Breathing technique for violinists

June 9, 2019, 4:23 PM · My new teacher has been focusing a lot on conscious breathing during performance, and I really like this idea. Actually, I had a fairly bleh performance very recently and I'm certain it was because I didn't consider my breathing beforehand, and panicked a little trying to figure it out on the spot.

Wind players have set spots to take a breath in all of their music. It's mostly down to practicality (eg not going blue in the face because you can never stop to take a breath), but I think having previously decided and unchanging spots to breathe takes another stress factor out of performance. I've been trying to think about how to apply their logic to the violin, but I can't decide where the best places to breathe would be. At the end of each phrase would kill me, and breathing after / during every long-ish note could be too distracting.

How do you place your breaths? Do any of you even think about it?

Replies (10)

June 9, 2019, 5:30 PM · Yeah but it does need to become organic after a while. You got enough to think about as it is. The main thing is to avoid holding your breath a lot. Playing chamber music will help because I find breathing, gestures, and motion in general is at a more conscious level than solo playing. For me anyway.
June 9, 2019, 6:54 PM · Miranda Wilson sets up a part of a warmup routine around breathing.

She starts with long notes, and makes the exercises more complex until you are practicing shifts etc with various breathing routines. It helps musical expression, technical control, relaxation, concentration, and more.

Miranda writes fairly detailed instructions, which I can't reduce to just a few chunks of advice.

You might like to chase her book on Amazon, or some-like place.

June 9, 2019, 8:19 PM · Co-ordinate breathing with bowing...…….
June 9, 2019, 9:09 PM · I agree entirely with Paul. I usually use breathing as a form of communication, both in chamber music and in orchestra. So it becomes natural to just incorporate it that way.

June 10, 2019, 1:15 AM · Breathing should not be an issue, unlike our colleagues, the singers and wind instruments. Breathing is semi-automatic, otherwise we would all die in our sleep. If you, or your student, are holding your breath while playing, you can break that habit with long-tone scales, inhale on the up-bow, exhale on the down-bow.
June 10, 2019, 4:44 AM · I found an old copy of Britten's Lachrymae for viola and piano, where I had marked out- and in-breaths, as I tended to hold my breath for trick passages and feel dizzy.

For a quick de-stress, I breathe out, calmly and completely, wait a moment, the breathe in very slowly. Also I breathe out when raising the viola to my shoulder. No fancy theories, just countering natural tendencies to hyper-ventilate or blocked breathing.

June 10, 2019, 8:46 AM · "Wind players have set spots to take a breath in all of their music. It's mostly down to practicality (eg not going blue in the face because you can never stop to take a breath)"

Just a comment - it's more than that - breathing also carries phrasing information, as do sentences and pauses in normal conversation. These are the ideal places for breaths; sneaking in some where it won't be noticed are more desperate measures for long phrases / notes where it's otherwise impossible or difficult.

I think some violinists also apply breathing in this manner - I hear Kavakos breathing in some recordings, and guess from that that it's a deliberate attempt to align breathing with musical phrasing for a musical effect.

June 10, 2019, 3:24 PM · I think working on breathing is a process by which we learn not to hold our breath unnecessarily in performance. The work is done in the practice room and is often independent of a piece, although I have been known to write in some "exhale" cues during rests in my music. Over time we can become more aware of our breath and learn to manipulate it, or rather follow it naturally. Some exercises that can make one us more aware of our breath I sometimes practice or assign students as a starting point.

1) Draw an up and down bow on one note and try to inhale continuously across the bow change. Then do the same on an exhale. I find this quite difficult but a good exercise.

2) Play through a passage and find places to exhale fully and take deep breaths while playing.

3) Take a passage and mark some places for breaths as a trial. This would be in addition to regular breathing. Can be inhales or exhales. Repeat several times trying different things - going with phrases and bowings makes sense.

4) Go to Yoga classes - I've learned a ton about breath there and become more in tune with my body.

When I start a piece I concentrate on exhaling fully before hand so I'm the most relaxed. When we hold our breath it's at the top of the inhale, not exhale. I also work on finding places to lower my shoulders as this regulates breath. Also, I sometimes practice walking while playing, as this also regulates the breath naturally and then I imitate that feeling when I'm stationary. It is natural to hold our breath some while we play, it's just a question of how much and how long and how shallow we breathe when under stress. It's a life long process :)

Edited: June 11, 2019, 2:01 PM · Here is a little anecdote just to demonstrate that breathing is an important issue.

When I was young the Concertmaster of the "Zürcher Kammerorchester" (not sure if it still exists) was a very good violinist. He often played the solo part in concertos. But there was one drawback: When the emotion rose he apparently held his breath over rather long spans of time. Then, in the midst of a beautiful adagio, he would draw in large quantities of air through his nose, creating a noise almost as loud as his mezzoforte. Usually several times in a movement. It irritated me terribly.

Edited: June 11, 2019, 6:20 PM · Sometimes on a musical score you'll see a mark that looks like a comma - it's sometimes known as a "breath mark". For singers and wind players, it literally means take a breath, while for string players its meaning is more figurative, but still significant.

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