A few thoughts about breathing

All things share the same breath
The beast, the tree, the man
They all share the same breath

Chief Seattle

Breathing is part of what defines a living thing. It links us with other living things, as this lovely quotation shows. When we breathe, we take in what is essential for life – more than food, more than light, we need it constantly, every minute of every day, to stay alive.

Most of the time, however, we are not even aware of respiration. Unless we are stretching ourselves physically, or we are emotionally upset, our breath is something we take for granted. 

Breath has spiritual overtones.  The word “spirit” itself comes from the Latin “spirare”, to breathe.  It seems to make sense that if a person dies when they stop breathing, that their essence leaves the body with the breath.  

The word “inspiration” literally means breathing in.  We imagine the silent invisible force that produces art or heroism is part of the air, that it can be breathed in. Breath gives power to creativity.

Breath is the engine of singing. The movement of air makes the larynx vibrate. By controlling our breath, we channel the air through our voicebox and the passages in the head – our nose and mouth – so that it creates a sound.

When singing, we need to channel the breath without force, finding a balance between control and relaxation, getting rid of tension to allow the voice to come out in all its glory. We have to pay attention to the breath and develop our ability to breathe consciously, taking that quick silent inbreath and controlling a long melodious outbreath.  

Breathing exercises are part of Hindu and Buddhist traditions of meditation, as well as every choral warmup. To breathe consciously and slowly calms the mind and helps us to simply be in the moment.  Learning to be aware of our breath and make each breath last longer has benefits way beyond the choir rehearsal. 

Another important thing happens when we breathe: our body transforms the air.  What we breathe in and what we breathe out are not the same.  It seems more magical because the breath is invisible.  We breathe in air that is 21% oxygen, we breathe out air that is only 16% oxygen.  We change the air around us.

When we sing, we go beyond this and shape the air to create sound, which communicates and moves people.  Liz Powers, a fantastic choir director, described what we do as “creating magic with humans and air.”

I started with one quotation and I’ll finish with another, a very short poem by Adrian Mitchell, written on the death of one of his heroes.  

He breathed in air, he breathed out light.
Charlie Parker was my delight.

Adrian Mitchell