I have to remember to breathe.
The average human takes 30,000 breaths every day. Most of these we don’t even notice because breathing is controlled by our medulla, part of our autonomic nervous system. I normally breathe without even giving it a thought, but now my mind comes to focus singularly on the flow of the air into and out of my lungs. Breathing for singing requires me to carefully consider the way that my lungs expand and contract and concentrate on maintaining a consistent flow of breath. Each breath must be deliberate and controlled, each inhalation bringing in just enough air to make it through the next phrase. No air should be wasted, but I should never have too little air to complete a phrase. I allow myself to singularly think of my breath. A brief sense of peace comes over me as I breathe for a moment.
In, out. In, out.
I consider my character. He is an Italian tailor who is lamenting his rejection by the woman he loves. How would he feel? How would he stand? As I adjust my posture to better convey the emotions expressed by the song, I think about my tone and emphasis. Italian is not my first language, but after weeks of practice it feels like it is. What words do I emphasize? Which syllables should I stress? Should I focus on the vowels of consonants of each word? I try to abandon my anticipation and trepidation and inhabit my character. Moments like these, where I can become someone else and bring their story to life, make singing an amazing experience.
I consider my technique. How should I allocate my air? When should I replenish my air? Months of practice have taught me how to sustain long phrases without the need to breathe, but I still need to plan the length and volume of each breath to ensure that I can maintain a strong sound throughout the song. I adjust my shoulders, shifting my chest space to maximize the resonance of my voice. Keeping a large resonant space open at all times improves my sound and allows me to hit those really high and low notes that bothered me in my practice. I think about my tempo and rhythm. In the moment, I am aware of the beats; but they could be measured in milliseconds or hours.
I start to panic. What if I make a mistake? This is a live performance; there are no do-overs, no retakes. Whatever I put out will be permanently established as mine, with no chance to fix any mistakes I make. Adrenaline rushes through my body.
I stop and enter a state of calm. Panic won’t help me sing. I’ve practiced this piece over and over for months. I remind myself to take any issues with the piece in stride and to maintain my focus no matter what happens. Even though I know I will do my absolute best, no performance is ever perfect. So long as I keep my cool and take any errors in stride, I will keep my flow going and prevent awkward moments in the song.
This is it. The song is about to start. No turning back now, just remember to breathe.
Whitman Ochiai lives in Great Falls, Virginia. In his free time, he likes to sing Italian opera, play the piano, and produce the Money Ed Podcast Series, a financial literacy podcast available on Soundcloud, Apple Podcasts, and Google Play.