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Breathing for musicians

We all have to breathe - we wouldn’t be alive if we didn’t - but there is something more to breathing than the physical act of breathing to stay alive. In ancient disciplines like Yoga, breathing is to calm us and connect us to our inner selves, as well as support us in any physical moves we make.

A colourful picture of a person breathing

Breathing: calming performance nerves

I have seen dramatic changes take place in a musician’s nerves just by taking long, slow deep breaths before a performance. Breathing like this calms the fight-flight-freeze response that so many musicians experience by sending an immediate signal to our body that it’s safe. We then have more space to focus on the task at hand, of expressing and performing music.


Breathing: musical expression

What of breathing in musicians in general? Woodwind and brass players, along with singers all have to breathe in order to play or sing music, and have unique challenges, needing to expand and deepen their breath when the fight-flight response demands shallow breathing. String players don’t have to breathe to make a sound, but they commonly use their breath to lead in chamber groups, or in sections in an orchestra. It is all tied up with giving gestures, leading, following and playing together. Pianists rarely even have to give gestures, and in my experience pianists are the musicians who most often forget to breathe.


Music asks musicians to breathe, not just to make the sound, or to play together, but to make sense of the music. When we chat to a friend, the conversation flows naturally. One person talks and then the other. There are natural pauses, an occasional emphasis on a word and lots of breath to make sense of what is being said. Imagine not taking a breath where it feels natural to take one. Imagine holding our breath until it runs out, cramming as many words as we can into that breath as if our life depended on it. The words wouldn’t make sense and our listener would be distracted from what we’re trying to say. The meaning would be lost. Translate this into playing music, and the musician would be cheating both the music and the listener.

Cartoon of a happy cellist

We lock down our breathing as part of our stress response and it’s locked breathing that locks down the music. It’s easy to worry that we need to breathe physically with the phrasing, but this is a limited way of looking at it. We musicians who don’t have to use the breath to make a sound, just need to breathe any old how at first simply to unlock the body. The body then frees up, nerves lessen, and the phrasing finds its own place. The music starts to make sense and come alive. Breathing works on more levels than we imagine.


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