How to Breathe Correctly

About practising part 6: Murray McLachlan shares advice about breathing techniques from Flautist and Head of Woodwind at Chetham’s School of Music Belinda Crouch. The trick is to keep breathing! 

Before you continue reading, you might want to catch up to the previous articles on the subject of practising:

Part 6: Current blog 
Part 5:
Balance, Equilibrium and Kodály >
Part 4:
 How to begin? >
Part 3:
 Internalisation and working away from the instrument >
Part 2: Micro practice >
Part 1: Both sides of the brain >

At the highest level, perhaps 99% of the time spent in masterclasses and instrumental lessons prioritises phrasing and tone production within a stylistic framework. For the top pedagogues and most advanced players, challenges of interpretation seem to be streamlined into issues relating to sound, line, voicing and characterisation.

Shape and quality of sound are of paramount importance. Of course, these issues should be seen as essential priorities from the earliest stages too. One could argue that many a younger player loses motivation when the emphasis in lessons moves away from shape and sound towards a more prosaic insistence on security, control, and accuracy.

Whatever challenges we face as musicians, we should never lose sight of the fact that our primary goal is to communicate. Regardless of whether we are singers or instrumentalists, we all strive to share music through the musical line with a beautiful, commandingly authoritative voice. In this simple but ever-challenging task, breathing is absolutely crucial.

Though it is easy to grasp that breathing and breath control are priorities if you are a singer or a wind player, it can be more challenging to understand just how crucial awareness, management and facility with space and breathing are for string and keyboard players too.

Just because string and keyboard musicians do not require breathing for sounds to be created does not mean that musicians who play these instruments are let off the hook! In fact, it could well be argued that it is extremely difficult for any musician to produce artistic phrasing and beautiful sounds if they have issues with breathing as they play.

Breath marks

Music thrives on punctuation and space for drama, cohesion, atmosphere, characterisation, conviction, stability, strength… and everything else. It can be illuminating and immediately helpful in terms of technical and rhythmic control if you literally sing out loud the melodic line of a problematic passage in a piece, marking in where you need to breathe. If you can breathe as you sing through a piece, then you will have found an approach that is convincing, stands up, and should feel true to yourself. If you were playing the phrase on the flute, how would you manage your breathing?

There are points in all phrases where breathing is inadvisable and places where it just feels right. There are moments when sharp intakes of air feel appropriate. Sometimes you will exhale slowly, sometimes at speed. There are specific speeds that ‘work’ when particular breath markings are added… and there are other speeds that will simply not succeed.

Awareness of how and when breathing can take place may well determine the metronome marking of a piece, giving a sense of authenticity to an interpretation. There is a whole universe of breathing possibilities and variations. On rare, selected occasions I have even held my breath through a section in order to create a specifically intense sense of expectation!

Breathing and well-being

I still remember feeling uncomfortably nervous before one of my first lunchtime recitals as a teenager in Baronial Hall at Chetham’s School of Music and being wisely advised by my teacher David Hartigan to breathe! It was excellent advice on all kinds of levels. Flautist and Head of Woodwind at Chetham’s School of Music Belinda Crough has shown through her illuminating performance classes and teaching over the years just how vital breathing and breath control is for all musicians. In the last blog on balance and Kodály, the need for equilibrium between the body, emotions and the mind was stressed.

Belinda strong believes that breathing is the essential connecting facilitator between all three: ‘Though breathing practice is not focal in many lifestyles, communities, and cultures today, it is worth remembering just how important it was in the past. We generally breathe too much, too little, or too often. Though we tend to separate the mind from the body and our emotions, there is no doubt that the facilitator, connector, and consistent force that can function to make all three successful is our breath.’

In open performance classes at Chetham’s, Belinda has been able to show young musicians from all disciplines (not just wind players) how to control and develop their breathing in a positive way. It can start from the simplest of exercises: ‘Practising a slow IN breath and a longer OUT breath is a major introductory tool for controlling the body, the mind, and the emotions.

It makes such a difference to do this for a good minute or two before I practise, perform, or talk. In fact, it makes a huge difference to my whole day if I simply do breathing exercises first thing., It makes me feel connected, calm, happy and unlimited. When I lose connection, I am a random element reacting in less balanced ways to everything around me.’

Belinda’s advocacy is certainly persuasive, leading to a holistic sense of inspired endeavour in every aspect of life:

‘Breathing practice can quieten the mind, calm the emotions, and oxygenate the body ready for action. I notice my fingers, articulation, reading, reactions, hearing, move with effortless ‘super speed.’

After preliminary slow, long exercises become a daily habit, breathing can become even more beneficial through the development of technique:

Practise breathing through the nose. Nose breathing floods our body systems with warm, wet, spinning oxygenated air as it draws the air through our 3 sets of nasal turbinate’s. Read up on this if you are interested. As you become more proficient at filling your body with oxygen and then exhaling, your hearing, voice and health can dramatically improve.

Your hearing can feel more receptive (middle turbinate’s) your voice and diction may change as you use more of an ‘open head voice’ (top turbinate’s) whilst your throat and neck may benefit too (base turbinate’s). Above all your lungs may feel much stronger and more responsive and ‘deep’ deeply (all channels open/ no blocks: air travels freely and expels stake air).’

Deep breathing, awareness of breath control and regular practising of inhaling and exhaling air can have a dramatically positive effect on our level of focus as we play:

‘Practise breathing systems: Imagine practising breathing during a performance! Breathe mindfully when stressed. Take time to be mindful of EVERY breath. You might find that breathing gives you the opportunity to OBSERVE calmly and choose how you wish to react or respond.’

Of course, we are all constantly moving through stages of development in which the body grows and develops. Mindful breathing can encourage our physical, intellectual, and spiritual growth in tandem:

‘Practising breathing systems can help our minds expand and acquire skill, knowledge, and self-perception. Deep breathing can make it easier for us to be emotionally aware. As we read fiction it can be easier for our imaginations to soar with freedom.’

Ultimately breathing is about connection. It helps us move more readily towards peak experience so that, in Belinda’s words ‘all elements of our human being are flowing on an equal frequency.’

Belinda’s breathing summation:

‘Feel: Connect to your emotive being. It’s your powerhouse of creation. Allow all your senses to be activated and full. Absorb Art, sing, dance, read, draw, smell, immerse yourself in nature, fresh air, tactile responses & presence of your senses in a safe supportive environment. 

🔵 Emotions are frequency 
🔵 Brain waves are frequency 

Air moves with frequency so when we connect & manipulate it, we can potentially harness & change our own frequency. All physical parts of us vibrate at certain frequencies and in harmony. Some ancient systems have even shown that healthy bodies resonate at a perfect 5th’.

When we create sound, we manipulate frequency in complex patterns and harmonies: perhaps when we are connected & present as musicians, we can use music to heal & transform others around us and guide the students in our care.

Belinda’s closing thoughts act as a telling, inspirational summary for all the ideas outlined above:

‘Breathe and connect: Be you. Flow…and live this extraordinary life we all have. Music heals. We are the music.’

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