For optimal choral singing, good breathing is essential to sustain long phrases, develop vocal blend and quality and successfully execute the music's interpretation. By starting rehearsal time with warm-up breathing exercises, your choir will grow in its abilities and confidence. Just as deep breathing is important to athletes, it is equally vital for singers, and vocalists can reap better health benefits from proper breathing.
Deeper and Deeper
To sustain lengthy phrases, the singers must have plenty of air, yet breathing should be as quiet as possible so there are no audible intakes or gasps of breath. Singers must learn to take deep breaths and slowly allow the air to escape while sustaining notes or phrases. Anthony Winter, an Australian vocal coach uses the following method to teach deep breathing. The singers are instructed to completely fill all air cavities in the abdomen, around the rib cage and lungs. Singers are encouraged to continue to intake air even though they may feel they are about to burst. Then quickly, instruct them to release it all on a loud "hiss." As the choir develops its abilities to breathe very deeply, they will learn to control the volume of the expelled air, and thus, learn to breathe quietly and deeply. Some singers may feel a bit light-headed after the exercise, but with practice, this feeling will pass. If any discomfort occurs, simplify the procedure.
Singing scales is an effective tool for developing deep breathing. Begin with five-note ascending and descending scales in the middle range from A below Middle-C to E above Middle-C. Start with a round vowel such as "Oh." Vary the exercise with other vowel sounds. With each rehearsal, raise the pitches. To increase the difficulty, use the letters of the alphabet on those five-note scales. Vary the tempo and raise the pitch after each series.
Conduct your choir in an arpeggio scale, starting at G below Middle-C through G above Middle-C singing Ha-ha-ha using an explosive attack on each "H." Begin with two repetitions, then increase until they can sing it four or five times without taking a breath. Raise by half-steps to cover the vocal ranges in your group.
Practice Breath Control
When breath is quickly released, singers run out of air and the musical phrase is left dangling in mid-air. Use this example to illustrate: Blow up a balloon then quickly release the air and watch it squeal and flit about the room. The human voice will squeak and rapidly run out of air when released quickly. By practicing breath control, singers will increase their air reserves and learn to time the release so the whole musical phrase is supported.
In choral singing, staggered breathing is sometimes unavoidable, especially in volunteer choirs where members may have little formal training. It is best to rehearse this prior to performance so everyone knows when they may breathe. Have singers within each section decide their limit and mark their music with a small apostrophe where they may breathe. For example, one group of sopranos may take their breath after four bars, and another group breathe at six bars. This ensures the musical phrase will be covered by at least several people. Ideally, the choir will breathe together after specific phrases, but this is not always possible. Always bear in mind the age, experience and training of your choir members as you work to build better deep breathing techniques.
Rose Darling has been writing since 1984, covering entertainment, travel and home-and-family topics. Her articles have appeared in publications in Ohio and New Zealand, as well as online. Darling graduated from Western Illinois University, earning a B.A. with emphasis on anthropology, and is currently completing her master's degree.