All the principles of heaven and earth are living inside you. Life itself is truth, and this will never change. Everything in heaven and earth breathes. Breath is the thread that ties creation together. – Morihei Ueshiba
Have you ever been concentrating on something and noticed yourself holding your breath? This can happen before an audition, before a big solo, or at a particularly challenging or exposed section of music. I even find myself holding my breath while playing warm-up exercises before a practice session or when reading a musical score for the first time.
As a musician, there are many reasons why it is helpful to breathe fully and clearly:
- Holding your breath (negatively) affects your time and groove.
- Breathing helps keep you mentally limber. When you’re breathing fully your body and brain are well-supplied with oxygen. It’s hard to think when you’re gasping for air!
- Good breathing helps reduce tension in the body, relaxing the muscles of the arms and torso. Holding your breath creates tension.
- Deep breathing helps reduce stress and anxiety (stage fright, anyone?). This is especially true of a long, steady exhale.
Take a moment to try a simple breathing experiment with me. Inhale for six seconds, drawing the breath into the pit of the stomach. Then inhale for six seconds. Try to draw the breath in and out at an even pace, not over-reaching at the beginning or rushing towards the end. As you breathe, keep the shoulders relaxed and stationary – breathe into the stomach, there’s no need to raise your shoulders up to your ears for a deep breath; let your belly fill and expand as you inhale and let it collapse as you exhale.
Some people like to visualise a trail of warmth or light traveling into the nose and down into the pit of the stomach on the inhale, and then that same trail of warmth or light rising through the spine, up the neck and out the top of the head on the exhale. Others visualise a stream of bubbles. There’s nothing particularly mystical about the visualisation itself, but it can be a nice tool to aid focus.
Next time you warm up, sight read, or play technical exercises, be aware of your breath. See if you can breathe evenly and deeply through the exercise. For added credit, take a mental tour of the muscles of your arms, shoulders, back, chest, stomach, legs, and even feet – relax each one consciously until you’re using only the bare minimum physical tension needed to play the musical passage.
The next time you take a solo, either with a backing track or a live band, try to sing what you play. You don’t need to have the voice of George Benson to do this – you can just vocalise along with your solo quietly and away from your microphone. You may find your lines take on a more personal, phrase-based sound.
I distinctly remember sitting in a lesson with Giorgio Serci – I was a student in the beginning stages of learning how to improvise in a jazz style and was struggling. Sure, I could (just about) navigate some basic jazz chord progressions but what I was playing sounded dull and very ‘by the numbers’. After a few minutes of playing Giorgio said, ‘let’s do it again, this time sing what you play‘. The difference was immediate and powerful – at once my playing sounded alive and like ‘me’, my own voice began to sound.
Why would this happen? Firstly, uniting what you sing with what you play can provide a more solid bridge to the music in your head – sure, you’ll still play your Clapton licks, but you’ll be surprised with how many more of your own melodic ideas and phrases will pop out too.
Secondly, the physical requirement to pause for breath will chop your solo into smaller phrases. For most beginner and intermediate players this is a very good thing – it’s too easy to noodle aimlessly and continuously around a scale with no real sense of melodic statement.
Thirdly, I personally find vocalising helps me connect my emotions to what I play. Whether it’s joy, anger, frustration, mischievousness, if I can recruit my breath and voice into the process I find it somehow shortcuts my inhibitions and allows those feelings to more easily channel through the music. I think there’s some truth in it when people say that the breath is the bridge between the conscious and the unconscious – because it can be controlled by either.
Admittedly, this second principle is somewhat negated if you can circular breathe!
Play with the following exercises and try to 1) maintain a conscious, full breathing pattern throughout and then 2) sing what you play. Be aware of the effect either approach has on your sense of time, melody and connection with the music.
– Play a scale at a slow pace to a metronome.
– Improvise over a simple chord sequence (perhaps a blues).
– Play a solo you know well (for example, ‘Alright Now’ or ‘Hotel California’). As you breath evenly, you may notice particular parts of the solo are much harder than usual – this is where you usually hold your breath! Work these areas until you can breath evenly through them.
– Play any song from your repertoire, again noting and working through areas of unexpected difficulty.
I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments on the relationship between breath and music – go ahead and post below!