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Learning to Breathe | 8'
SATB or SSAA Chorus & Piano

Similar to Learning to Breathe:

The Whole Sea in Motion

Between Water and Air

Diane Thiel’s text for Learning to Breathe describes a significant difference between swimming underwater and scuba diving. In the latter, holding one’s breath is not only discouraged, but can actually be harmful to one’s lungs because of the pressure difference that occurs with changes in depth.

I read Thiel’s poem as not only a vivid depiction of learning to swim and scuba dive—though of course, it’s that, too—but a suggestion for how to live when everything we know is changing. There’s a reason, when life becomes complicated, that we often say we feel we’re “underwater.” When we’re stressed, our tendency is to take shallow breaths, forgetting that deep breaths can help relax the nervous system. Thiel’s poem encourages us to “just keep breathing through it”—to look around and breathe steadily through our changing landscapes, through terrifying experiences and miraculous ones.

This piece was commissioned by the Washington State University Choirs and Palouse Choral Society, Dean Luethi and Matthew Myers, Conductors, for the 2024 WSU Festival of Contemporary Artists in Music.

This score will soon be available for purchase through Graphite Marketplace. Request a perusal score here.



I grew up holding my breath.
It was something I could do.
As a child, I could dive ten fathoms down

for that sand dollar
or something else that looked like treasure.

I could swim the length of an Olympic pool

and back underwater, and further,
always pushing it further,
training my lungs to let me stay longer.
In my home, I often felt I had no power,

but there was power

in being able to always push it further.

When I later learned to deep-sea dive

I had to go against
that inclination to hold my breath.
For me, there was significant adjusting,

as a body of water meant

to get down there and back up
in the short time that I had.
I had to learn to breathe steadily,

the main rule, never hold it.
At first, I had to say it in my mind—

Never hold your breath.

But once I learned, I loved belonging

to that world, while also being alien to it,
first through the wrecks on both coasts, then

volcanos under Santorini, looking for Atlantis,

and later the perspective from down under,

the side glance of the sea turtle appearing
on the barrier reef, gliding over its expanses

and losses.
Breathing steadily, adjusting carefully
to changes in depth, even back on land,

breathing, even in the surge of the unknown,

breathing, always remembering to

just keep breathing through it.

—Diane Thiel

“Learning to Breathe,” from Questions from Outer Space (Red Hen Press, 2022).

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