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This is my very first time writing choral music. I'm planning on having a choir making a re-exposition of an electric guitar theme.

This way, I wrote a choir (bass, tenor, alto, soprano) fragment of 20 seconds, so legato that it has no room for breathing.

Now, I wonder: If the choir has enough members, maybe half the bass-tenor-alto-soprano could breathe alternately?

That is: half the tenors breathe at one point, the other half will breathe at a different point.

Will this produce a natural legato sound? Is this horrendous? Or is it a common, extended practice?

Best regards, and excuse my heavy ignorance on choral music!

3 Answers 3

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If the choir has enough members, maybe half the bass-tenor-alto-soprano could breath alternatively?

They could.

Shall this produce a natural legato sound?

It will.

Is this horrendous?

It is not.

Or is it a common, extended practice?

It is.

Amateur singers in particular can have difficulty singing complete phrases in one breath even in fairly conventional music of the 16th through 19th centuries. "Staggered breathing," as it is known, is a very common technique.

Better than half and half, however, is to have fewer people breathing more frequently. Let the conductor work out the details. As a composer, you can just write the instruction "stagger breathing."

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  • Thank you SO much, phoog! Being an extended practice, I guess I'll take this way
    – glezo
    Dec 4, 2023 at 7:27
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    To be honest, I wouldn't even bother writing "stagger breathing". Choir conductors and singers will automatically apply this technique (or add in their own breaths if there's some reason they don't want to stagger-breathe). Dec 4, 2023 at 8:05
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    I have never seen the instruction “stagger breathing”; if the phrases are very long that’s just what you do.
    – 11684
    Dec 4, 2023 at 14:58
  • @GregMartin I can imagine a choral conductor deciding that it would be better to devise some sort of organic breathing scheme where the whole section breathes together. If it's important to the composer for that not to happen, the instruction is a good way to communicate that. Of course conductors can ignore these instructions, but if you include it then you've done what you can.
    – phoog
    Dec 4, 2023 at 19:16
  • @11684 usually, yes, but see the previous comment.
    – phoog
    Dec 4, 2023 at 19:18
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They will breathe. And they will breathe whenever it makes sense to them. Assuming they are conducted, the conductor/director may ask them to breathe in certain places and/or not breathe in other places. In between those, they often will intentionally stagger breathe, which isn’t half and half. Instead they will each try to breathe at their own time and quietly.

The best thing to when writing for voice, winds, brass, and strings is decide when you most want singers and players to definitely breathe or recharge the bow and when you don’t want them to.

You can write in symbols like slurs that indicate not to breathe or recharge, and you can write in rests or breath marks to encourage them to breathe or recharge when it makes musical sense to you. Singers and players are used to seeing a mix of these in music and they work very hard to not breathe or recharge when it’s not good and to breathe or recharge when it is.

If you care when they breathe or recharge, then give them guidance. If you really don’t care, then they will decide for you.

In terms of learning how other composers handle this, the best two options for you are to learn to sing or play these instruments and play or sing in ensembles; or to do score readings with close listening and see how players and singers deal with it. Ideally you would do both.

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20 seconds is quite easy for chorists who are experienced. There should be no problem for them to hold a note for that long, and if not, a choir that is used to working together will automatically just inhale as and when, to keep the notes flowing. 30 secs or more might be asking for a lot, but even so, a good choir will be able to keep the sound going without any perceived inhalation.

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    Someone has downvoted this answer. Please, add a comment on why you downvote -- this is after all a community where we want to learn from each other.
    – ghellquist
    Dec 4, 2023 at 13:18
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    @ghellquist - thanks for the support. Personally, I am sick and tired of unsupported dvs. With reasons, I would learn how to answer better, but right now, just feel, like on most of the 'net, someone feels safe in their anonymity - or maybe wasn't bright enough to understand the answer... Who knows?
    – Tim
    Dec 4, 2023 at 13:29
  • I did not downvote this answer but I’m commenting because I find the requests to explain all downvotes has a chilling effect on voting. If you want honest voting, let people vote how they want. If you get downvotes you don’t understand, either chalk it up to meanness or take a critical look at your own content and see what could be improved. The question is not about whether 20 seconds is too long, it’s whether singers will stagger their breathing and it guesses wrongly about how staggered breathing works. This answer could be improved along those lines. Dec 4, 2023 at 16:14
  • Specifically for you, Tim, I choose not to downvote and explain because I haven’t seen it change how you answer questions, instead it just seems to start an argument about whether I was justified in downvoting. We all get downvotes. We don’t all have concerns about it. It’s just stack exchange; your job, professional reputation, personal relationships, etc. are unaffected by votes here. Take the unexplained dvs in stride along with the unexplained upvotes. Dec 4, 2023 at 16:20
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    20 seconds does feel long for an amateur singer, but it depends a bit on the volume and pitch. But yes, staggered breathing is perfectly normal. Dec 4, 2023 at 17:17

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