MUSIC: The Rhetoric Of Breath by Thomas H. Troeger

The Theology and Practice of Church Music

The Rhetoric Of Breath by Thomas H. Troeger

From: Music As Prayer

I once attended a concert and master class featuring soprano Emma Kirkby, one of the preeminent singers of renaissance and baroque song, accompanied on lute by Jakob Lindberg.  The concert was splendid, but even more intriguing to me was the master class and Kirkby’s work with a young tenor of obvious potential but whose voice sounded veiled and stiff.  There was the promise of loveliness in his sound, but somehow the voice did not blossom in the room.  The musical phrases, though sung accurately, lacked the flow and pliability that the recitative and aria required.

Kirkby began to work with the tenor on his breathing.  During the first stage of the process, she did not have him sing but rather had him say the words of the recitative and then the aria.  First she spoke phrases from the text, taking dramatic breaths at commas and periods and giving us the “music” of the language, the drama of its pace and inflection.  Then she had the student speak the same lines.  Once the student’s speech became more “musical,” Kirkby moved from speaking the libretto to singing it, using the same dramatic breathing and inviting the singer to follow.

During the process, Kirkby made two striking statements.  The first was, “Breath is part of the rhetoric.”  Rhetoric in this context refers not to inflated political speech (a common meaning of the term in popular American idiom) but rather the verbal strategies of a writer or speaker to engage and win over an audience of readers or hearers.  What is striking in Kirkby’s statement is that she realizes how spoken rhetoric is not simply a function of the words but also of where the speaker takes breaths, because a speaker’s pausing and pacing shape how listeners receive and process the words.  A speaker and a singer need to understand the rhetoric of breath if they are to deliver their speech or their song as effectively as possible.  Without learning the rhetoric of breath, the young tenor was not able to realize the full potential of his vocal instrument.

Organists do not have to support the tone of their instruments with their breath, but the rhetoric of breath still applies to their playing just as much as it does to other instrumentalists.  I think, for example, of the greatest service players I have heard.  What makes their playing such a delight to the congregation?  It is the way their playing breathes with the congregation, the way they pause exactly the right amount before they leave the resolved chord to begin the next stanza in a hymn, the way they give shape to a phrase that suggests the inflection of a singing voice, the way they finish a fermata and move into the next motif.  Their playing embodies the rhetoric of breath.

The second thing that Kirkby said to the singer made specific reference to the nature of the Biblical passage he was singing: “You are the prophet here, delivering a prophet’s words.”  Then she had the singer step farther from the accompanying harpsichord that was behind him and said: “You need to leave space around you for the breath of the Spirit that comes through the prophet.”  With this she made a sweeping hand gesture, suggesting that the rhetoric of breath belongs to those deep impulses of life and spirit that feed great music-making.  We who make music are vessels of something larger than the notes on the page.  We release into the air a witness to the breath of being itself, and that is as true for organists and instrumentalists as it is for singers.  May the rhetoric of breath sound in all our playing and singing.

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