Breathing while playing

October 10, 2007 at 01:42 AM · I have read references to breathing while playing several times in various threads, and I would like to know how to do it. My teacher has told me to breathe while I play so I'm obviously not doing right, probably I'm just gasping, like a fish out of water.

She, on the other hand is an excellent breather, and when she plays, it's as natural as breathing, the type of breathing you have when sleeping.

Any tips/advice would be welcome, as I'm about to pass out.

Replies (27)

March 23, 2008 at 11:50 AM · I see i am the first one to respond. You might want to get the book called "The physiology of violin playing" by Otto Szende. It has a very interesting chapter about breathing.

The general idea is that when you play in softer nuances your effort is smaller therefore your muscles need less oxigen. Ergo, you breathe slower and more shallow. But when you have a forte and/or difficult passage, your muscles and brain demand more oxygen for the increased effort needed. By consequence, your breathing will increase in frequence and amplitude. Much like a good use of vibrato. You can make a very good connection between vibrato and breathing because they are cyclical events, with a high and a low.

Also, when you go on a long passage that is upbow, it is good to breathe in, as the expansion of the ribcage will raise the collarbone and your shoulder. When going into a long passage that is downbow, it is good to breath out, as the retraction of the ribcage will lower the collarbone and your shoulder.

It works with climactic areas in a music peace. When mounting up the tension, breathe in. When releasing the tension and resolving the climax, breathe out.

Be careful about how you use breath. You dont want to choke. Use natural breathing as much as possible. When your body demands more, offer it more. If you stumble into a very powerful sounding and technicaly difficult area of the piece and if you feel that your body wants more air, do so!

March 23, 2008 at 07:12 PM ·

March 23, 2008 at 01:50 PM · I find it so difficult to work on breathing. The moment you start thinking about breathing it becomes awkward. Instead try to incorporate it BEFORE you play. You do this by inhaling before the first note you play, and always inhale at the tempo and style of the first note.

For example, when I play the 1st movement of the 1st Bach solo sonata I take a long slow breath and exhale on the down beat. But on the fugue I inhale a short fast breath on the downbeat rest.

But the best way to practice breathing is without your violin. Just you sitting with your music, maybe playing with your air bow (the bow is the true representation of your breath) and hum the piece and see how your breathing fits with it. Eventually it will become more unified with your bow arm.

March 23, 2008 at 07:59 PM · In contrast to Marina-I always **exhale** before starting. For my body-I find that the act of inhaling inherently increases bodily tension-right before playing. Thus, I exhale-and relax into the playing-and let the music take over from there.

Experiment with what works, everyone has a differently wired brain....of course-in a chamber music setting-where everyone expects you to inhale and have your shoulders fly up-can throw your unprepared colleagues for a loop ;>)

March 23, 2008 at 08:53 PM · Catherine, great topic! Much discussion is needed imho.

I've got the similar problem and haven’t found a more systematic way in dealing with it other than reminding myself whenever I can, particularly during the music or technically more intense part.

Thanks Oliviu, for recommending the book ($$$ notwithstanding:-))and for your specific and very helpful advice on how. By the way, is Romania your mother tongue? If so, I’m really impressed by your English, as you sounded like native speaker to me (an ESL’s highest compliment to a comrade ESL)!:)

March 26, 2008 at 06:20 AM · Breathing? oops, I've never given it a thought! It's blinking that has me wondering. I'm told I don't blink much when I play. Hmmmmm

March 26, 2008 at 09:22 AM · Catherine,

Try this to loosen up your breathing. Play a scale in three octaves with long bows on each note. On the first note, breathe in. Hold for the second, breathe out on the third and hold for the fourth, and so on. Then try breathing in over two notes and holding for one, and various other patterns. Something more difficult is to take a piece you know well and concentrate on doing the same with it: breathe in for the first bar, hold for the second, breathe out for the third, etc. It's amazing how incapable of breathing naturally we can be when we're worried about all sorts of violinistic things!

March 26, 2008 at 12:33 PM · Dear yixi, thaks for the compliments and dear Karen, have you tried playing with your eyes closed? Not all the time, but just sometimes.

March 26, 2008 at 12:35 PM · The Violin mastery course, advertised here on, goes very deeply into breathing while playing the violin. Mr Haslop is spot-on about it.

March 26, 2008 at 03:06 PM · Another good advice, Oliviu! I've got a feeling you'll be a great violin teacher if you aren't already teaching. My guess on not blinking and not breathing may have the same root of cause, namely tension. But the remedy for each is entirely different as you clearly suggested.

March 26, 2008 at 06:59 PM · Yixi, your comments regarding my capabilities can only flatter me. I have to say thank you!

As a matter of fact, I am giving private lessons and I am in the couse of writing a violin manual that goes in a very different direction as to the order of things learned. I might develop this method for any kind of musical instrument, not just the violin.

And the beautiful part is that it will work on allmost everything.



March 26, 2008 at 09:47 PM · Oliviu, I didn’t mean to flatter, but just said what it was I saw. In fact, you reminded me of my own violin teacher, whom people here consider to be a violin doctor, as she’s always able to pinpoint the problem and come up with the most elegant solution to resolve it. Needless to say, she is well-sought after as a teacher.

I’m very interested in your violin manual. Will you be posting some part of it here or on your own website for discussion or feedback? I sure hope so.

March 27, 2008 at 01:18 PM · Yes, I will post it in my blog here.But first i have to finnish it and refine it.

March 29, 2008 at 05:07 PM · Hi!

I have been to Thomas Riebl's Summer Academy in Bad Leonfelden twice and he suggests an easy exercise to learn breathing when playing.

It is a principle, for the sake of learning, that you breathe in when you do an upbow and breathe out with your down bow. Oliviu has mentioned this already.

