Breathing with Singer as a Pianist

Perhaps the most important “virtue” a collaborative pianist for singer should have is the ability to breath with the singer. However, what do we mean by “breathing with the singer”? Does it mean physically breathing when the singer breathes? Does it mean breathing when you start a phrase on the piano? Or does it mean suggesting a breath from your playing without a physical breath?

For me the answer lies in the understanding of the singer’s line. A singer-pianist collaboration achieves it’s ultimate beauty from the mutual understanding between the musicians on the music and text. For a pianist to understand how to “breath with the singer”, first he must understand thoroughly how the singer’s line is approached. By this, the way to understanding it is obvious – singing it! And by singing the singer’s line yourself I mean physically singing it, not just whispering it through as if we are too shy to let others hear our voices. Only by personally singing the line will one understand the phrasing, inflection, diction and the breath that are required of the singer. Of course, when we physically sing the singer’s line we are trying to engage physically into singing it, not trying to worry about producing a proper bel canto voice as if we are required to sing it professionally in public – we are pianists! Only by doing this, we are able to understand the singer’s line and know how to integrate this knowledge into our playing on the piano.

After understanding this, we will find that there are instances when we need to do something to “breath with the singer” as a pianist. The way one manages these instances separates one from a novice collaborator to an advanced one. One of it is what I would call “parallel breathing”. At these instances, a singer needs to take in a breath – whether of physical necessity or phrasal/poetic requirement – and there is nothing in the piano part to assist or “cover up” the breath. At these instances, the pianist has to breath parallelly with the singer. The understanding of the length of the breath needed is crucial and also the time needed to come in after a consonant of the following word (if there is any) to ensure a perfect collaboration. The examples of this kind of parallel breathing are the breath after the first phrase of Faure’s Lydia or the breath before the last “Vater” in Schubert’s Ganymed (if the singer needs it). This type of breathing has to be done with conviction and without apology although it will seem that the flow of music is disrupted.

The other type of breath requires a more advanced collaborative skill to manage. I call this type of breathing “smart breathing”. During these instances, the singer reaches a breathing point while the piano part has either accompanying or melodic figures playing under the breath. The skill needed to “cover up” the breath will either make or break the music. The ways of managing this type of breathing are very diverse and different from one another depending on the context, but a general concept is to “widen” the piano part in terms of time to allow the time needed by the singer to take a breath. This skill is advanced and requires lots of diligent practice and experience collaborating with a singer to perfect. A good management of this type of breath will allow the singer to breath comfortably and allow the music to flow at the same time. Compared to parallel breathing, this type of breathing occurs in the majority of the breathes which need treatment from the pianist in vocal repertory. Therefore, a pianist needs to learn how to handle this type of breathing to be able to accompany a singer successfully.

Coming back to the questions in the introduction, the notion of “breathing with singer” implies a collaborative ability to handle the breathes (and essentially also the text) of the singer, rather than how one physically breathes. One might find it useful to breath physically when the singer breathes, one might feel comfortable to breath according to the accompanying melodies, one might even only need to feel the breath strongly in his mind without the need to breath physically. Nevertheless, this ability to handle breathes when collaborating with a singer is essential to an excellent singer-pianist collaboration.

© Nov 2016 Bernard Tan, All Rights Reserved