How to Stagger Breath

On Staggered Breathing

National Medal of Arts Recepient 2008
The Fisk Jubilee Singers is an African-American group that specializes in singing spirituals. Image courtesy of Magnus Manske via Wikimedia commons

Definition

To stagger means to alternate or overlap something. When you stagger breaths, you take a breath when others in a choir or group do not. They, in turn, breathe while you are singing. The pattern created is an overlapping on and off again one. When properly executed, audience members will not hear the pattern. They will only hear one long held note.

When it is Used

Sometimes composers choose to use very long notes in choral music that are impossible for a soloist to sing, because they know choirs can do it by stagger breathing.

Other times, a long note that is easy for an advanced singer is hard for individual choir members to hold out. When the choir tries to sing such a note without staggering the breath, the sound becomes weaker as it goes. Not only does vocal quality go down, but some singers drop out altogether. In these instances, an experienced conductor will suggest the choir stagger breaths. For those short of breath, they may stagger their breath more often. If done so properly, the unified sound of the choir is not disrupted.

End on Vowel Not the Final Consonant

When stopping in the middle of a held note to take a stagger breath, you should end on the vowel you are singing. That may seem obvious, but it might also take practice and conscious effort to do. For instance, if the held note is on the word ‘fun,’ then resist putting the ‘n’ on before taking a breath. A more common error is to start to close your mouth while you stop singing.

In the case of ‘fun,’ the ‘uh’ vowel may turn to more of a schwa sound as heard in the word, ‘could.’ Singing a different vowel sound will make your voice stand out from the choir and make your vocal exit noticeable.

Hold Mouth Position Steady While Breathing

While inhaling the mouth should always be in the shape of the vowel you are about to sing.

In order to keep the quality of the vowel the same, hold your mouth position steady through the entire process of staggering the breath including: stopping the breath, taking the breath, and starting to sing again. Any alteration of the shape of your mouth will change the vowel. Even a slight change may be noticeable enough to make your voice’s exit or entrance audible.

Breathe Silently

In order to make a long note seamless, each breath taken in the middle of it should be silent. Though a slight sound might be indecipherable by the audience, it will disrupt the purity of the sound. The overall effect will be less beautiful and pure. In order to inhale without sound, the back of your throat should be open while the air passes through. You may think of an egg in the back of your throat or visualize your mouth as a room. The tongue is the carpet that lays flat along the bottom of your mouth, the top of the mouth should be high like a ceiling, and the back of the throat should be a wide open back door. If you breathe slowly through your nose, you will feel the back of the throat open. Mimic that feeling while taking a breath through your mouth.

Terminology

Staggered breathing is the same as to stagger breath.

A stagger breath does not make sense because it denotes a single breath and to stagger requires several. Even so, you may hear the phrase "stagger the breath" often.