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Ask Damian Erskine: Breathing

Q: I’ve been playing for over 30 years and I’ve heard the subject of breathing as relates to playing. I’ve come to know that disciplined relaxation while playing can work wonders for stamina and affects the accuracy and musicality of one’s technique. I’ve become aware that breathing is very closely involved too, e.g. holding ones breath or even breathing too rapidly with the beat or against the beat. What are your feelings on this?

A: I was just speaking about this with a student today, actually.

Remaining relaxed is a must, especially when playing challenging music. One can only really pull off the fast stuff when they are completely relaxed. I would say that this is equally true wether we are speaking of the body or the mind. The clearer your mind is, the more accurately you can focus on what you are doing and the calmer your muscles are, the more agile they can be. Your breathing plays a huge role in relaxation.

I will often set aside 20-30 minutes before leaving for a gig just to lie down and quiet both my body and mind. I’ve found that I almost always play just a little better and think just a little faster when I’ve had my little meditative, pre-gig power nap.

But back to breathing…

Intentional breathing can be helpful in so many ways. One of the more common ways in which breath is used is as some musicians sing along with themselves as they play. This is actually a wonderful thing to experiment with at home (especially when soloing). When you sing what you play, you are forced to introduce breath into your phrasing! Not only that, but when we are careful to try and play what we want to sing (as opposed to trying to sing what we always play) many of us find that we play much differently than we would otherwise. Often, very much for the better… With more space and better phrasing. We start speaking (musically) in complete sentences and paragraphs instead of quick bursts of words that don’t say anything in the end.

That was a bit of a tangent, but an important one.

Breathing, of course, is also the means to relaxing our bodies. If we hold our breath when we play, we are starving our muscles (brain included) of oxygen, thereby making us less capable. It is precisely when we are working or thinking hard that we need that extra oxygen in our systems. I am always very conscious to breathe with the music I am playing and will often take a few deep breaths before a particularly difficult passage or solo moment.

Breathing is something that we take for granted and that can make it a very hard thing to pay attention to while we are busy thinking about what we’re playing. When I see students that tend to hold their breath or tense up while playing, I’ll often talk about breathing and try, at the very least, to get to get them aware of their breathing. I also encourage them to sing or even just breathe with their lines. This, like I said, helps with phrasing and musicality but also forces them to breathe while they play.

Physiologically speaking, I don’t know what’s really happening, but I know that I play better and I think better when I am calm, relaxed and taking nice, deep breaths.

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