Jonathan Rathbone on Breath-points

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Jonathan Rathbone working with SerenataJonathan Rathbone working with Serenata
One of the things I discovered when sorting through my notes from the Sing A Cappella day at the end of March was a whole collection of comments by Jonathan Rathbone on the subject of breath-points. It seemed appropriate to bring them all together into a themed post, since, while each is interesting in its own right, when piled up together they give a more developed sense of his musical perspective.

1. Two types of breath-point

The first observation came in the plenary session in which Jonathan was rehearsing his arrangement of ‘Golden Slumbers’. Here he was asking the singers to note the difference between breath-points in which the whole choir would be breathing and those where a breath-point for some parts coincide with other parts continuing.

At one level this is a relatively simple and useful point that will help singers perform with better ensemble. But it immediately requires the singers to expand their awareness from their own line to include the whole texture, so it is an inherently musicianship-building request. And because the singers are now engaging with what the other parts are doing, they are already on the case with how the breaths work in terms of the musical meaning of the moment as well as the timing.

So it was an interesting instance of how an ostensibly quite obvious distinction can leverage a significantly more nuanced and insightful response from the singers in an ensemble.

2. Mid-phrase breaths

The second observation came when Jonathan was working with the Treblemakers on an arrangement produced by one of the singers in the group. There was some discussion about whether a certain phrase needed a breath-point midway through, or whether it should be performed in one breath. The decision was one to do with meaning, not lung capacity: the lyric had a comma there, but it was not necessarily giving such a break in meaning that the sound physically had to stop.

Jonathan’s advice was: ‘The best way to do this is to make the audience think you’re coming to a breath point, and then move on’.

I liked this, firstly, because of the way it conceives musical delivery in terms of the audience’s imaginative participation – that sense of letting your listeners know where you’re headed, then meeting them there. I’ve found my theoretical work on how ensembles work having a strong impact on how I think about the relationship between performer and listener, and I’m increasingly conceiving it in terms of empathy.

The second reason I liked this is because, as a barbershop judge, I have heard way too many performances in which commas were missing and the meaning of the lyrics consequently compromised, if not completely mangled. As in:

I only know I love you love me [huge pause]
And the world is mine.

(Honourable mention here to Bank Street for performing this song in a coherently punctuated manner.)

Anyway, Jonathan’s sentence gives a way to combine the articulation of meaning with vocal continuity that is very accessible for singers to act on. I intend to steal it and use it liberally in my coaching until I hear people singing stuff in a way that makes sense.

3. Breaths in different sizes of ensembles

This was just a throw-away remark, made when working with Serenata, that you have to leave more space for breaths in small ensembles than in larger choirs. Again, it’s a simple comment, framed in terms of the physical logistics of performance, but one which has immediate consequences for the artistic results. How much the concrete technologies* of performance shape performers’ interpretive decisions is both a philosophical and empirical mainstay of performance practice research. Singers sometimes get left out of these discussions, since the physical construction of the human voice hasn’t evolved much in the past 500 years, so it’s fun to explore the consequences of ensemble size beyond their sonorous impact and into their effect on pacing and delivery.

* I’m meaning ‘technologies’ in its broadest sense here: instrument manufacture, concert hall construction, amplification techniques (or lack thereof), whatever. In this sense, the choice as to whether to use a group of 8 or a group of 60 to perform a vocal work is a technological one.

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