When I play woodwind instruments in a stress situation, such as a performance (or, back in my student days, a lesson), one of the first things affected is my breathing.
Maybe you have had this experience. The performance begins, and the breathing seems somehow off. You find yourself breathing in awkward or unaccustomed places, ending up either short of breath or too full of stale air. You end up skipping notes or whole measures of music to reset your breathing and get back on track, but panic has already set in and things spiral.
Most of our favorite practice tips and tricks are about finger technique or articulation or tone, and are meant to help ensure solid performance even when the stress kicks in. But sometimes we forget to practice breathing. Don’t let your performances be derailed by panicky breathing—practice the breaths just like you practice the notes.
Make breaths part of the process from day one. Don’t assume they will fall into place once you have learned the notes—by the time that is done, you may have unwittingly “practiced” breaths in less-than-ideal spots. Make thoughtful breathing decisions the first time you practice a new étude or repertoire piece, and mark them in. Create a habit of breathing only at the places you have marked.
You are hopefully starting your practice of the piece below tempo, so your breathing needs may change as you approach performance tempo. That’s okay—you can always change the markings as your tempo and interpretation progress. Be flexible about moving breath marks around, but disciplined about observing them.
This approach makes your chosen breaths habitual, so hopefully they are less likely to change when you are nervous or distracted. It also creates a mindset of breathing purposefully, rather than winging it.
It’s worth pointing out, too, that controlled breathing can actually reduce your body’s stress response, so practicing deliberate, relaxed breathing can help prevent the panic-breathing spiral.