Vocalist.org archive

From:  Karen Mercedes <dalila@R...>
Karen Mercedes <dalila@R...>
Date:  Thu Jul 5, 2001  2:04 pm
Subject:  Re: [vocalist] ?'s about breathing, recitals, & voice size

On Wed, 4 Jul 2001, Becca sabo wrote:

> four years). I have a few questions. I've been in voice lessons for four
> years now and I am still having problems with breathing. I can't normally
> make it all the way through my phrases without sounding like I'm dying at
> the end of each phrase. If I pull the phrase out of context it is fine, but
> when I sing it with in the song I can't do it. How can I improve this? I

I've been studying almost twice as long as you are, and this is a problem
I'm only just now conquering, with the help of a new teacher. The big key
is how you take your breath at the end of each previous phrase to
prepare for the beginning of the next phrase - or, more
accurately, how you allow your body to "let go" of the compression that
keeps the sound "spinning", allow the sound to naturally taper off (as
you are no longer feeding it with breath), and "open up all the way
around" (ribs front back and sides - think of an umbrella opening) so that
the vacuum is created that the breath will immediately fill.

Other considerations: how you start the sound again so that you don't
waste breath on unnecessary aspiration. How you "plan" the phrase, with a
real destination in mind, so that you don't "blow your wad" too early -
this is particularly challenging when the highest or most dramatic note is
in the middle of the phrase, and you still need to sing beyond it. The
idea is that the "big" not is not always the "destination" - manage your
breath so that you are always shooting for the destination (the end of the
phrase or of the section of the phrase you wish to sing on a single

Part of the planning process includes setting the tempo for the entire
song or aria based on what speed you need to sing at to be able to manage
the "hard" phrase. Very few composers actually wrote metronome markings
(a few big-name composers who tended to be this explicit were Mahler,
Massenet, and sometimes Puccini). Metronome markings are virtually always
the suggestions of the editors who are trying to interpret what that
"Allegro" or "Lento" means, given their understanding of the composer and
of the performing tradition surrounding that composer's work. What this
means in practical terms is that you can almost always ignore the
metronome marking and choose your own tempo within the range of metronome
settings that apply to a given marking. Of course, it's a sign of
well-informed musicianship if you DO find out what the composer's
tendencies were and what the performance tradition is. But I believe these
will still leave you enough leeway to choose tempi that are right for your
physical needs.

Also: singing a long phrase on a single breath is NOT a virtue if it
detracts from the beauty of the phrase or the dramatic power of the
phrase. There are all sorts of clues in music - even in those endless
phrases by Bach and Vivaldi - about where very rapid breaths can be
allowed to happen. My voice teacher says the clue with Bach is to feel the
"dance" which is in every single piece of his music. And also to identify
the repeating patterns within the long phrases. When you can feel the
"pulse" of the dance, you can figure out where the accents are within the
repeating patterns, and you can then use the breaths you take in a way
that reinforces the accents, the sense of the dance.

Using consonants at the ends of words is a really helpful tool for
"propelling" your body into that opening it needs so the breath can fill
the vacuum. Use your Ts, Ps, Ms, etc. to kind of "bounce open" the mouth
at the end of the phrase - this will send the signal to the body to
"open", and the breath will come in.

Think "open" a few notes before the end of the phrase, to remind yourself
that the end of the phrase IS the opening, not just the last note. If you
think the end of he phrase is the last note, you'll to keep applying the
compression and won't open in time for the breath to fill the lungs for
you to start the next phrase (or segment - I'm using "phrase" here not in
the purely musical sense, but in the sense of a section of music sung on a
single breath).

Lotte Lehmann always said, breathe if you have to, but when you breathe,
breath as if you mean it. USE your breaths to reinforce the dramatic
effect of the music. Todd Duncan said, I don't mind if you breathe, as
long as that breath doesn't offend me. He wasn't just referring to taking
a shallow, audible breath. He was talking about breathing in the WRONG
place. It really does become a matter of strategy - determining all the
places within the piece that both text and music actually SUGGEST a pause
(even if it's only a microsecond), or at least ALLOW one.

And don't allow your expectations of how breath should be managed to be
dictated or even particularly influenced by studio recordings. I just saw
a television documentary that reconfirmed what I already suspected: the
recording of a single act of an opera may, in fact, end up with over 2,000
edits in it, applied by technicians in the recording studio, to splice in
different notes, to "air brush" over breaths and other "awkward" pauses,
to adjust intonation, etc. The fact is, that the singer who SEEMS to be
able to get through entire Handelian and Bachian runs on a single breath
is probably an illusion - aided in large part by the technician who edits
the recording. Listen to the same singer on a live concert recording (or
see/hear her live), and you'll discover that she's breathing all over the
place - not audibly, quickly and almost imperceptibly - that's a matter of
good technique - but breathing nonetheless.

I like to rail at Bach occasionally for the fact that he didn't write for
singers at all, he wrote for bowed instruments, and just happened to
assign singers to those bowed instrumental parts in his music. Given this,
we have to add the understanding of physiological possibility (and
IMpossibility) that Bach apparently lacked. We need to bring the HUMANITY
to his gorgeous but often transcendant music. I also like to remember
that the word "spirit" is a Latinate distortion of the Greek and Hebrew.
Indeed, in Hebrew, the Holy Spirit was represented by the word "ruach" -
which means BREATH. The Greeks also spoke of the Holy Breath. Remembering
that spirit *breathes* into words, I find it almost blasphemous to attempt
to sing WITHOUT making it clear that BREATHING is involved. Again, keeping
Todd Duncan's rule firmly in mind.

> also have a small voice. I've been told that my voice is too small to sing
> anything more than early music. How can I get a fuller sounding voice or is
> this something I shouldn't worry about?

First, it's possible that as you study more, and discover your true
resonances, your voice will "grow" in size. I don't trust anyone who says
a voice is "too small" to sing various repertoire. Yes, you may never sing
Wagner or late Verdi - but there's a lot of music out there that is
perfectly acceptable - and even desirable - for a "smaller" voice - written
AFTER 1750!

Knowing that you're at a university, where the politics make it very
difficult for you to change teachers, I would stil strongly encourage you
during your summer holiday and other breaks to get heard by other teachers
(not associated with your school) - to get a "second opinion". I am highly
distrustful of teachers who would object to this: a good teacher will not
only NOT feel threatened by your wanting to get feedback by other experts,
she/he should welcome and even encourage you to do so. Any teacher who
doesn't is arrogant indeed, and probably has far less to teach you than
he/she thinks.


My Own Website

+ I sing hymns with my spirit, +
+ but I also sing hymns with my mind. +
+ - 1 Corinthians 14:15 +