Singing Long Phrases

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I’ve had several conversations with members of Magenta recently in which someone has said that they find it hard to have enough breath to last to the end of the phrase. In any choir, breath control is an ongoing project, but it is also something that individuals can continue between rehearsals. So this post is for them, and for anyone else who has ever run out of breath early (so that includes me, then….).

Unless you have a health issue that leaves you with a diminished lung capacity, you have the wherewithal to sing right through phrases found in normal vocal music. (And even with impaired breathing, you can string more notes together than you think.) We just need to overcome some unhelpful habits.

Physical habits

Rigidity and ingrained tension are the physical habits that get in the way of sustained breath. We tend to experience our bodies as atomised rather than integrated, and we thus likewise chop our breath up into little units.

There are zillions of resources that talk about basics of breathing, but I am going to recommend for practical purposes the section on Posturing yourself for Breathing in this article (scroll down a bit to get to it). It’s got some useful exercises to help recognise and understand the kind of deep-set breathing needed for singing, and the exercises will at the same time help get your body out of its habitual responses that lock up breathing.

Now, once you’ve done those physical exercises, you need some things to do that will give you practice in using breath from your middle. The following exercises are virtually impossible to do without reaching deep:

  • Breathe in to four, out to four, in to four, out to eight, in to four, out to twelve…up to twenty
  • Same again, but exhale to ssss sound
  • Recite a song or a poem in a loud stage whisper, making the sibilants as high-pitched as possible
  • Sing a song to ‘bubbling’ – i.e. a continuous ‘brrr’. Continuity is important – if you stop and start the sound with the rhythm, or if you find your lips stop vibrating, it means you need more airflow. (The image of supporting a ping pong ball on a fountain is useful here -– if you turn off the water flow, the ball falls off.)
  • Sing a song, ‘sipping’ in air to the words of each phrase before you sing it, so that you are spending as long over inhaling as you over exhaling

Now, after a little while on these exercises you will be feeling a little bit light-headed, which is nice – oxygen highs are the cheapest and healthiest buzz you can get. And you will be feeling physically both invigorated and relaxed. It’s very pleasurable, this breath work, you know.

Mental habits

When we interrupt phrases to take breaths, it is not just that we are responding to our bodies’ short-breathed habits, it also betokens an under-developed sense of musical purpose. (See also my post on breathing and musical time.) Breath control experienced at a purely physical level becomes hard work, and starts to re-introduce physical tension. But if we train our minds to think right through a phrase to its end, our bodies are much more willing to accede to that musical agenda, and will supply the air needed without us having to stop to think about technique.

Here are some exercises to practise building this sense of setting up a musical goal and singing right through to it:

  • On any note that feels comfortable, sing the numbers from one to four, then one to eight, then one to twelve. Over several practices, set yourself a target slightly higher each time to work up to.
  • Like the previous one, but sung to a sustained vowel (while you count in your head), starting each time quietly and gradually increasing the volume to the end. You can do this in different shapes, too, such as getting louder in the middle and quiet again, or starting loud and becoming quieter as you go. The important thing is to have decided in advance, so that when you get to the end of the note, you are completing a pre-defined plan.
  • Sing a song that has short phrases you can easily manage, then repeat it several times, each time a bit slower, while keeping only the original breath points
  • Sing through a song, running through the music of each phrase in your head before you sing it. This gives you plenty of time to breathe between phrases, but forces you to think much more clearly about the imaginative shape of the music.

We need to work on both the physical and the mental dimensions to sing long phrases with ease. And, since singing is one of those things that it is always possible to improve at, it is useful to note down what you do in each practice session afterwards, so that you can look back and see the distance you have travelled. It’s very easy to think you’re still struggling with something because there is still scope to improve – we also need to notice what we have achieved, not least to help us believe that further improvement is within our grasps.

Some great practical ideas here, thank you.

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