Because we have so much music to learn and want to spend our time together singing as much as possible, the music reading and music theory lessons will have to be limited to quick mentions as needed and posts here on my blog.
Today, I am starting at the very beginning, and it's not Do Re Mi
. Before we can sing notes, we need to be able to breathe.
You might be thinking I'm a nut because everyone just breathes naturally. It's just there, breathing. You're alive; you're breathing. You're not breathing; well, you're not.
Singers, like athletes, cannot take their breathing for granted.
We need to breathe consciously and deliberately. Breathing properly gives us good sound and helps our body to sing so that it doesn't hurt our vocal apparatus. We have to be aware of our breathing and understand what a breath can do for us, how far it will take us. Then, we need to be in control of our breathing.
Fist of all, you have to be sure to breathe with your belly and not with your chest. We do that in our warm-ups most Mondays. Here's a cool video of a guy with a shoe on his chest and a shoe on his belly to show you what it looks like when you're breathing using your belly (and most people focus on the diaphragm, but it's more complicated). The shoe on his chest stays still while the one on his belly moves.
There are lots of videos on how to breathe properly, posted for people who do Yoga, and run and do other sports, and specifically for singers.
If you're not accustomed to breathing consciously, you might feel a bit dizzy when your start. Lying down like the guy with the shoes is a good thing. And, don't exaggerate. It's more about paying attention to what your body is doing than making it do what you want. Don't fill your body up like a balloon about to burst. Allow
it to fill up.
There are all kinds of articles on how we breathe and which muscles are used, and they'll basically tell you not to breathe too far down in your abdomen and not too far up in your chest, and to be aware of all the muscles that are used, not just the diaphragm. I won't go into detail, since most of you are not interesting in singing like an opera singer, or like Madonna (both of whom have strict daily physical work-outs and tons of exercises that focus on breathing) and if you do, you'll want to get a good vocal teacher who will go into detail.
In a choir, you have to breathe as a team.
We take breaths together sometimes and at other times we deliberately breathe at different times like a relay team: first me, then my neighbour, then another singer. Most of the time, we breathe together and the music tells us when to breathe and when not to breathe.
You need to pay attention to your body and to the music. There are lots of signs in the music that tell us when to breathe.
The most obvious musical breath is the apostrophe
above the music.
Some music has breaths written in with an apostrophe '
When you see that, take a breath. Easy. (Go Now In Peace has one on page 5, and Let There Be Peace On Earth has lots.)
A lot of rests
are there for you to take a breath. We had an example in our music yesterday: In One Voice, at the top of page 7, Sopranos need to hold ring
for 7 beats and there's a big quarter note rest before shout it out
and then a little eighth note rest before and let it ring
. Use them to take breaths.
In fact, mark all the rests in your music. Make sure you take a breath there and then you won't be holding a note longer than your neighbours, and you won't run out of air.
For a review of rests and how long to hold them, click here
Rests are about half-way down. Pay as much attention to the rests as you do to the notes! Silence is important, not just for giving you time to breathe, but to give another part prominence, to create contrast, provide drama, and more. The rest is as important as the note.
Generally speaking, you breathe before and after a phrase
, but not in the middle of one. The phrase could be a sentence. Look at the words, and see where there's punctuation. Breathe if there's a period. Take a breath if there's a comma or another natural pause as in speech.
There's also a musical way of marking a phrase. When a phrase is marked with a curved line above it, you need to take your breath at the beginning of the phrase, because you must not
breathe in the middle of a phrase.
Last night, we learned our ahs
in Hymn to Freedom in phrases. Curved lines divided the ahs into sections, phrases. We had an example of an unusual phrase in Chorus of The Hebrew Slaves, on page 5 at F, and again at the top of page 9. Here you have thronging, oh my homeland
joined by a phrase mark, so you can't take that natural breath at the comma but must wait until after Oh
. People often swoop there (another topic for another time). Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves has a few examples of phrase marks to show you not to take a breath at a comma in the words. Check it out. You see a comma in the words, but in the music there's a curved line above or below the notes. You must pay attention to the musical phrases
If you find yourself short of air from time to time, unable to hold a note as long as you're supposed to- like most of us- then mark more breaths on your music. Put in apostrophes above the rests that you want to remember to use, and put them in at the beginnings of sentences and phrases. If you come across a note that you always have trouble holding, work your way back from it to a place where you can take a breath, and mark it in your music.
If there is a place in the music where everyone
has trouble holding a note, or keeping the sound going through a long phrase, then we do what is called staggered breathing
. Singers singing the same part take turns taking a breath during the long note or phrase so that there is no obvious break, so that the sound continues. You sneak a breath where nobody else is sneaking theirs. You have to mark these breaths on your music and do it consistently so the team can count on you.
: rehearse with deliberate breaths, mark them in and observe them every time. Don't breathe randomly, or you will find yourself nervous and unable to hold a breath properly when you perform. Likewise, don't stretch yourself in rehearsal, or else you put yourself in danger of running out of air in a performance
because you didn't anticipate your ex being in the audience.
The conductor can also help you with when to take a breath. When I'm conducting, I often breathe with you. You'll see me open my mouth and I'll exaggerate a deep breath along with the arm movements when I'm leading you in. When I sing a hard bit for you, I often exaggerate a breath so that you notice where to breathe, to make sure you observe the rest, and to emphasize the role of the rest in the rhythm.
When you do breathing exercises, you want to increase your ability to take a good amount of air in with a breath and then to use it evenly throughout a phrase, or while holding a note. Evenly. You want to have the same quality of tone at the beginning of the note and at the end. You don't want your sound to peter out, even if you're supposed to get quieter.
There's a breathing exercise that we do where we go ts-ts-ts-ts... as we let out air. This is to train us to let it out gradually and evenly.
The best thing you can do to help you with singing and breathing is to keep your body in good shape. If your lungs and heart and all the other muscles that you need to sing are in good shape, your voice will have all the support it needs. Don't smoke. Limit your caffeine and alcohol consumption. Keep hydrated. Take care of yourself. And, singing will help to take care of you too. It's a good cycle.