Like digestion, heart function, and other inner workings of the body, we tend to take our breathing for granted. We usually consider it as just another involuntary, unconscious, automatically-controlled bodily process that doesn’t need any contribution from our conscious mind to regulate or control it. Our reasonings are: “the body knows what it is doing so why bother interfering with a natural, automatic process that works just fine on its own” …… “breathing looks after itself” …….. “its just a simple binary (in-out) activity” ……. “nobody has ever died from forgetting to breathe” …… etc.
Well, we are wrong about everything ……… except the dying bit. Our lungs, just like our heart, won’t stop pumping just because we forget about them but, just like the heart, their functioning is profoundly affected by just about everything we think, feel and do. Intense muscular effort, intense mental concentration and heightened emotions all affect our breathing. The combination of these three factors that is created during the intensely physical, emotional and intellectual activity of cello playing, forms a potent cocktail of potential breathing alterations.
We have several questions to explore:
- what happens to our breathing under these different circumstances ?
- are the effects of this altered breathing negative ?
- how can we use (influence) our breathing to help our playing ?
Before we look at the effects of breathing on cello playing, let’s look first at breathing (and its alterations) in normal life.
BREATHING VARIABLES: DEPTH, RHYTHM (SPEED/REGULARITY) AND GEOGRAPHY
Basically all the breathing alterations that interest us concern these four factors. Curiously, the intimate, intertwined and inseparable relationship between these factors is very similar to the relationship between the Speed, Pressure, Point of Contact and Hair Angle for the bow.
Deep relaxation (as ocurrs for example during sleep and meditation) is characterised by deep, slow, regular, abdominal breathing. The opposite emotional state – panic, high anxiety etc – is characterised, as we would expect, by the opposite type of breathing: shallow, fast, irregular and thoracic . The term “geography of breathing” refers to the part of the lungs we are using to breathe. It is rather like the concept of “point of contact” for the bow (its distance from the bridge) but, in the case of breathing we are talking about the “distance from the diaphragm”. Deep relaxed breathing comes from down low: from the stomach and abdominal area. This is “near the bridge” and is where the diaphragm is. Shallow anxious breathing by contrast, comes from up high, in the chest and thoracic regions: this is like nervous, fast, shallow bow strokes over the fingerboard.
TO BREATHE OR NOT TO BREATHE ? INVOLUNTARY BREATH HOLDING
One of the most commonly occurring breathing alterations is involuntary (unconscious) breath holding. When our natural desire to breathe is interrupted, for whatever reason, we don’t die from lack of oxygen but rather just postpone our next life-maintaining breath. This does however has consequences on our bodily and mental functioning which can be negative or positive depending on the circumstances. Before looking at why this occurs we will look at the different ways there are to hold our breath (and at the totally different consequences that each of these has on our mind and body).
The breathing cycle is a cycle of tension and relaxation, like a wave that rises and falls. The inspiration part of the cycle is the rise of the wave to maximum tension, whereas the expiration is the fall to minimum tension. Stopping our breathing at one or other of these two extremes in the cycle gives us two entirely different experiences.
We normally think of breath holding as something that is done at the top of the cycle: with our lungs filled to the maximum with air. But we can also stop our breathing at the other end of the cycle (when our lungs are already empty). Whereas holding the breath with the lungs full requires muscular effort (first to fill the lungs, then to “hold” the air inside them), postponing the inspiration while the lungs are empty requires no muscular effort. Quite the opposite in fact. At the bottom end of the cycle (with the lungs empty), postponing the new inspiration prolongs and deepens the sensation of relaxation. That is why this technique is often suggested as a help to meditation.
In other words, whereas holding our breath after the exhale releases tension, holding the breath at the top of the cycle (after the inhale) is like holding back a wave just as it is about to break, whuich is at its moment of greatest tension. This captures and stores a maximum of energy (tension) for later release in the same way that power is generated by damming (holding back) a river or, to use a different metaphor, in the way that energy is “captured for later release” by compressing a spring or by stretching a rubber band.
