they make the entry cleanly and with considerable accuracy, because psychologically it is no longer the first note - their brains have already sung it!
Now, having got the breath in, how do we use it?
Using the breath up (1): your singers should aim never to feel less than half full of air. If they approach the end of a phrase with less than that in their lungs, even if they manage to last out, the tone will fade and the pitch sag towards the end. They will gradually develop the knack of metering the air out so it lasts longer (but when all is said and done they do have to breathe and should breathe when they need to. They just mustn't let it show!)
Using the breath up (2): SUPPORT! I am not sure whether this is something you do with the breath or something you do to it. I just know it is essential, but explaining it to your young singers is not very easy. Michael Brewer talks of cradling a large furry animal in your arms. I presume he means an imaginary one, or choir-practices could be quite interesting! This is a nice image, useful when singing scales or scalic passages.
My own image is a little different. Tell your choir to imagine they can pick the sound up with the upturned palm of one hand somewhere in the region of their belly-buttons, and lift it slowly and smoothly up their chests. On reaching the breast-bone, the hand begins to carry the sound away from the body and eventually "wafts" it gently into the air as though it were a balloon or soap bubble. Even after it has left the hand the support is not finished, for with an outstretched palm they can wave the sound goodbye as it floats lightly up and away into the distance.
Now let them quietly sing a long, fairly high note and make the same motions, picking the sound up and carrying it gently away from them, following it as it floats away into the air. They will giggle and feel embarrassed, I expect, but you must insist. Frequently refer to this during rehearsal, and make the whole pantomime part of your own conducting technique. Use it when they sing up or down a scalic passage, or towards the end of a particularly long phrase, or when they are holding a long note. And in rehearsal at the appropriate places, insist that they actually go through the motions while they sing, in order to imprint the idea in their minds.
Using the breath up (3): One of the things that will impress your audiences is the choir's ability not to take breath at the obvious places, but you have to make it plain to the audience that this is happening, or what's the point? The way to do this is with a crescendo, for instance .....
Apart from the musical and "publicity" value of such a dynamic, there is the technical advantage that your singers will find it hard to take a breath while they are making a crescendo. They will, of course, have been employing their "secret breathing" or the whole phrase will be too long for them. The effect of this trick is very telling and professional, but do not overdo it - the total amount of crescendo should not be very great.
Using the breath up (4): Do try to choose at least one song each term with a very long last note - it's excellent practice for them at "metering out" and controlling their breath, and gives a good opportunity to practise what you have taught them about supporting the sound. If you come across one of these songs that has a very long held note at the end, with a long diminuendo or morendo (dying) or a niente (to nothing) marking, and the choir find this difficult even with all the tricks you have taught them, consider cheating. Towards the end of the note, once it has become very soft indeed, they can move onto a "siren" (a "nggg" sound as used in the warmup) which will use practically no breath and can be sustained far longer and softer than an open note. If there is a consonant on the end, no problem - just put it on quietly and neatly. Let them move onto the siren at different times, and make them maintain the same vowel/mouth shape throughout or the audience will spot the deception.
This section continues, and deals with .....
The young voice and how it works
Managing the voice
Singing in parts
Singing from memory
Singing in tune
How to sing sharper
How to sing flat
Copyright © The Choirmaster Press 2001