Breathing is my Life

...and my career. I cannot afford to breathe incorrectly. Yet I have been, perhaps for years. Habits change and erode over years, imperceptibly. When I went to an Alexander teacher to get some help with posture to relieve neck and shoulder pain, I ended up learning how much tension I was holding in my torso and neck. And you can't breathe with a tight torso. Nope.

During many, many solo performances in my career, I had to fight my body's compulsion to breathe in order to finish some phrase or other. (This happens more often when I'm playing solo in front of the orchestra and standing. When sitting in the orchestra, there is more time to recover from each improper breath)

Wind players often suffer from "bad air" remaining in the lungs after they breathe. A breath may be convenient or musically necessary at a place where the lungs are not yet empty, so the new air mixes with the old, stale air. After a few more breaths like this, the air in the lungs is full of carbon dioxide. The body will then being to convulse to try to breathe, even in the middle of a phrase. I have had to overcome this desperate reaction and continue until a more suitable time to breathe.

The solution is to plan proper exhalation at certain times, and to take smaller breaths so as to fully exhale the at the end of a phrase. But proper breathing, where the muscles inhale and exhale much more efficiently, also helps to maintain a better balance of good and bad air. It helps keep un-necessary tension out of the chest, affording more freedom of breath.

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9 comments for “Breathing is my Life

  1. Dominique
    November 16, 2009 at

    thank you for posting this! I'm playing Brahms Clarinet quintet in B minor on my recital in 14 days, and I consistently struggle with making the longer phrases. I always felt like the larger breath I took, the less likely I was to make the phrase. Thank you for illuminating what I was doing wrong!

    • November 16, 2009 at

      Glad these ideas helped. Please also see the more recent post \”More Breathing Ideas\”.

  2. November 16, 2009 at

    Well, I'll send a few singers over here to read it. Now, to find some singers.

    • November 16, 2009 at

      Yup… used to play flute. That's one reason various peoples' reactions would be so interesting.

      There are lots of singers on Twitter… maybe that would work.

  3. November 16, 2009 at

    I'd love to hear a singer's view of this.

  4. November 15, 2009 at

    As a Horn player, and the victim of a certain composer's evil plan to thrust an entire horn section into hyperventilation (I'm talking about you, Ravel, and your Bolero!) I agree completely with the importance of maintaining the proper balance of good and bad air. This is something I stress to my brass students as well as my voice students.

    Very informative post! Thank You!

  5. November 14, 2009 at

    Fascinating, David. I'm a collaborative pianist, so my take on breathing is mostly to breathe with my musical partner, and to breathe with the phrase when playing solo (intros, interludes, and postludes included). I had never really thought about the stale air problem. Thank you!

    • November 14, 2009 at

      Hi Gretchen- Glad I could help. Let me know if you have any other questions.

  6. Hautbois
    April 8, 2007 at

    What all oboists learn to do in an early stage – interesting because now i know it applies to clarinetists as well!

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