When there’s no place to breathe

"Breath Holding" by Chen Yen-Chi is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

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.

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