When I was sixteen I auditioned for a prestigious operatic singing teacher at London’s Guildhall School of Music. She accepted me and announced that we would be doing nothing but breathing for the first six months. I would not be singing a note. This didn’t appeal to me so I left and found a teacher who let me loose on Puccini in the first week. That decision cost me ten years of struggle to find my voice. What I learned, too late, was that breath is the foundation without which no good singing is possible. By good singing I mean singing that allows you to express the deepest workings of your soul in a way that touches the soul of your listener.
Soul to soul through sound carried on the breath.
Last Christmas I was performing in a revival of the 1950s British musical: Salad Days. My part demanded a ten minute monologue (on the phone to an imaginary friend) whilst being poked, prodded and painted in a beautician’s parlour.
I don’t struggle to learn lines so I learnt it quickly and rehearsals went smoothly. Until the first dress rehearsal. The first flutter of nerves that descends a few days before opening night set in and half way through the scene my mind went blank. I froze and had to ask for a prompt which is about the worst thing you can do in the situation because it destroys the fragile make believe world the audience has invested in.
That night I asked my partner (a seasoned actor) what I could do to stop the nervous blanking and freezing.
The conversation went like this…
Michael: Just make it up if you forget it. It’s all rubbish anyway. The audience won’t know the difference.
Me: I can’t make it up. I can’t think of anything to say at all.
Michael: Concentrate on the other actors – take your mind off yourself.
Me: They don’t speak. It’s a monologue.
Michael: Well look at them then.
Me: I can’t see them. They’re behind me doing my hair.
Michael: Well focus on something in the auditorium.
Me: I can’t see ANYTHING. It’s pitch black.
Michael: Well write the speech up your arms…..
And so it went on. But I didn’t sleep that night. Or the next.
First preview and the stage fright was bad. I couldn’t concentrate on anything all day. I sat on the tube to the theatre feeling sick and realised that I was so tense I hadn’t taken a breath between Gloucester Rd and Earl’s Court.
And somewhere on that journey I recalled something that I have been telling my students for years: BREATHE
That night I sat in the wings, hair in curlers, phone in hand listening to the scene before mine. Resisting the urge to test myself on fragmented parts of the speech. Resisting the urge to run and check my script. Resisting the urge to ask myself why I’m here at all. Just focusing on breathing.
In and out.
Simple instruction to quiet a very unquiet mind.
Before I knew it I was on stage. I was speaking into a telephone. People were painting my face and pulling my hair. The audience were laughing. And then it was over.
My breath had come to my rescue.
So I’m reminded of my reluctance to spend six months working on breath at the start of a possible operatic career. And I’m not alone.
I’m not sure why so many of us are reluctant to take the time to work on and improve our relationship with our breath. Perhaps it sounds boring. Perhaps it makes us uncomfortable. Perhaps we’ve spent so long holding our breath that it’s just too frightening to release it.
Take a breath now. Enjoy it. It’s precious.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about performing, communicating and living in the present moment…..It’s all about breath.