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 some music, it’s obvious where to breathe. But in a page of nonstop sixteenth notes, it’s harder to find the right places, and to execute them gracefully. Adding to the problem, I find that when I am nervous or playing under pressure, my breathing is one of the first things that falls apart: I start breathing in unaccustomed places, or skipping breaths that I know I really need.

I recommend establishing a breathing plan early in the process of learning new music. That way you can practice the breaths just like you practice the notes—they become a part of your muscle memory, and will happen automatically even under pressure.

The first step for a wind player should be to mark in the musical breaths, the ones that demarcate phrases. These are breaths that you will take (or possibly fake) regardless of your need for oxygen, because they serve the music. How exactly to do that is beyond the scope of this post, but here are a few quick tips:

  • Beware breathing at bar lines. They look like nice stopping points, but often don’t make musical sense. (They are there only for your convenience in counting.)
  • Background in music theory helps a lot, but you can also use your ears to help you figure out intuitively where a phrase comes to rest, or steal ideas from a good recording.
  • To go deeper, consider studying phrasing, perhaps from a book like David McGill’s. (Put that one on your wish list if you haven’t read it already!)

Once the breaths required by the music are in place, you may decide you need more, perhaps because you haven’t worked the piece up to its full tempo yet (or because the piece isn’t written with sensitivity to your desire to survive). Mark in-between “survival” breaths as needed, perhaps in parentheses so you remember which ones they are. Put them in the best places you can find, and execute them as musically as you can, but as your tempo increases you may be able to skip them. If so, be sure to erase them so your marked-in plan stays up to date.

Choosing places for survival breaths is a trial-and-error process. Mark some in and give them a try, then adjust as needed. If you feel uncomfortable while playing, this can lead to panicked decisions on stage, so choose breaths for your comfort.

Particularly for the oboe, you may find you need some “breaths” where you can actually exhale stale air. Mark these clearly, too.

Always update your pencil marks if you decide to change the plan at all, so that your plan is 100% clear and you can practice it in a consistent way. You can change your mind later, as long as you change your marks.

To summarize:

  • Start early in the process of learning a new piece.
  • Mark in musical breaths, which you will observe even if you’re capable of playing longer without stopping.
  • Mark in survival breaths, if necessary. Use trial and error to get them right.
  • Practice the breaths just as diligently as you practice the notes.
  • As you get closer to the performance, you might alter the breathing plan as your interpretation evolves, or as you no longer need some of the survival breaths.
  • Be strict about keeping the markings current, and about playing just what is marked.

Well-planned, thoroughly-practiced breaths contribute to a relaxed, musical performance.

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 oboist’s body starts absorbing the oxygen and replacing it with carbon dioxide.

The oboist starts to play. The oboe reed has a small opening in it, so the air leaves the oboist’s lungs slowly.

A few moments later, the oboist’s body has replaced the oxygen with carbon dioxide. But the player’s lungs are still, say, 50% full. The oboist’s brain needs oxygen and starts urgently demanding a breath.

The oboist tries, but his or her lungs are still 50% full of “stale” (un-oxygenated) air. He or she can only get a half-breath of “fresh” oxygen-rich air. Now the player’s lungs contain 10% oxygen, which isn’t going to last long.

This cycle repeats a few times while the oboist gets more and more uncomfortable.

The oboist finally panics and quits playing to “reset” his or her breathing and get some oxygen.

A well-meaning educator sees the oboist struggling with breathing. He or she unhelpfully pencils in a few more breath marks. This is going to make the problem worse as the oboist takes even more unneeded breaths.

The solution to this is to figure out an outlet for the stale air. (Taking smaller breaths isn’t a great solution because it encourages weaker breath support.) In some cases it may be necessary to use a “breath” to actually exhale stale air. Then, after playing a little more, get a satisfying breath into emptier lungsIn other cases, it might be a better solution to do a quick out-in breath.

Stale air isn’t something that people encounter day-to-day. So it’s not well understood, sometimes even by oboists and other wind players who deal with it. Being aware of the problem makes it relatively simple to solve.

Practicing and breathing

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.

photo, jean-daniel pauget
photo, jean-daniel pauget

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.

Breathe easy!