We asked Alan Hommerding to answer this question and he pointed us toward a chapter he wrote for the book
Choral Conducting That Works for Worship
Below is an excerpt from that book.
The Four S’s – Stretch, Space, Support, Sound
Some conductors like to begin rehearsal with group massage. I am not one of them, and here are my reasons: Few, if any, of our choir members are licensed masseurs (if you have one, lucky you!). It is possible, through improper massage, to actually injure or introduce tension into the body of another person. This is particularly true when you have a baritone who runs heavy machinery all day massaging a retired check-out clerk in the alto section who has a bit of arthritis. I find that stretching, arms overhead or out from the side, alternating left and right, tipping the head slightly back and forth (NOT in 360-degree circles-our necks aren’t made to do that!), bending forward at the waist with knees relaxed then slowly rolling up, and other stretching exercises are beneficial. As a matter of fact, I usually schedule at least one, if not two, more stretch break(s) throughout the rehearsal, especially when there’s a “break” in rehearsal for refreshments and chat.
When choirs are ready to sing, many members breathe at the last second, starting the sound before they have fully formed a word in their mouths. Sound is the last item in the process, not the first.
- Space: Forming the first vowel of the first word in the mouth, and drawing the breath through it (have the choir draw breath through an “ah” vowel, then an “oh” vowel and you’ll hear the difference)
- Support: Take in a breath deeply, down low from the bottom of the lungs and immediately release it
- Sound: Initialize the sound with the release of the breath
Some directors will have singers draw in a deep breath and then hold it, or release it on a prolonged hiss. [I am not aware of any time in the liturgy when a choir would actually do this vocal behavior, so it’s pretty much wasted time.] It also introduces tension into the muscles surrounding the larynx and is a contributor to the fact that few choirs can begin a piece with the word “Oh” successfully. Vocal cords work by having a stream of air make them vibrate; holding the breath and then releasing it makes the chords slap, then begin vibrating. I prefer to have the choir draw in a deep breath across a vowel (I most often choose “oh”), to the very bottom of their lungs—shoulders relaxed, with chests held regally high—and release it on the syllable “Ho.” Doing this several times, without sung pitch, is useful in helping them learn how to begin a musical phase. It is also applicable to actual music. If, for example, you are singing a piece beginning with “Noel,” have them draw the deep breath across “o” and release it on the syllable “No.” This builds in a base behavior they will be able to use later on in the rehearsal.
Breathing is so little focused on in our choirs, yet it is the very fuel that powers singing. When I see choirs singing without drawing a good breath ahead of the first sound, I think that it is like trying to boil water without turning on a flame.