PIANO: Breathing and the Yoga-pianist

Hello everyone!

This month we talk about breathing. Truth is, breathing doesn't always come naturally to we pianists, alive though we seem to be. I hope the info will be useful to you, even if you are not a pianist! (Read on....)

I remember my first lesson with Prof. Anthony Padilla at Lawrence University. I was very intimidated by the whole situation. played my piece and felt incredibly tight and nervous. I was expecting to hear about my interpretation, missed notes and technical glitches....however, his first comment was, "You need to breathe." It became a theme of our lessons, he even wrote breath marks in my music, indicating where I should breathe, just as one would for a wind player or vocalist.

I confess, I was a bad student and I never followed his instruction about breathing. I was more preoccupied with wrong notes...but it never occurred to me that my lack of breathing might be causing them. 

From my favorite teaching resource The Whole Musician:

A state of stress often tends to stop breathing fully. The brain uses between 15% to 30% of all the oxygen we take into our lungs. A body that is not breathing...is not sending the brain its oxygen-guzzling quota...it will not be transmitting messages at its peak potential.

This affects our entire neurology and becomes a domino effect, impacting the hormonal system, muscles, skeletal system, and viscera.
— The Whole Musician, by Susan Bruckner

Of course I knew this, and I mention this often to students, but I actually experienced it today. 

I often find myself agitated, tense, and frustrated when I practice. Usually I push through these emotions because I have limited time to learn music. Today I was practicing Beethoven op. 109 (3rd variation)....a joyful 2-voice canon with left and right hand trading eighths and sixteenths. Lots of running passages with tricky fingering. This was my second day of working on it, some of the passage-work I still had to learn.

 All of a sudden, I found myself in a HORRIBLE frame of mind from my self-destructive emotions. Because I kept making more mistakes and getting angry. And then like a hamster in a cage, I was running on my wheel and getting nowhere (ie more mistakes, more anger...more mistakes, more self-criticism...more mistakes, more frustration)

And then a little voice said to me, "Are you breathing?"

Turns out, I wasn't. Not really. I stopped and observed and saw that my breaths were very shallow. Probably only in the top tenth of my lungs. No deeper than the sternum.

So then I ran an experiment......what if I only watched my breathing and stopped caring about the notes? It was not immediately better however.....2 minutes later, I could suddenly play the whole 2 voice-fugue with no mistakes.

I also noticed that my rhythm was better, that my eye-path and the notes began to flow more horizontally. And the sound was relaxed and open.

It's that thing....we can be told a million times and yet experience (aka physical suffering) is still the best teacher.

Yoga teachers tell us that breath is energy, prana. For the ancient Greeks, "pneuma" means breath (ie "pneumonia" is a disorder of the respiratory system, or breath), but it also means "soul" or "creative force." We literally cut off our creativity, our souls, when we don't breathe.

So I invite you this week to take a few minutes to watch your breathing (or your students' breathing) when you (they) play. Are the breaths shallow? Deep? Relaxed and smooth? Tense and uneven? Do you hold your breath at any point? Is the breathing pattern different when you play something familiar? Something memorized? When you sight-read? In performance? In your lesson?

Happy breathing! Let me know how it goes. (Leave a comment at the bottom of the page).

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