Breathe On Me, Breath of God: a Singer's Prayer

by Dr. Richard Patton

How often have you listened to a singer on microphone and heard an audible and annoying gasp? They might be singing a perfectly lovely song like Buddy Greene and Mark Lowry’s "Mary Did You Know?" and just at the point where you’d expect a gentle lullaby-like mood, there is a sound from the singer that might stir the dead — not caress a child to sleep. To keep this from happening, the singer must quite simply learn to breathe - to gain control over this most basic of vocal techniques, before they step up to the microphone. The mic, after all, amplifies the good and the bad.

The two most common problems leading to this auditory musical challenge are breaths that are anatomically too high, and too fast. Much has been written about the breath that is too high. For two centuries, voice teachers have suggested that we singers should breathe from our diaphragms. Yet if you examine a video tape of your singing (a highly recommended technique) almost everyone lifts their shoulders a bit when they sing — and many support their tone directly from their throat and not from their "belly." Watch for the movement of the shoulders and the upper part of the chest. These are sure signs of shallow breathing.

The second problem is that singers often wait too long to take the breath they need. Therefore they are literally gasping air at the last moment. Invariably this lack of control contributes to the shoulder lift described above, causing them to support the sound incorrectly. This sudden intake of air - especially close to the microphone - is potentially disruptive to the mood of the song.

How can you solve these problems? Lie down on the job. I seriously suggest that you practice from a supine position on a flat surface. With a small pillow under your head to prevent stretching your neck back too far, take several slow breaths through an "ooo" vowel position. Do this slowly and see if you can’t allow your midsection to rise and fall gently. Try singing each phrase of your song separately with the same deliberate slowness of breathing. Make each of these breaths a gentle prayer. As we would let God shape our lives, let God shape the tone and words of our singing. Note that your shoulders can’t rise or fall from this position. Also note that it is much easier to breathe using your diaphragm this way.

Then do the same thing sitting on a stool with your head in an upright position and your back very straight. Use some form of feedback. It might be a person watching you, a mirror, or a videotape. The feedback is important. Gaining control over bad habits is often a slow process which requires monitoring. Only when the intake of air is slowed down and shoulder movement has disappeared should you then repeat from standing position. Note how important your posture is if breathing correctly while standing.

Even after continuous practice continue to monitor your efforts. As often as you can, videotape your worship experiences. Through this total experience, God can help shape your presentation, and your church will be blessed by your singing.

Perhaps most helpful about this approach is that it can work for almost any age or size group. To do these exercises with a group you might combine these concepts with a warm-up time. Have the group lie down on a flat surface. If you’re in a traditional church a pew would work fine. [Prudence might suggest that this not take place at the same time as a visit by the area Bishop or equivalent notables.] Sing two measures of "ooo" vowel in a descending fashion like this: on a five-note descending scale with one beat on each of the first four notes, and four beats on the fifth note. Next have the singers sing the same exercise, but rather than hold the last note for four beats, sing for one beat, exhale for one beat and inhale for two beats. The exhalation is important. Most singers forget to deliberately empty their lungs in the middle of a song and this, too, leads to gasping. Now try the same thing using an "ah" vowel. Here is the key to making this work. The jaw must be comfortably dropped before you breathe.

Singing is a spontaneous act. It is also an art form. As in any art it requires technical expertise. Almost no area of singing can be perfected if there is no control of breath. The technique is basic, simple and necessary. After all, worship means giving our very best offering to God, and we need the tools and discipline to do it correctly.

Dr. Richard Patton is Music Director, First United Methodist Church, Goshen, Indiana. In addition to extensive choral leadership, he teaches voice and is a worship consultant. He can be e-reached at: drpatton@juno.com.