Singing The Tempest and Relearning How to Breathe

Well, my wardrobe is not exactly prepared for a summer in San Francisco.  BASOTI warned us it would be “chilly” – they should’ve gone with “downright cold” and “as windy as Chicago.”  I was a little too optimistic packing dresses and flowing summery tops, and now I wish the luggage space had been used for sweaters and coats!

The Tempest.  Yesterday was the first music rehearsal for my scene from Lee Hoiby’s The Tempest.  This opera was written in 1986, and the libretto is based on Shakespeare’s play.  Hoiby uses a combination of old and new to great effect.  The lyrics are from another century; the themes are very real to a present day audience.  Traditional harmonies are organized into clear structures and patterns; a few bars later, voices are woven together in a free exchange and exploring a less obvious tonality.  A phrase starts off with unusual leaps and steps to create musical tension before moving to a shiver-inducing resolution.  Of my three scenes, this scene contained, without contest, the most challenging music to learn because I could not always predict where the vocal or instrumental line would go.

The first half of the scene has Ferdinand and Miranda (me!) in a duet.  They begin with shy, round-about expressions of concerns for each others’ well-being, which evolve into declarations of love and hopes for marriage.  Propero, Miranda’s father, is the orchestrator of this affair, and he calls three goddesses to bless the couple.  The three goddesses, Iris, Ceres, and Juno, then sing unending blessings and bounty onto Ferdinand and Miranda’s lives together.  The second half is structurally and harmonically very different from the first, which gives the scene such depth.

The music rehearsal went more smoothly than I think most had anticipated.  The fact that the opera is in English made it easy to memorize, but I find it difficult to keep the core of my voice engaged in this language.  After some reflection, I think the issue is approaching the beginnings of each phrase from below rather than above.  Coming from below suggests a lack of preparation; I know what note to aim for, but I am leaping up without a foundation in place to help get me there.  Coming from above means a well-executed inhalation acts as a springboard to create the energy needed to start singing on the right pitch.  Too many years of listening to pop music has lead me to associate singing in English with a lax initiation of the voice.  Just listen to all those pop singers scooping their way up to their notes and putting so much air into their sound.  It’s emotional and expressive, but it’s not a good way for The Tempest to be sung.

Breathing.  Apparently, my concept of breathing has been wrong this entire time!  Or it may be more accurate for my to say my conscious concept of breathing has been incomplete.  There have definitely been times in lessons and competitions were my breath clicked into place and none of my phrases felt like a breath-holding contest.  But most of my performance anxiety stems from not knowing what kind of tone I will produce when I’m feeling nervous.  The simple solution would be for me to never get nervous, but that may not ever happen so I need a way to improve the consistency of my tone instead.

Singers always hear, “Don’t breathe with your chest, use your diaphragm, support, engage your core, fill your lungs, your ribcage should expand, breathe deep, let your belly hang out!” While none of this is wrong, these comment made me forget exactly where our lungs are located:

Location of the Lungs

Ah, our lungs!

Lungs are big; the extend all the way up into your upper chest and under our collar bones!  For so long I concentrated on keeping my upper chest and collar bones still, trying to fill the bottom half of my torso with air.  I let go of my pride and stopped sucking in my stomach.  When I took a deep breath, I imagined my rib cage expanding to the left and right sides, and even to the front above my stomach …  But what about the rest of my lungs?

Our Alexander Technician pointed out that our ribcage is a dynamic column that can expand in 360° and is subject to the laws of volume and pressure. When the ribcage expands, volume increases, internal pressure drops, and air rushes in to equalize the pressure.  Now I have no reason to worry about orchestrating a good inhalation because the lungs will naturally fill up the “right way.”

When I allowed this natural inhalation to take place, I feel the expansion from the bottom rib (a few inches above my hip bone) all the way up to the base of my neck (the area between my upper shoulder blades).  The muscles between my rips and attaching my ribs to my spine lengthen, which is an amazing feeling.  When was the last time you were aware of those muscles?  I’ve spend so long breathing low I forgot how to breathe wholly.

Of course, I am going to incorporate this into all my singing, but I am particularly curious to see how this changes my English pieces.

Breathing deeply and fully,


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