Where to breathe in a piece of choral music

One of the great joys of running Total Choir Resources is helping our subscribers and followers when they ask us questions about leading their choirs. More often than not, when I help out another choir leader, I learn something new or remember something I’d forgotten.

Recently, a choir leader asked me about breathing and consonant placement. I realised in answering her question that, to a large extent, I sort these issues out intuitively, rather than consciously. It was a good exercise to get my thoughts organised and written down.

The first thing that I think it’s worth noting is that there are no hard and fast rules about where to breathe in a piece of music. Sometimes it’s obvious, sometimes less so. A lot will depend on your choir’s make-up and abilities. Some singers can manage the long semi-quaver runs in Zadok the Priest, some can’t. If your singers need to breathe, you have to give them the opportunity to do so or you’ll suddenly find there’s no sound coming from the choir!

While there are no ‘set in stone’ rules, there are some good rules of thumb. Here are mine.

Favour the beginnings of phrases over the ends

If you need time to breathe between the end of one phrase and the beginning of the next, take that time from the end of the first phrase, not the beginning of the second. Make sure that the start of the next phrase isn’t late, even if that means taking a chunk out of the previous note and placing a consonant earlier than written.

Pay attention to the ends of words

It always matters where you place the end of a word, but it matters even more than usual when that word ends in a ‘s’ or a similarly obtrusive consonant. You don’t want ‘sss’ reverberating around the room as everyone finishes the word at a different time. Think of the the opening line of Panis Angelicus, or the first verse of Adele’s Make You Feel My Love, and marvel at just how easy it is to ruin an otherwise beautiful performance with a single consonant.

Paying attention to the ends of words will also help your choir to hold notes for their full value. It’s amazing how often you’ll hear choral singers petering out halfway through a long finishing note. Remind your singers that how they finish a piece is just as important as how they start it – probably more so as the audience will remember it more clearly.

Choral breathing isn’t the same as solo breathing

When you’re singing alone and you take a breath, everyone hears it. If you can’t make it through a long phrase, you have to adapt what you’re singing to allow you to breathe. When you’re singing in a choir, you have cover. Anyone can take a crafty breath just about anywhere and the overall sound won’t be compromised. It’s only when everyone does that at the same time that things come unstuck. So as long as everyone knows where they mustn’t breathe, you can give your choir a bit of latitude with long phrases and encourage them to take surreptitious breaths when they need to. We call this ‘staggering’ the breathing.

If you want the choir to breathe, breathe with them

Waving your arms around is only part of what you do as a choir leader. Your whole body takes part in creating the choir’s performance. You can model what you want to see from your choir in your posture, facial expression and breathing. If you want the choir, or a section of it, to breathe early, do it with them.

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