Breathing (!?)

Edited: April 24, 2018, 9:21 PM · My teacher points out that my most regular mistake is in my breathing.

From Yoga and running, I have a very controlled breathing and I can adjust it instinctively to a bunch of accurate beats per second, which I use to mark the speed of the piece, in paralel or substitution of the metronome.

However, my teacher insists on channelling the dynamics by breathing, such as inhaling deep and holding the air in ff, breath shallowly in pp, inhale-exhale at the rythm of stacattos, etc. Not different from some martial arts. I have now in my sheet music several annotations marking where and how to breath.

I see merits in both approaches; mine and his, but I don't know how to combine them. On the other hand, I have seen very little about emphasis in breathing in teaching technique. Do you have any view on it?

Replies (17)

April 24, 2018, 9:33 PM · ummm....what?

I can honestly say I have never heard of this idea regarding breathing. I have on occasion been told to stop holding my breath when under stress, and I have also been advised to breathe out just before the beginning of a piece. That's it.

Edited: April 24, 2018, 10:05 PM · I would say this is probably unhealthy. The average RPM for a normal, average human is around 12. The fitter you are the lower that number usually is because your VO2 Max is probably higher and your body requires less cycling of oxygen due to being more efficient at using what it has.

Both yoga and running require a higher respiration rate and also a good control of breathing in order to resist fatigue from lack of oxygenation. If you breath too fast your body doesn't have a chance to properly absorb the oxygen in the air and so doesn't run as efficiently. If you are artificially increasing your respiration while you're playing you're just making it harder on your body than it has to be and it is going to make your life difficult later on when you have more complex rhythms than 8ths and the odd 16th note, and when you are in a situation you need to play at higher tempos. Even breathing once for every 4 beats at a tempos in excess of 120bpm (this would be over twice the normal rpm) you are going to become needlessly fatigued.

More important is just remembering to breath in and out before starting and to continue breathing as you play instead of using it as a metronome.

It's a creative idea, but it's needlessly complicated and you don't want to be panting when playing faster movements ;)

April 24, 2018, 10:17 PM · Wow al this sounds really complicated and just crazy.

Just don't forget to breath and also not hyperventilate. There's enough complicated motions going on, why not just let the body do what it knows how to do automatically...

April 24, 2018, 10:25 PM · Hi Michael. It is not exactly as you say. One can control the breathing rythm while taking the same ammount of air per minute. For example in running, you may use in-in-out-out, 3 ins-2 outs, 1 in, 2 outs, etc. Doing so, you can adjuts and keep the steps per minute. Obviolusly, you adjust how much air you take during each "in" depending how many times you are doing it, and that's the real control. In yoga I find more important to keep air in by unnaturally long exhalations and to do that, like swimming, you learn how to fill the lungs in an instant inhalation followed by very long and steady exhalations.

All that is beyond the point, anyway. I was using it to put the body in the appropiate tempo, and for that, it was useful. It is not a magic wand at all.

April 24, 2018, 11:01 PM · I found my old copy of Britten's Lachrymae from my student days: I had put breath-out and breath-in signs after tricky passages where I had tended to hold my breath..
April 24, 2018, 11:11 PM · Right, I was simplifying to make my point.. I don't run marathons, but I have run 10k's, weight lift, and did martial arts my entire childhood..

You made it sound like you're using your breathing as a metronome, which I'm not clear about anymore. If you're using it as a metronome it's probably a bad idea. If you're using it as a way to get into the right headspace, whatever works for you and is effective. Performance is a large part psychological, so if that's what it takes to keep you even and in time with the music that's what it takes.

April 24, 2018, 11:20 PM · Ideally, we don't think about breathing at all. Let the automatic part of your brain take care of it. Singers and wind players can plan and rehearse breathing in advance, then not think about it so much during performance, but strings? The exception would be; if your teacher or coach notices that you are holding your breath, then deliberately breathe in on long up-bows, out on down-bows. Also-breath from the bottom of your torso-not the top--"Sing Fat". Vocal lessons will probably be more useful than Yoga- I've done both.
April 25, 2018, 4:18 AM · I'm wondering if your teacher is trying to get you to concentrate on phrasing, rather than on providing oxygen.

I'm a former brass player where breathing and phrasing were virtually identical. And I have a M. Mus. in Composition, where I recall it being mentioned on several occasions that even though some instruments such as keyboards and strings don't need to 'breathe', most music that doesn't involve natural phrasing feels odd to the listener. The most elemental form of music is singing, and you need to breathe while you sing. Phrases usually need to be shaped so that they can fit in one breath, and breathing in the middle of a phrase sounds awkward. Our ears have become so accustomed to this that we feel uncomfortable when a phrase continues for too long. Sure, there are those moto perpetuo showpieces, but one thing that makes those sound impressive as encores is the fact that the audience is holding their collective breath as you play.

Learning to play a string instrument after playing a wind instrument for so long, one of the biggest differences I've found is the phrasing. For a wind instrument, the big curved line over the notes delineates the phrase, not when you change the direction of the bow. It's quite possible to play an entire piece on violin without ever stopping for breath, but that's not always desirable. That might be the point your teacher is trying to stress by asking you to breathe with the music.

