August 1, 2012
When I ask my student to breathe before they start playing a piece, they are quite uncomfortable in doing so.
“I am breathing naturally. Why do I have to breathe on purpose?”
It is important to take a breath before you start, in fact, not just at the very beginning of the piece, but also before the start of a phrase, at a rest, before a syncopated rhythm, or even before a climactic point in the music.
Music has a life, just like us. To keep the music alive, one needs to breathe in it. That gives life to the music.
In music, just as in life, there are relaxation and tension. They take turn to be present. Otherwise, intensity is built to a point of excess that leaves the player as well as the audience feeling anxious, rather than enjoying the music.
Constant conscious breathing helps steady the player’s pulse, in the body and the music. When the music is calm, the breathing would be shallower and lighter. When the music grows bigger and becomes more dramatic, the breathing would be deeper and heavier. This kind of breathing keeps the playing in line and in pace. It gives the player control over the music and the instrument, but not the other way around, swallowed by the excess consumption of tension and anxiety.
And, don’t forget to breathe out after you breathe in. Sometimes my students, especially the children, hold their breath after taking it. They only breathe once at the beginning of a piece and that’s it, which is not enough for sustaining through the whole piece. It makes them even harder to relax. They lock up so much tension in their body, especially the shoulders and the upper arms. The energy flow should be smooth, continuous and circular, through the whole body, from the feet up to the lower body and then the upper body, through the arms, to the forearms, the hands and finally, the fingers (that’s why I always remind my students to have a firm sitting foundation with both feet planting firmly on the ground to provide circular energy and support to the upper body and arms). It is just like the same kind of energy when people practice Tai Chi*. One just needs to keep breathing in and out mindfully and regularly during the playing, to keep the energy flow.
So, remember to breathe, and feel the life in your music. You are in fact creating one as you play.
*There is a book on the topic of Tai Chi and music performance but now I cannot recall the title; if anyone knows about this book please let me know.