When there’s no place to breathe

When you’re working on a new piece and there’s no place to breathe:

  • Re-examine. Are you sure there’s no place? Tonal wind-instrument music usually has phrases. To find them might take some careful analysis, or maybe listening to a recording to check out someone else’s solutions. Once you know where the phrases end, you may be able to take a little extra time to breathe in those spots without it sounding disruptive.
  • Practice. With some effort and repetition, you may be able to play longer phrases than you thought. Make sure you’re really taking a full breath—the inhalation should feel pretty physical, much more so than “normal” (tidal) breathing.
  • Edit thoughtfully. If the music was written originally for, say, piano or a string instrument (or if it’s just written by a less-experienced wind composer), it may not have good built-in breaths. Where absolutely necessary, consider breaking a slur, reducing the dynamic level, boosting the tempo, or making some other minor adaptation. Mark it in, so you’re in the habit of breaking with the composer’s intent only after serious deliberation.
  • Be quick. Sometimes a very small, very short breath is all you need to finish out a phrase strong. Find a reasonable musical place to insert one, and mark it in such a way that you will remember not to take too much time for it.
  • Consider circular breathing. It’s a challenge but not impossible for someone playing at a reasonably advanced level. But be careful: don’t use it an excuse to avoid the issue of phrasing. Plus, it’s not very comfortable to circular-breathe for extended periods, for you or your audience. (Audiences often breathe with you!) Use this as a last resort or when specifically requested by the composer.

Planning breaths

When learning a new étude or repertoire piece, it’s common to practice at first with focus on the notes, often playing them at a slow tempo and/or divided into chunks. This is a good approach for mastering the needed finger technique, but it may neglect one of the crucial parts of a performance: breathing. In … Read more

Stale air

The “stale air” phenomenon afflicts oboists (sometimes clarinetists and others). It can be hard to relate to if you haven’t experienced it. Here’s how it happens. (The “math” and “science” here are very simplified for clarity.) The oboist breathes in a lungful of air. The air is about 20% oxygen and 80% other gases. The … Read more

Practicing and breathing

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.