Choral Breathing and the Quest for Perpetual Legato

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I’m on record for feeling somewhat critical of the practice of choral breathing – that is, of singers in a choir managing their breathing points by breathing whenever they feel like, so long as it’s at a different time from their neighbours, and they do it in the middle of a vowel rather than shortening a syllable.

I have heard people promoting the idea in terms of vocal freedom, and actually this argument is a compelling one its favour. People are most likely to tense up and get anxious while singing when running out of breath, so if you remove that as something to worry about, they’ll sing with both greater emotional and physical freedom. I do like this rationale, though I am still concerned about the dissociation of technique from musical narrative, and the way that it actively prevents choral singing being a good training ground for solo singing and single-voice-per-part ensembles.

Anyhow, I was thinking about this recently while arranging for a group that uses choral breathing as a matter of course. There was a phrase that I could sometimes sing in one breath, if I remembered it was coming up and got myself organised to do so, but it was kind of touch and go. And it was tempting to think, oh well it doesn’t matter, they’re going to breathe all over the place anyway. But after sleeping on the question I rewrote that passage to make it coherently singable in complete musical ideas. The chorus who sings it in the first instance might not take advantage of that possibility, but a future quartet shouldn’t have to rewrite it to make it performable.

There was a basic principle in the barbershop style definition for contest purposes back when I was a judge that stated a chorus shouldn’t do anything (in terms of their arrangement choices) that a quartet couldn’t also do. (It might still be there, I just don’t carry all the detail around in my head any more.) That could be seen as something of an arbitrary rule, given that, aesthetically, choruses can do all kinds of things that a quartet can’t, but it does have some integrity in recognising the chorus as a derivative form of the genre, that emerged out of the original form. It’s something I like to bear in mind while arranging, for the practical reason that repertoire is so regularly shared between the two forms of ensemble.

Anyway, this experience got me wondering about the underlying imperative for continuity of sound that encourages choral breathing as a practice. I’m particularly thinking about barbershop here, though its relationship with other chorus genres will become relevant as we go on, and there may be parallel questions to ask about piano pedalling, which also tends to the habitually-connected as a default.

One might suspect that the use of notation programs, which of course do not need to breathe at all, has encouraged the production of arrangements that aren’t actually singable as written without choral breathing. But the aesthetic for perpetual legato goes back before the invention of notation software, so whilst I think it probably has facilitated breath-unfriendly arranging practices, it can’t be the origin of the taste for obsessively connecting everything together.

There are all kinds of ensemble techniques and interpretive mannerisms well embedded by the 1980s that promote continuity of sound, especially at phrase ends. Such as ‘covering’ a pick-up, that is the parts who aren’t singing an anacrusis continuing to hold the last note of the previous phrase while the part(s) that are breathe, and only breathing once the anacrusis has started. Or all four singers singing through the end of one phrase, and sweeping into the next, to take a breath for expressive purposes halfway through the next line.

These practices aren’t there in the early years of the Barbershop Harmony Society, when, quartets sing in generally quite short phrases, and with a significantly choppier articulation than would be accepted as good practice now. The 1960s sees the introduction of the more conversational style of ballad delivery, which delivers lyrics in longer phrases, although you still get a great variety of articulation in up-tunes than you do 20 years later. (There’s also a wonderful lightness and suppleness of tone that gets weighed down with the muscularity of the sound production in 1980s quartets.)

Given that the invention of the barbershop chorus as a performing, and competing, ensemble happened during the 1950s, and quickly became a medium for the delivery of vocal pedagogy en masse, you have to suspect that this was also the means for the introduction of the perpetual legato into quartet techniques.

Legato is a central tenet of classical singing of course. But if you read the American choral conducting literature of the mid-20th century, it talks about a much greater variety of articulation than you’d realise if you took the barbershop adoption of choral techniques as fully representative. The classification of ictus styles into legato, staccato and marcato clearly standard technique, appearing in several texts from the 1940s onwards. So it’s not just about classically trained choral conductors coming into the barbershop world, though I’m sure this is part of the story.

That’s about as far as I’ve got with these musings so far, but I’m sharing them anyway in case you find it interesting to think about too. It will certainly affect how I listen, particularly to historical recordings, and if your listening produces anything interestingly relevant, do let me know.

Yes! A great round-up in this article. I don't like the continuous legato except maybe as an occasional special effect, and would challenge it when I taught conducting (most ad hoc groups can't manage it anyway). It's unpleasant to listen to as I get a tension in the chest from subconsciously suffocating on singers' behalf! It's an uncomfortable habit to acquire, and there's something dubious about the boss trying to control the very means of life in the masses. Most old music, if you can't sing a phrase in one breath, you're doing it too slow (classical or popular, and I'm looking at Ella here). I feel the same about the barbershop dovetail too - leads to a nasty mannerism of the lead elongating the pickup in a way that is not linguistically natural and breaks listener absorption. Silence is part of music, as we've learned!

I think 'mannerism' is a key point here - the dovetail can be effective as an expressive device, but as the default way of going about phrase boundaries it draws attention to itself as a technique.

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