When to breathe during a song

In a recent post we discussed breathing exercises for singers and actors that will help you breathe properly and powerfully to maximize your singing and speaking potential. As a follow up to learning how to breathe, it’s also important to know when to breathe during a song. If you’re breathing properly but at the wrong times, you still won’t see the results you’re hoping for in your performances.

Breath planning

Breath planning is the process of planning out and writing in all of the breaths you are going to take during your entire song. Although untrained singers are usually unaware of this practice, they can usually get by with just breathing at rests and ends of phrases because a large majority of vocal music is well designed to offer natural places to breathe. However, the trained vocalist will have tricks up their sleeve for more complicated types of music and moments when they want to set themselves up to be really well supported by their breath. Planning your breaths in advance allows you to memorize them along with the lyrics, so that you never have to wonder or worry again about where you’ll breathe.

The goal of breath planning is not to go as long as you can without breathing or to show off how large your lung capacity is. In fact, one should never skip breaths during rests or punctuation just because they can; that’s a waste of energy and won’t serve the song. Rather, breath planning is meant to give you an easy map to follow while you’re singing so that you never have to worry about running out of air. The anxiety and distraction that is caused by wondering if you’ll make it to your next breath is both unpleasant and inefficient; therefore, alleviating that stress allows the performer to fully engage with the emotion and character of the piece.

According to standard vocal pedagogy, there are three places where it is generally acceptable and encouraged to breathe. Those places are:

At a rest.

The most obvious and easiest places to breathe during music are at rests. For those who don’t read music, rests are markings in your score indicating when the singer (or instrumentalist) is to take a silence.

At punctuation.

If there are no rests, the next obvious place to breathe is at a comma, period or other punctuation marking within the lyrics. Often, but not always, a punctuation mark coincides with the ending of a musical phrase and indicates a good time to breathe. Sometimes you’ll see a rest and punctuation happening at the same place, which doubly confirms that it is an appropriate place.

At the end of a natural musical phrase.

If there is neither a rest nor punctuation marked in your music, the final option is to breathe at the end of a musical phrase. This type of breath placement is not as obvious and requires that you listen carefully to the flow of the song, using your best musical judgement as to when you feel a phrase is ending and new idea is beginning.

At a place where you just plain need to breathe.

If all of the above options fail and you can’t seem to find an appropriate place, occasionally there are times when the singer must just make an executive decision and breathe. If you are consistently running out of air at the same place and there is no rest, punctuation or phrase ending, pick the best place you can find and just go for it. The placement may not be ideal, but it’s always better to breathe just about anywhere rather than to push yourself further than you can go, and end up tense, breathy or squeaking. The only place that is considered universally unacceptable to breathe is in the middle of a word (for example in between “birthday” - “birth” / breathe / “day”).

Are you running out of breath often?

If you find yourself frequently running out of breath in the middle of musical phrases, it might be a symptom of a larger issue, such as inefficient breath support, overall muscle tension or performance anxiety. Tips on those issues can be found in related posts on breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, and performance anxiety.  

More resources

Interested in improving your own breathing for performance? Try a vocal coaching session to get one on one evaluation and solutions.

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