This topic about breath planning sounds boring to most singers, but it’s probably the most important topic for singers. Breath is the very basic foundation of pitch and tone. If proper breath is not present, it leaves the singer vulnerable to “wiping out” vocally. So, here is my attempt at very simply opening the door to looking at the reality and effectiveness of proper breath planning.
I am privileged to get to work almost daily with singers of varying degrees of experience, but I find the professional and the beginning vocalist have one thing in common, “the inability to plan where they should breathe.” As simple as it may sound, it’s not as easy and intuitive as one would like to think. The Rock n’ Roll or Pop artist states, “I just wants to feel it and not mess up my vibe.” The R&B singer says, “I’ll just lock into the groove and breathe when necessary.” The Country singer declares, “I’ll breath when I run out of air.” I hear undisciplined talk like this on a regular basis. I could go on including all genres of music, but I will save your reading time from prolonged agony of undisciplined singers. All of these singers have one thing in common, they have no idea that planning where and how to breath is as important as knowing the song itself. Any small change in their performance could set them on a pitchy runway just because of no breath mapping.
Even with education and knowledge of how to do things, it’s very easy to get sloppy and forget important techniques like breath planning. We spend the majority of time finding the right song and learning it, but we never map out a healthy way of helping our voice to consistently sing the song. Most singers would rather live in the landmine of not knowing what to do, than acting like a consummate professional and never letting the audience see you run out of air. To be honest, there is no sense in a vocalist running out of air when they have time to develop a strategy and memorize that strategy for breathing.
I’m very aware there are several school of thoughts on breath support, but I will not be tackling these concepts. I want to just address breath planning. A choreographer would never freestyle dance on every routine, but would have some plan. Singers?!? Do you get it?!?!? Devise a plan for where you take a breath. Here are a few helpful hints:
1. Read The Lyrics First. For some reason singers forget the fact that a lyric is a musical script. Like regular patterns of speech we have natural pauses, held and shortened inflections. The lyric has places where stopping is necessary. You wouldn’t talk in a consistent run-on monotone sound would you? Why would you sing without taking natural pauses/breathes? This simple yet proven technique is easy. Read the lyric and feel how you would speak it. Your natural inflections and pauses are cues for breaths. If the song is poorly written it will not follow the natural prosody of speech and probably shouldn’t be sung.
2. Mark The Breaths On The Music or Lyric Sheet. A visual cue of where to breath is the first step for helping you memorize where to breath. You may find you have to edit your visual breath cue/map based on practice and taking into account some of these listed principles. Don’t just mark some breathing spots without observing. Strategically think and listen. By the way, mark it in pencil for updates or changes.
3. Punctuation Can Give Hints For Breaths. If you would put a comma, semicolon, period, exclamation point or question mark, it might be a place where a breath would naturally fit. Don’t overlook the value of the natural inflection and pauses of inferred punctuation. These are places where a breath would naturally fit.
4. Smaller Phrases Are More Parallel To Natural Speech Than Long Held Phrases. There is no said rule to must make every phrase a 4 measure breath phrase. To think that one general rule applies to everything is bad musicality. Every song will dictate a different breath plan depending on lyric and tempo. I encourage singers to think of smaller phrases even some phrases that only last one word. Breath as often as you can. We are not olympic athletes trying to win a medal on sustained breath. Grooved songs and lyrically intimate songs will most benefit from breathing more often than sustained breaths. Remember, even a sentence has breaks within it. Smaller phrases are healthier for a singer.
5. Let Syncopation Be Your Camouflage Breath Aid. When I see dotted rhythms I immediately think a singer might can take a quick breath cheat. Breathing after a dotted rhythm can give the sound an illusion of a deeper groove and it can eliminate the singer from running out of air. It’s a way of breaking a long phrase into a smaller section. When you have a long set of songs, you want to insure you have the breath to manage it. Don’t try to be the world’s strongest sustained breather. Make it easy for you. Breath smart and as often as tastefully possible and try to not physically exhaust yourself when it’s unnecessary. Look for places like syncopated rhythms to get that extra breath.
6. Held Notes Can Scream Breath Before or After. I find singers don’t set up enough air before a held not nor do they utilize a good breath after a held note. Be aware of those longs notes and how you set them up and how you use them as a breath opportunity after they are sung.
7. Choreography and Breathing Often Make Good Friends. If dancing is involved or any amount of movement, give yourself a break by breathing more often. It’s critical to build up the physical ability to manage both breath and movement. Exercise and core work help the singer build endurance, but be your friend and break your phrases into small segments when choreography is involved.
8. When Nerves Are In Play Don’t Make Breath Spaces Too Far Apart. I tell singers when nervousness gets the best of you, it’s very easy to forget all technique and you let it fall by the wayside. Pre-planning shorter breathing places when practicing will help the singer from becoming too nervous about running out of air. The more air that is moving the more calm and confident the singer will feel. So, let yourself sing small breath phrases. Don’t feel like you have to hold your breath for a sentenced phrase. Let the natural pause of a sentence help you find a space to make the phrase smaller. Shorter planned breath phrases help eliminate the nervousness.
9. Words Ending In Plosive Consonants Are Singer’s Air Pockets. I have spent a significant amount of time studying and researching the science of vowels and consonants in music and the voice. Plosive consonants voiced or unvoiced B, D, G, P, T or K at the end of a word help to fully close words and technically assist the singer in sneaking a breath without people knowing. If you have to break up a difficult phrase, this is a great way to do it with ease and without being detected. Look for those plosive consonants at the end of words.
Be realistic about breath planning and be very diligent about mapping and memorizing where you can breath. When you rehearse your breaths they will become a part of the song and will almost be an automated, proactive response versus a desperate, reactive madness. Breathing is paramount to a singer’s ability. Make your breath planning a focused and intentional part of learning a song.