To use a more human example, consider how, in moments of extreme muscular effort, we automatically tend to hold our breath and tense our muscles at the same time. Think about how when we have to lift something heavy we hold our breath and even our faces tense up, contorted with effort. When we block our breathing in this way, we are able to mobilise all our energy for a short but extreme muscular effort. But this extreme effort does not have to be only “physical”: intense concentration can also produce muscular tension: think about a child concentrating hard on a problem with their tongue sticking out and the same face contortion as an Olympic weightlifter.
String playing is however not like lifting huge rocks. Breath-holding and the corresponding mobilisation of enormous muscular force is not necessary or justified by the physical efforts required at the instrument. Our breath-holding and muscular tension have more in common with the child’s situation, in which it is the extreme concentration and emotional intensity that leads us to hold our breath and get physically tense.
Breath holding at the top of the cycle is a natural response to stress and to situations requiring brief, intense, rapid effort. But does this include cello playing ? Do we want to play the cello as if we were running away from a dinosaur or in any other emergency response situation?
CONSEQUENCES OF INVOLUNTARY BREATH-HOLDING AT THE INSTRUMENT
Fortunately our bodies have a strong survival instinct and instead of dying of suffocation at the instrument, we do actually find moments to breathe between periods of involuntary breath-holding. But these breaths (both in and out) are often irregular and shallow. This resembles in some ways the interrupted breathing that occurs with some people during their sleep called sleep apnea. People who sleep like this wake up exhausted in the morning. Playing music is a more energetic activity than sleeping, but the same problem can occur in playing (and in conducting): if we don’t breathe, we don’t get enough oxygen and playing becomes rapidly exhausting.
To make matters worse, the part of the breathing cycle that tends to be blocked (delayed) is the exhalation phase. Whereas we need to inhale to survive, exhaling can be unconsciously relegated to the category of “unimportant” and quickly forgotten. The consequence of this is that not only are we deprived of oxygen, but also that we tend to be tense because we are holding our breath in the tense, blocked, inhalation mode rather than in the relaxed floppy exhalation mode. Excessive muscular tension is contagious throughout the body (see The Relaxation Principle) and here we are not talking about the effect of a tiny tense little toe: the breathing muscles are big and very influential on the rest of the body.
This type of disturbed breathing characterised by hyperventilation (basically hyperinhalation) with a lack of exhaling, is typical also of anxiety and asthma attacks. Exhaling is the rest-and-relaxation part of the cycle, and musicians whose breathing blocks, usually don’t exhale enough. This skews the essential balance (natural alternation) between tension and rest towards the tension side.
The excellent french cellist and pedagogue Jerome Pernoo has a very useful (and very simple) breathing exercise in which, just before we are about to start playing, we do a deep exhale followed by an abdominal inhale.
NOISY BREATHING (AND OTHER INVOLUNTARY THROAT NOISES) IN A MUSICAL SITUATION
Many musicians not only breathe noisily but also make other involuntary noises with their throats. Carefully observing (listening to) these noises on recordings is fascinating. It reveals us not only how enormously the breathing can be altered but also, if we analyse the noisy moments carefully in their musical contexts, it shows us which musical factors cause the greatest alterations (see below). It also shows us that it is possible to play magnificently in spite of some major breathing alterations! Casals is a great example of this.
But is this panting, grunting, gasping and groaning necessary – or even helpful – for magnificent playing, or is the magnificent playing happening in spite of them? What would happen if we took them away ? This is a great question. I’m sure Janos Starker would have had a strong opinion about this: he was so allergic to anything resembling tension that he immediately crushed anybody who let their excitement level mount. This is perhaps because Starker himself, as a young man, had a cellistic-emotional breakdown and was permanently terrified by emotionality for the rest of his life. But is beautiful, relaxed, easy, nonchalant, virtuosic playing always better than highly charged playing full of gasps, grunts, head tossing and foot stamping ? Tension is a fundamental part of emotionality and some music really does need to be fully charged with tension.
