Breathing with the pianist as a singer

I have previously written about pianist breathing with the singer when performing, which is very understandable, since breaths are needed by singers when they sing and pianists need to know how to breathe with them. However, I wish to propose that it should also be the case vice versa. Of course, breath is not a physical necessity for a pianist when he is playing a music, be it a song or solo piece. (This doesn’t mean that when a pianist plays he does not need to breathe or think about breathing – that’s a different topic for discussion) However, while the pianist is collaborating with a singer, the singer needs to begin/continue singing – and this requires a breath. Therefore, when we say “breathing with the pianist” to a singer we mean coordinating or adjusting your breaths according to what is being done in the piano part.

Having this foundation in mind, we are then able to identify different types of situations in music where the singer should understand how to breathe with the pianist. One of the very basic situations is to begin singing after the pianist has finished playing his introduction. This happens in pieces like Handel’s “Ombra mai fu”, Bellini’s “Malinconia, ninfa gentile” or Brahms’ “Wie bist du meine Königin”. The basic outcome that we want is nothing more complicated than counting and maintaining tempo, making sure that one doesn’t come in early or late. A slightly more complicated situation will be joining in the piano part after a considerable length of introduction which might not necessarily be the tune of the song. Examples of this will be the first song of Schumann’s “Dichterliebe”, Faure’s “Lydia” and the recitative of “Caro nome” from Rigoletto. The singer should have a very good sense of the music and joining in the music smoothly when she begins singing, like an entrance to the highway where the road joins smoothly with the main motorway. These two types of entrances might also happen in the middle of a piece when the singer begins a new phrase or verse. Intense listening combined with active reaction is the key here. The singer needs to listen and react to what is being done by the pianist, and adjust her breathing according to his music – after all, any good collaborative pianist always listen and adjust to the singer, so they would prefer a two-way relationship too.

Although it seems that the “breathing-with-the-pianist” moments are not many in a song, it is very crucial for a singer to know this skill, because it happens at least once in a music, if not more. This breath, although “just” a breath, is enough to make or break a piece. Singers know how important a breath is for them technically, and therefore they need to have a proper breath while beginning a singing phrase. This “proper” breath can only happen when they breathe with the pianist, or else they will face either of the two undesirable consequences: taking a careless breath, or coming in unmusically. The last thing that a pianist want to do is to cut a quaver or two for the early entrance or to apply the “emergency brake” before one enters singing – believe me, it annoys them – especially after the most beautiful introduction they have played!

Combining this with the view that a pianist should breathe with the singer, it is therefore not difficult to realise that a singer-pianist partnership is a cohesive ensemble in action. A successful collaborative pianist achieves his greatness in his skill of breathing with the singer and a great singer achieves her success in her skill of breathing with the pianist.

© Dec 2016 Bernard Tan, All Rights Reserved

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