A voice student of mine was struggling with those long melismas in “For unto us a child is born” from Handel’s Messiah. You know–those long, noodley phrases on that one word “born” that each section of the choir sings in turn until they get blue in the face? Yep. There comes a moment of pride for every singer who accomplishes singing that all in one breath (if the conductor chooses the right tempo, of course). And the trick is not to inhale past your capacity, or stiffen up in the body to keep everything from leaking out at once.
The trick is to not think about it.
Think of the way you talk. Do you ever have to think about how much breath to take in when you’re speaking, even for long phrases or emotionally charged moments? No. It’s automatic. Your body knows how much breath it needs for any given job, whether it be speaking or lifting heavy objects. W. Stephen Smith says in The Naked Voice:
“Somehow we instinctively know that to speak with a high level of emotion and power, we must take a big breath. In that emotionally charged moment, we never consciously think, ‘I am about to go on a tirade, so let me make sure I get a big breath.'” –p. 34
Of course, you can’t stop thinking about breathing altogether, because obviously singing is so different from speaking that we have to employ a totally different set of techniques to it that have nothing to do with normal speech.
…Or is it?
What would happen if we tried on the notion that singing is not so different from talking? I get that this view is controversial among serious classical singers and voice teachers–even anathema, or blasphemy, depending on who you talk to. But what value would we get from that comparison? If we looked at what singing had in common with talking, what would we find?
Well, most obviously (or maybe not?) singing and talking are both forms of communication. If you’re not communicating anything with your singing, it would sound no different from some bore standing at a podium or pulpit going “blah, blah, blah.” How many singers do you know who sing like that? There has to be some kind of intention behind the words, something that goes deeper than the breath you take, something richer than the vowel formed in the vocal tract. The breath and the vowel shape actually arise from this intention to communicate. When we take in breath to say something with conviction or emotion, we’re not thinking about how many cubic centimeters of air we need. We’re focused on saying something.
I shared this with my student and decided to experiment a little. We faced each other and sang the alto part of “For unto us” together like we were just having a conversation. It was like doing “Pick a little, talk a little” from The Music Man. We took the breath we needed and just sang the phrase, keeping eye contact, infusing the phrase with emphasis and energy at the appropriate points…and by golly, she finished the phrase all in one breath. The same breakthrough happened with my entire bass section a few days later!
So now I’m deeply interested in this idea of singing primarily as communication, a conversation with the audience, an opportunity to say something, and not just make pretty sounds. Nobody argues with pretty sounds, and I won’t argue that it takes something to make pretty sounds. But it’s amazing what happens if we let go of our obsession and self-consciousness over pretty sounds and focus instead on what we’re saying; it’s possible that the pretty sounds can take care of themselves.