I guess we have a lot to learn about breathing from our colleagues, the wind players. One important aspect that hasn't been discussed in this thread yet is the diaphragm breathing. Basically this means taking deep breaths. To know you are doing it right you can sniff at your hand pretending you are testing some perfume. Then you will see your stomach come out. Then you breathe out through your mouth (or nose is ok too, i guess).

I think what proper breathing does is it strengthens your posture by giving you a lot of support in your lower back area. Also your muscles in that region become strengthened through proper breathing. At the same time your upper body and your shoulder area become more relaxed, which of course is great for playing.

And, yes, one can practise this any time away from the instrument, in fact I think this is quite a good idea. When walking or sitting or doing something completely different. At the same time our general posture becomes better!

I find this topic quite interesting and have been thinking about it a lot, please correct me if I have said something wrong.

Best regards, hans

PS: This is what I found on Wikipedia on diaphragm breathing:

January 22, 2012 at 11:11 PM · I dredged this topic from the dead, was curious if anyone else had anything else to say about it. I breathe very shallowly when I'm not playing (fibromyalgia, probably), and I'm seeing now that there are times when this shallowness of breath affects my playing. I dunno, just a topic I've been thinking about and was wondering if anyone has given any thought to the topic in the last few years...

January 23, 2012 at 12:56 AM · I think shallow breathing can just be a habit too.

For what it's worth, I also have fibro - and asthma (and other irritating issues that I wish would go away and stay gone) and I haven't noticed any issues with playing and breathing.

However, I do spend a few minutes most days doing deep breathing exercises as I go to sleep...helps calm you down and relax...maybe that's a benefit for lung capacity???

Just something to think about...

January 23, 2012 at 02:28 AM · I find that when one leaves one neck free, and one's head forward and up (in accordance with Alexander Technique principles) that one just naturally breathes better.

January 23, 2012 at 02:59 AM · Generally breathing poorly is just a bad habit that goes along with poor posture. Over the years I had to relearn correct posture while playing violin , walking and standing, and also relearned to breath properly, to use the diaphragm.

Make sure you posture is perfect ,okay isn't good enough. Take a video of yourself or look in a mirror while playing and judge/correct your posture.

How to relearn to breath and what you are doing wrong.

Watch videos 1 through 5

Correct you breathing and posture more than three times a day until it becomes natural.

If you are still having trouble take some Yoga or vocal lessons.

January 23, 2012 at 03:18 AM · My problem has always been that I also play flute. So I find myself holding my breath or breathing slowly out for long slurs and such like. It's automatic and unconscious. My teachers says that she has others who play flute that do the same thing. I suppose any woodwind instrument player might face a similar situation. Re training my breathing for violin has not been as successful in this light, but I keep trying all the same.

January 23, 2012 at 03:18 AM · To be fair though...for those with joint inflammation and muscle issues...posture can be a big issue...

...and that goes for both good posture or's sometimes very hard to find any position to stand or sit in that doesn't cause other problems.

While overall fitness and exercise certainly helps, it doesn't look after the issues entirely...

January 23, 2012 at 04:37 PM · Thanks for saying that, N.A. It's a real balancing act between finding a position that's good for the body, good for violin-playing, good for the muscles that are sore/tired on that particular day, etc., etc.

But alas, I will look into the mirror and see what I can figure out. I sometimes do feel like my throat constricts down while I play, especially when I'm focusing on difficult passages. I've also noticed I have a tendency to tighten the face, even imperceptibly. This may have something to do with the breathing difficulties, so thanks for the tip...

January 23, 2012 at 04:57 PM · I would seriously suggest that you do breathe when playing or you might keel over ...

January 23, 2012 at 06:23 PM · During rehearsals I sometimes cross my legs, rest my right elbow on my right leg (while hunched over of course) while playing...just to give my back and arms a little rest...

Not recommended for performances...;)

January 23, 2012 at 08:57 PM · look if your having trouble breathing obviously there something is something wrong in the technique of your left hand or right hand... that is causing the breathing problems. Instead of focusing on your breathing focus on the true culprit - a fault in technique

January 23, 2012 at 09:49 PM · Good advices above regarding how to breathe when playing, but don’t forget to first learn to breathe well when we are not playing. How often you hold your breath when you need absolute concentration? Learn and practice a bit of breathing technique each day can help a lot. It's a tool for better performance in all sorts of situations.

My yoga teacher once said that your mind controls your body but your breath controls your mind. Breathing may appear to be the simplest thing in life needs not be taught, but since when appearances are not deceiving?

January 23, 2012 at 10:00 PM · Often stifled breathing is attributed to stiff posture, which at least haunted me for the first half of my violin career. It wasn't until one of my better teachers realized that my life was incredibly stressful and so my playing style was likewise very rigid. This eventually caused premature shoulder problems that I had to see a doctor for.

I worked to change my playing style, which at first felt counterintuitive to breathe while playing but I realized during those rests, lyrically legato passages, and rising moments that I had all the time in the world to do so. And eventually, breathing during continuous fast passages became second nature. I also stopped hunching my right shoulder forward when I bowed, actually sat to the back of my chair in orchestra, and remembered to relax my muscles. My sound improved tremendously.

Good luck!

January 28, 2012 at 09:18 AM · We tend, unconciously, to hold our breath when doing tricky things, and in my long-gone younger days I even marked breathing into my music: not just for inhaling, like a singer, but exhaling between phrases like an oboist.

Although I have not (yet) explored Alexander Technique, Sophrology, Brain Gym etc. etc. I have found it useful to do the opposite of what my stupid body normally does: e.g. breathe out on up-bows, or just before starting.

Feeling giddy can come either from too little oxygen (holding one's breath) or from being "drunk" with too much (panic breathing).

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