I've been running distances from 5K to marathon for decades, and I can honestly say that I never even think about my breathing; I concentrate on my turnover and let the breathing follow. But I find myself still breathing along with the phrasing of a piece when I play the violin.

April 25, 2018, 7:06 AM ·

Could it be that your teacher is also an accomplished singer who is transferring singing techniques into violin techniques, because some teachers or violinist will breath with the phrasing. Does it help to make a connection between breathing and dynamics? Maybe, who really knows, it's just a theory. The reality is breathing doesn't have a direct affect to our playing, compared to the affect it has on a vocalist singing. A vocalist will sing out of tune if they don't breath correctly, but this doesn't happen to a violinist. Breathing also has a major affect on a vocalist dynamics, but whether a violinist breaths or not, there's no affect on dynamics.
What happens to us is mental fatigue when we are not breathing correctly, because over a period of time our mind will not get the oxygen and/or fuel required to stay focused. Not breathing, or not blinking the eyes will cause problems.

I think the idea of 'insisting' on a unproven theory or uncommon teaching technique is more of an issue than the technique itself. I think it is a good idea to throw it out there and see if it helps you, but to insist on it...........hmm

April 25, 2018, 1:11 PM · I can see some of the logic in his advice, actually. Breathing is just another tool we can use to invoke certain effects, especially if the student isn't able to do what we exactly want when simply given literal cues.

Breathing shallowly in pp makes sense since we can't easily use bow pressure to prevent the breathing from physically moving the violin during such delicate passages.

Breathing heavily in ff could make sense as a psychosomatic tool to invoke stronger movements.

I think the problem here is that the advice - when taken alone and interpreted by a bunch of people who have never seen your playing - might seem insane, but it might make perfect sense in the context of you specifically, as a student and a player. And, it might be that the teacher sees a path further down the road that this idea would lead to, and it's impossible for us to predict that path. "Detours never make sense to the passenger."

It may be that your teacher doesn't necessarily want you to ALWAYS do this, but it's just a sort of mental scaffolding to bring certain aspects of your playing to a different place. Or to align your breathing with your playing in a less antagonistic way.

I have an adult student currently who I have trained to breathe IN on upbows and OUT on downbows. But it's only this particular student that I've used this on, since his breathing is very irregular when playing and it clearly upsets his whole system if he doesn't align his breathing to his playing. I've also found that if one simply tells a student to "breath while playing," it's recipe for disaster. You need to give them a specific physical movement that's tied into the breathing, so they don't get overly distracted by the act of breathing not being timed with the playing. Anyways, it's certainly not typical for me to train a student this way, but it works great for him, so it's what I use.

Coming back to my original point: it may be that your teacher is seeing a larger picture than you are, and that the advice, considered alone, doesn't make much sense. But it would make sense if we could all see the larger picture he's seeing. I guess it all comes down to if you trust him or not.

I do agree with Charles, in that if he's insisting on it after weeks and weeks of it NOT working, then I don't think your teacher is being very efficient. Unusual advice can be very helpful, but only if it's tailored to what works for the student. If we're going to INSIST on one thing or another, it should at least be a proven technique (although I'm of the thought that we shouldn't *insist* on anything if it's grinding the gears of the learning process).

Edited: April 27, 2018, 2:45 AM · While my phrasing is inspired by a singer's, I just let my breathing free in my playing - apart from the apne I mentioned above.
April 27, 2018, 2:58 AM · Well, to follow up this topic and after one more class, he doesn't insist like, for example, the necessary bowing in one part. It is more a recommendation to improve my tone. He has noticed that I don't mark well the dynamics and he advices to follow them not only with the bow but by the "whole body and attitude", and to do that, channel the mood by the breathing. Paraphrasing... " A fortissimo is defiant. Back straight, chest out, ready to fight! Breath in deep and attack". And so, he marks ""deep breath!!!" in the sheet. And a pp is a whisper... you lower yourself and breath like a whisper.
My breathing for tempo, I still do it before the music and in some parts, like those who tap with the foot. But after this thread, I don't keep it all along the music.
April 27, 2018, 4:36 AM · The most common problem with violinists' breathing is holding one's breath too much. I've seen too many master classes where the teacher is saying "breathe! breathe!" to the student who is slowly turning red trying to play a certain passage without breathing.

Sometimes you will hear chamber players or soloists "sniff" before they play as part of a signal. How that came to be acceptable I'll never know, but it seems to be.

April 27, 2018, 6:03 AM ·
Well that makes more sense Carlos and I think very few will disagree with the technique; unless one sees it as over acting.
If you are having trouble with the set up, then add a breath out before the FF and work on making a mental note of this.

Edited: April 28, 2018, 9:46 AM ·

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yOkchiAUO3U

Edited: April 28, 2018, 1:31 PM · Exactly as Mary Ellen said. Holding breath is bad. We breathe in naturally when we need air so consciously breathing out is more important, not only it's necessary but also breathe out has calming effect. This is why it's especially helpful to breathe out when we concentrate under pressure, play before a piece/movement, etc.
April 28, 2018, 1:59 PM · I think playing violin is difficult enough without adding the complication of synchronized breathing.


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