WHY DO WE STOP BREATHING ?
We have seen that sometimes while playing – more often than we realise – we stop breathing for a moment. This doesn’t however usually happen in the “easy bits”. In fact, the degree to which a certain passage or movement disturbs our normal breathing rhythm could often be a definition of “difficulty” in cello playing. Of course, “difficulty” is largely subjective – what is felt as difficult for some people will be felt as easy for others. When we have made a passage easy, then we will be able, almost by definition, to breathe naturally and deeply while playing it. This is almost a test of technical mastery: if we can breathe evenly while playing a passage then we have truly mastered all the skills necessary to play it. It would be fascinating to measure carefully, in real time, a musician’s breathing while playing, and then to use the breathing alterations as a diagnostic tool to determine what and where the real difficulties are.
The other principal cause of breath holding at the instrument is emotional intensity. In fact, listening to recordings of magnificent cellists, it is astounding how the noisiest breathing moments usually coincide not with the hardest left hand passages nor with the most intense loud bits, but rather with the softer more delicately articulated but intensely emotional passages. This occurs especially when there are delicate bow changes or placements of the bow on the strings from the air. The Sarabandes from the Bach Solo Suites are often notoriously noisy (for the breathing). This actually shows just how difficult and delicate is the skill of Placing the Bow On the String and finding just the right Bow Speed, Bow Pressure and Distance From the Bridge etc in slow, gentle, intimate music.
Technical difficulties and emotional intensity are the daily bread of a musician. This is why disturbed breathing at the instrument is so frequent. And as with anything we do frequently, it can easily become a habit of which we are no longer consciously aware.
WHY (AND HOW TO) IMPROVE OUR BREATHING: THE BREATHING-TENSION FEEDBACK LOOP
The relationship between breathing and muscular tension is the same as the relationship between mental tension and physical tension in the sense that the two elements of each pair form a powerful self-reinforcing (self-amplifying) feedback loop in which it is not clear which one is the cause and which is the result. This feedback loop can be negative or positive. In the case of the positive feedback loop, effortless playing is accompanied by effortless breathing while in the case of the negative feedback loop, laboured playing is almost always associated with laboured breathing. Bad breathing is not only a response to muscular and psychological tension, it augments those tensions. Good breathing, on the other hand, is not only a response to our lack of tension, it also contributes to this lack of tension.
So, as with so many self-reinforcing feedback loop relations in which we can’t separate cause from effect, we can improve the situation by working from either side of it. In other words, in the same way that we can improve our bodyuse by working on our mental state, we can also improve our mental state by working on the body. Anxious people can’t breathe slowly and deeply, but fortunately (and wonderfully), if we breathe slowly and deeply we can’t be anxious. On a practical, cellistic level this means that while we will of course work on our playing to make it effortless, working on our breathing can have the same effect. In the case of bad breathing associated with muscular and psychological tension, we have two possible ways to improve the situation:
1: we can help our breathing by lowering our physical tension level
2: we can lower our tension level, both physical and psychological, by improving our breathing.
Our breathing is a diagnostic tool with respect to our level of anxiety and physical tension. As mentioned above, anxious people can’t hold their breath. Freedivers know very well that the secret to a long breathhold is in deep relaxation. We musicians should be aware that the secret of effortless playing is also in this deep relaxation. But how to acheive this state? Fortunately the breathing/tension feedback loop is one level higher than the mental tension/physical tension loop. In other words, it is easier and more direct to reduce psychological tension by improving our breathing than by improving our thinking.
WHAT WE CAN DO TO IMPROVE OUR BREATHING: TECHNIQUES FOR WORKING ON BREATHING
1. AWAY FROM THE INSTRUMENT
One of the great benefits of yoga is that it combines intense muscular effort with deep slow breathing. The fact that the muscular efforts of stretching are so sustained, regular and “slow” means that they are the absolute antithesis of and antidote to the short fast irregular efforts that we make with our small muscles at the instrument. Slow sustained deep stretches combined with slow sustained deep breathing is pure therapy for musicians especially for string players’ bodies, minds and breathing.
