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On Breath

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breathWhen two people you know mention a book in the same week, especially when it's a book whose title relates directly to your core professional interest, you know you’re going to have to read it. James Nestor’s Breath isn’t written for singers (although one of his many eccentric case studies is a choral conductor), it is written for human beings who breathe. But of course those of us involved in singing like to think this is one of the things that makes our craft healthful, so it seemed prudent to check it out and see exactly how well things cross-reference.

Breath presents itself as one of those revelatory, ‘this book will change your life’ kind of narratives, and with its interweaving of ancient, traditional texts and modern science (though rather fringe science in some cases), skirts along that line between ‘engagingly plausible’ and ‘woo’. As one of the friends who had read it put it, ‘Some of it is quite bonkers, but some things make a lot of sense’. So, it’s not one to read uncritically, and I’m going to focus my discussion of it on the bits which seemed more likely.

(This may, therefore, turn into a display of confirmation bias, ahem.)

The first most important point the book makes is that breathing through your nose is far, far healthier than breathing through your mouth. Our body supplies two ways to breathe, but the nose is specially designed for the job, whereas the mouth is a back-up option, with other roles most of the time. If you frequently breathe through your mouth because your sinuses are congested, they will only get worse – using your nasal airways is the best way to keep them working well.

This was not only the primary message of the book, it was also the one that has had me thinking the most, since singers are often invited to inhale through the mouth. In techniques that involve inhaling to the vowel you are about to sing, or taking a ‘resonant’ breath that ‘coats the teeth’, choral methods routinely use the intake of breath prior to singing as a vehicle to set the instrument up for the subsequent vocalisation.

Imperatives of performance and communication also often encourage an open mouth – smiles that show the teeth are seen as both more inviting to an audience, the oral equivalent of an open rather than closed posture. Though of course it’s entirely possible to breathe through the nose while you smile with lips apart – I think this is probably what we mostly do when posing for photographs, but it’s hard to be sure when you’re consciously analysing things you normally do without thinking about them.

And if we think about another turn of phrase we hear in choral instruction – to ‘take a warm breath’ – this is something that the nose is particularly well suited to. The nasal passages not only filter the air coming in, they warm it up on the way to the lungs. A breath through the mouth is by contrast cool (which is why you can feel it ‘coat your teeth’) and – more problematically for singers – drying.

So, this central point has surprised me by making me reconsider a very basic and integral part of singing technique. I can see a good deal of experimentation, both by myself and with others, before I decide to integrate this change into my praxis, but it is a compelling enough point to motivate that experimentation. Initial results suggest I’m getting a cleaner adduction between vocal folds this way, but I’ll need to go beyond the exercises I’ve been playing with into some real repertoire before I make my mind up.

(I’m aware I’ve not actually presented any of Nestor’s arguments for why and what ways nasal breathing is healthier. I felt that since he covers it at length, I don’t have to.)

This is long enough for one post, so I will return another day to talk about some of the other themes in the book. Unlike today’s ‘do I have to rethink everything?’ point, these others look much more like confirmation bias in action – elements of healthy breathing that do actually correlate well with how singing is typically taught in chorus contexts.

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