Breathing and Phrasing

Rapid inhalation while eating spaghetti is not recommended.

Rapid inhalation while eating spaghetti is not recommended.


The breath is the foundation of the voice; the voice is the instrument you’ll be employing in your arrangements. For this reason, it’s necessary to remember (as noted in Composition and Notation) that you’re working with living, breathing, singing human beings and not electronic Finale bleeps. These imperfect a cappella singers will need to refill their lungs from time to time, and this means that each melody line will need to be interrupted periodically for inhalation.

Focusing hard on breathing, incidentally, can help many a choir suddenly and dramatically overcome various problems reaching far beyond the obvious.  Long notes will be held to their fullest, of course, but you’ll find improvements in intonation, tone, vowel matching, and general energy onstage.  Practicing breathing will also help keep your singers from ever neglecting their lungs in a moment of panic, and collapsing onto the floor in a quivering pile of deoxygenated flesh — it also is quite good for the complexion.  I have known people to completely conquer their asthma through good vocal exercises as well.


Of course, a truly inspired (har!) arrangement will make these gaps in tone sound not like interruptions, but rather as completely natural and beautiful pauses — this will be one of your greatest challenges as an a cappella arranger. I speak, of course, of “phrasing,” which refers to the sculpted sum total of the sentence sung: the arc that stretches from the beginning, up through the main content, and down to the end. Are you phrasing appropriately?  How would you know?

A good phrase is one that makes intuitive musical sense for the singers — even if they’re stuck singing doo bee shigga wah wahs in the block, they’ll feel most comfortable and sound their best if the phrase feels good to sing.  Additionally, it will be much easier to learn, remember, and master, since it takes advantage of the natural inclinations of the voice.  That is, there’s no need to train your singers to do something that isn’t intuitive!  For this reason, it’s highly recommended that you try singing the parts you write before you put pen to paper, or at least to double-check your work for obvious deformities.

Phrasing can be used in a number of creative ways in order to help create different textures: by staggering or aligning them across parts, many contrasting effects can be created!

A quarter rest.

A quarter rest.


If the phrase is over, how long will intervening rest be?  Hopefully long enough to draw in a nice deep breath without rushing.  Be kind to your singers and give them plenty of time to prepare their next phrase — even if it means sacrificing 90 measures of non-stop whole notes, you’ll thank yourself in the end.

What about rests in the middle of the phrase?  Again, different strokes for different folks — but the wisest solution is still to simply try it out in your own voice and see what naturally comes out.  A few brief rests in a phrase can help to generate rhythmic excitement (and to accentuate your articulation markings), but too many will be confusing and difficult to sing.  Follow your voice, and notate what feels best to you.

Some Refined, Encapsulated Ideas For You

Phrase-Based Textures:

Phrases are sung as though they are melody lines, and are a few measures long.  Parts that are meant to sound this way might be sung by an individual, an entire section, or multiple voice parts at once, in harmony.  When working with phrase-based structure, be careful about lining up entrances and cutoffs, and writing your rests as though they’re breath marks.

Rests can be taught very effectively as breaths — it’s much easier for the group to know to suddenly breathe altogether on a certain beat than to suddenly stop the sound, and the result is a clean cutoff.

Lifts are rests (notated or implied) in the middle of phrases, and are meant to be small gaps in singing — don’t treat these as breathing opportunities, or else the phrase will sound oddly stilted.  That is, try singing the line and figure out when is best to breathe instead of inserting rests all willy-nilly.

Avoiding Breaks In Sound:

Staggerbreathing can be performed with a section in order to eliminate gaps in the sound — it works well with regions in which there’s plenty of activity going on and there are no clear phrases.  This tends to be with sustained notes, or repeated rhythms which are meant never to “breathe.”  If you use this right, your arrangement will feel consistently full and sometimes eerily ethereal, as though it couldn’t possibly be made by voices.  If the technique is overused, the audience’s ear never gets to take a breath either, and the arrangement will lose excitement and become dull to listen to.

Drone-splits are particularly effective in making an arrangement sound fuller without disrupting the rhythmic drive of the piece, especially for climactic choruses.  To create a drone-split arrangement, start with a four-voice chordal framework for the section, and notate it with whole notes.  Then, to any or all individual parts, add a rhythmic syllable pattern to sing on the repeated pitch, which gives the arrangement its general texture.  During the performance, one or two people on each part will split away from the rhythm to sing simple whole notes, while doing their best to staggerbreathe.  The result is very striking and is often much more effective than staggerbreathing alone.

The following arrangement uses drone-splits throughout as well as staggerbreathing.  Listen for the whole notes sung throughout — if your group can tune sustained chords, you’ll be golden:

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I don’t quite understand the concept of the drone-splits… is there any specific time in the attached youtube video that has a good example of drone-splits? If you could tell me that, that would be very helpful! Thanks!

Written By Gabriel Alexander on March 12th, 2010 @ 9:01 pm

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