2. AT THE INSTRUMENT
Before we start playing we can do the simple two-step preparation of a deep exhalation followed by an abdominal inhalation that Jerome Pernoo suggests (mentioned above). This process, designed to release tension, combines and sets into motion the two healthiest aspects of our breathing at the instrument: exhalation and abdominal breathing. This exercise also serves to avoid the dangers of getting blocked in the “up” mode by bad breathing. In this “up-mode” our breathing tends to be up high (thoracic) and blocked on the inspiration cycle, which makes our shoulders and arms tense and held artificially high. This means that we don’t release the weight of the bow into the string. In this “up-mode” often even our feet are on their toes rather than with the heels solidly planted on the ground!
While we are playing, we need to become aware of just how we are breathing. This is extremely difficult because, while playing, we usually concentrate on everything but our breathing. Here are some suggestions for exercises to help us become conscious of our breathing:
- play and sing at the same time
- play with a noise-making object in mouth that sounds on both inward and outward breath (kazoo, harmonica etc)
- make noises on breathing (snore on inhale, do lip-raspberrys on exhale etc)
- talk while playing, count aloud, recite the alphabet etc
- put something big in the mouth to keep it open (not a lolly because we might choke when we come to a difficult moment)
- even just listening to (playing with) a metronome has the effect of getting us out of our expressive musical selves and allows us to start concentrating on our breathing
- practice while thinking only about our breathing (otherwise it is impossible to be aware of it as we are so used to it being automatic)
- coordinate breathing with bowing and phrasing, for example:
– coordinate breathing with long slow bows: up bow with inhale and downbow with exhale, then the contrary
– now do two bows in one breath
– add more bow changes and start breathing with the longer phrasing
BREATHING AND BOWING: PARALLELS
Bowing is like breathing. The down bow, with its tendency to relaxation and diminuendo as we go towards the tip, is the equivalent of breathing out (expiration). The up bow, with its tendency to increasing weight and tension as we go towards the frog corresponds to breathing in (inspiration). This idea is looked at in greater detail on the page “Choosing Bowings”
Starting very gently at the tip on an up bow, from “niente”, is the equivalent to starting an inhale from the dead point at the end of an exhale, with empty lungs. When the music starts to come alive we start to inhale. The most important part of these gentle beginings is that we actually need a profound expiration to prepare them. Try starting the Brahms e minor Sonata or the Cesar Franck Sonata in this way. It took me many years to realise why I was uncomfortable at the start of the Brahms: I was doing a long inhale and then holding my breath before starting. It would be easy to think that this is perhaps OK for the beginning of the other Brahms Cello Sonata (F Major), the Dvorak Concerto and other pieces that start with a great muscular flourish, but in fact, even there it doesn’t really work. What tends to work best is a big exhale just before we start to play – as though the start of the cello voice (musical line) was an enormous release of energy (which it is). The difference between muscular beginnings and phrases that start with a whisper or a caress is not the direction of the breath but rather where our playing starts in the expiration cycle. While playing, we need to breathe like a singer, with long exhales and short (quicker) but deep inhales- this is good breathing.
If we need more tension, breathe in before playing. If we need more relaxation, do the contrary.
A powerful moment can “take your breath away”. As a listener, having our breath taken away momentarily by a powerful musical moment is a magnificent experience. It doesn’t get any better than that. But when we are playing we are not listeners, and the phenomenon is not momentary. As performers our job is to make those breathless moments for others but if we also are “breathless” then we have a double problem:
- emotionally powerful playing requires intense physical and mental effort, and in order to do this we need both oxygen and muscular relaxation
- that effort doesn’t last only a brief moment, it lasts much more – probably the duration of the performance.
In other words, playing with our breath “taken away” is exhausting. Not only because we probably lack oxygen but also because breath holding is almost invariably associated with muscular tension. It can be done for short intense periods but if prolonged or habitual, this is a tense (and therefore also intense and powerful) and “unsustainable” way to play.