HEN WE’RE WEARY from pandemic, politics, and the general state of society, it can be difficult to make ourselves think about vocal technique. Improving our singing takes hard work. We must wrestle with the body—and we must accept that things may sound worse for a while before they get better.
So, how about a quick and easy vocal tip? This one could have an immediate positive impact on your singing and deliver lasting benefits for months to come.
It’s called breathing on cutoff. It’s as simple as it sounds. When you finish singing a phrase, take your next breath immediately. It doesn’t matter how soon you’ll have to sing again. Breathe right away.
My voice teacher has always presented this as her number-one vocal tip. I still see her on Facebook, commenting on televised operas she has watched and noting with glee, “They were breathing on cutoffs!”
You can probably imagine why this is so important. When we take a proper breath before singing, the ribs float above the lungs, and there’s energy and buoyancy throughout the abdomen. When we finish a phrase, the tendency is to let the entire breathing apparatus collapse. Then when we go to breathe again before the next entrance—even if it’s only one second later—we must pick everything back up, if you will. It’s a lot of work, it’s tiring, and the chances are good that we’ll eventually lose that buoyancy altogether.
On the other hand, when we breathe on cutoffs, we give the breathing apparatus less chance to collapse. We also remind the larynx to stay low because, assuming we’re breathing in a relaxed fashion, it will naturally settle each time we inhale.
Now, what about when we do have several measures of rest? Should we hold our breath until we sing again? Not exactly. It’s still a good idea to breathe on cutoffs, but it’s OK to take a few “sipping” breaths before our next full breath and phrase. By holding our bodies in this energized state, we can maintain proper support throughout a long stretch of music.
One exercise I regularly use with my choir is what I call “Half Notes on Ah.” I give the singers a comfortable pitch and tell them, “Pretend you’re singing one long note, but you just happen to be interrupting it with a quick breath every two beats.” Then I conduct at a moderate tempo in 4/4. I remind them not to be musical and taper each note before the breath; the goal is to sustain the sound and maintain the freedom to breathe at any moment. It’s incredible how much this exercise wakes up the body, relieves tension, and brings life to the sound.
Try this concept yourself before you bring it to your choir. Sing through a piece you know well and remind yourself to breathe immediately at the end of each phrase. I think you’ll notice a big difference in how you think about the breath—which, after all, is the lifeblood of singing.