Focus on Breathing: An Essential Guide for Bass Players

So many of us play with unneeded tension and spend a great deal of time trying to remedy this. We spend untold hours searching for the freedom of motion that will allow us to transcend our instrument. One aspect of tension that is sometimes overlooked is a player’s breathing.

If you have never paid attention to how you breathe when you play, I encourage you to do so. You may be surprised find that you don’t simply breathe in and out. Perhaps you hold your breath during difficult passages, or you breathe out but don’t breathe back in for a few seconds. Perhaps you breathe steadily, but it is unusually shallow. These and other unnatural breathing patterns can have adverse effects that spread through the body. They can lead to improper muscle oxygenation, decreased stamina, muscle discomfort and much more.

To begin to address a player’s breathing, I suggest the following procedure:

  1. Start by simply being aware of your breath as you play. Do not try to control it, just find out how you breathe while practicing and performing. You may find at first that you aren’t entirely sure how you breathe, as there are certain passages where you just can’t seem to be aware of your breathing at all!
  2. Stay on the previous step for some time, until you find you are easily aware of your breath while playing under most, or all, circumstances
  3. Once you are keenly aware of your breathing patterns while playing, attempt to “keep the breath moving” at all times. You may have already intuitively done this at this point. See if you can go through an entire practice session without inhaling and then holding your breath, or exhaling and then not immediately inhaling again. Keep the breath in motion for the entire session
  4. After you are comfortable keeping the breath “in motion,” for an extended period of time, try to ensure that none of your breaths are shallow. They don’t have to be huge breaths, but keep them steady and healthy. Breathe abdominally if you are able
  5. Once you are comfortable with the previous step, try to consciously control your breath. I suggest doing this with whole note open strings, as such:
    Breathing exercise 1 - for bass players
  6. Then try it on scales, like this (adjust the range to your current abilities):
    Breathing exercise 2 - for bass players
  7. Once you are comfortable with scales in whole notes, try inhaling/exhaling for a single bar (as above) while playing different rhythmic patterns. For example:
    Breathing exercise 3 - for bass players

The possibilities are endless, and you can take it as far as you like. If you simply make through step four above, however, you will have reached a very good point.

Dr. Donovan Stokes is on the faculty of Shenandoah University-Conservatory. Visit him online at and check out the Bass Coalition at

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  1. Breathing naturally is key to endurance….in any field.

  2. This is the first time someone has discussed the topic of breathing and relaxing while playing. Out of all the website, videos and book, this is the first time I saw this issue addressed. Spot On!!

  3. I never even thought about this… but I breath in phrases as I play like I used to when playing low brass in marching band. The more I think about it the more I realize that 5 years of marching with horns teaches this automatically. Yet another benefit of cross training on instruments styles and techniques. Excellent article! Thank you for helping me notice something about playing I had taken for granted.

  4. Not directly related to breathing, but directly related to tension: I once had the honor of playing a master class for one of the world’s greatest bassists. Upright bass, classical music. When I play upright, I sit on a stool, and that’s how I played for the master. When I was done, he began his critique by saying, “I noticed your left foot…”. I thought, “Where is THIS going? My left foot? Really?”. He went on to talk about how my foot was perched on a rung of the stool in a very unnatural position – a severe angle – held that way by my ankle muscles. He pointed out that the muscle tension generated by my ankle was radiating through my whole body, ultimately affecting my playing. He suggested I concentrate on relaxing that area of my body. (He had no objection to me playing with it on the rung – just that it was stiff and tense.) He was right. Once I mastered relaxing that ankle (easier said than done when you’re immersed in music), everything improved. Relaxation: one of the keys.

  5. Very well said and such an important piece of advice!