ART of the conductor’s job is to prepare his or her own music so as to then teach it to the choir. This includes preparing the score with all sorts of markings, including dynamics, tempi, phrasing, the occasional redistributing of voices, and breath marks. These markings make for an efficient rehearsal and a unified final performance. The process of making these decisions is, in my experience, possible in only one way: the conductor must sit quietly with the score and sing every part. In this way, not only do conductors learn every part intimately, but they experience all of the challenges each section of the choir will face. One of these challenges is where to breathe.
This may seem simple enough. We should breathe at the end of a phrase. Or should we? Many times, for dramatic effect, or because of our analysis of the phrase structure, or because of the text, or just because we think the music will sound better, we ask the choir not to breathe, but carry over, sometimes staggering the breathing within the section. Often, these places are dramatic because they deny to the listener the natural expectation of a breath. It is here that some real beauty can take place.
Most choir members, wanting to do things just right, will pencil in exactly what the conductor asks, in this case, a slur over the phrase to indicate a ‘do not breathe here.’ And most of the time even the most professional singer will give back exactly that marking, dutifully singing through the phrase without a breath. Perfect! Except for one thing. It might not sound very interesting. We don’t ever want to our choirs to sound mechanical. Instead, we want to take moments like these and make the most of them. Consider the opening from Thomas Tallis’ famous “If Ye Love Me.”
It would be perfectly acceptable to breathe after “me,” especially considering the comma, but I think that most every choir sings through to make a four-measure phrase. However, for this to become an important musical moment, something special should happen. Instead of robotically singing past “me” with no change in the sound, the music sounds much better by making a fairly obvious crescendo on the words “love me,” anticipating the moment when the choir will not breathe. This one, small musical gesture provides a wealth of gifts: it provides intensity to the line and a sense of direction; creates a warm, beautiful choral sound; it enlivens the text and gives it real meaning, and finally, it just sounds better.
This is an overly simple example of a spot where a decision not to breathe can create a beautiful phrase. Most decisions like this will be a little more complicated. But only by singing through all the parts on their own, musically and beautifully and sensitively, will conductors be able to test out different ideas or discover a potentially wonderful moment that they can then bring to the rehearsal.
As we make music which adorns the sacred liturgy, our goal should be more than to simply recreate the notes, rhythms, and words found on the page. Beautiful music is everywhere to be discovered. Conductors, find one or two extra special moments and make the most of them. Sometimes the most beautiful musical line happens with the simple decision to not take a breath.