Friday, June 24, 2011

Breathing Lessons

There is a technique in choral singing called "stagger breathing", wherein the choir is able to sing long phrases of music without an audible break in the phrase for a breath, because singers of the same vocal part (sopranos, altos, et al) essentially take turns breathing; someone's voice is always filling in the blanks and representing that vocal part. The result is something of a sonic mirage: it sounds as if the choir never stops singing, even for a split second. It is continual sound -- ongoing music.

A couple years ago, I sang in an eight-voice vocal group for a church event at Christmas. We were singing "O Holy Night", acapella (sans accompaniment, for the non-musicians out there). If you're familiar with the song, you know that the musical phrases are written to be long and stretched and dynamic, with a great deal of arc and shape to them. Take an obvious breath in the middle of one of those gorgeous phrases, and you kill the song and ol' Adolphe Charles Adams turns over twice in his grave. Needless to say, we decided to "stagger our breathing."

Now, there's a certain amount of compassion and sensitivity required on the part of the vocalists in order to pull this technique off. There is no such thing as "every man for himself." For example, my friend Shauna and I were the two sopranos singing the melody line. In order to ensure that Shauna didn't run out of steam and fall into a lifeless heap on the stage beside me, I had to be sensitive to her body language, the timbre and tone of her voice, and her physiological requirement for oxygen. She, in turn, had to do me the same favor. Working together this way, side-by-side, with a purposeful, intentionally keen awareness of one another's moments of strength and weakness, we were able to compliment one another and empower one another to give the best of our voices (and ourselves) to the song. We were working separately -- and yet collaboratively - toward a common goal.

It's a pretty cool model of successful inter-dependent living, really. In a sense, it illustrates the way God has intended for human beings to "do life." In any close relationship -- that of best friends or partners or husband and wife -- there has to be a certain climate of give-and-take. The key, I would surmise, is that both partners should not generally be on the giving and taking end at the same time - or worse yet, all the time. And this, of course, is where the compassion and senstivity come into play.

We can do that, can't we? If Shauna and I, as singers, were able to be intentional enough about being sensitive to one another's condition to make pretty music, then surely we can carry that same principle with us into our non-musical endeavors like, say, life. Surely the integrity of our relationships is as important as the integrity of a song. And maybe getting along with one another and enabling one another to be the best that we can be, so that we can give the best we have to give, is as elementary as learning to breathe.