Breathing is the single most important thing to take care of when you're practicing.
We all have different experiences when it comes to breathing. Some of you may already know the importance of it for the musical flow. Some of you may be curious about if it could really change anything.
The thing is, it's actually the most important thing you can take care of when you're practicing. More important than notes, more important than rhythmical accuracy. It's a bold statement, I know. So let's do an experiment.
Without changing anything: How is your breathing right now? Where is it reaching? How deep, how far?
Now, for a few seconds, loosen up your lips, loosen your tongue and your jaw, move your torso a little, so that it can actually expand with your in-breath, let go of your belly muscles, that they're not contracted inwards.
Maybe while you were moving, a spontaneous in-breath happened. Maybe not, but still, now observe if anything has changed about how far your breathing is reaching now, how deep it is, or how flowing.
This is just a tiny experiment, to show how much it can make a difference to just let go of some body processes, so that the body can take care of breathing for itself.
Breathing for singers and wind players
Singers and wind players depend on the musical phrase for their breathing. But what they can do is to make good use of the rest phases. Rest phases are the moments when they're not singing or playing: at lunch, after rehearsals, waiting for the bus, during musical rests, anywhere, really. The full other 22 hours of the day.
I know wind players and singers to be very occupied with their breathing quality during music. Now, imagine of the rest phases were 100% leaving the body to regenerate its breathing. Imagine how much the quality of the breathing could improve during those rest phases. How could that affect the musical breath?
Breathing for string players, keyboard players, percussionists, guitarists, harpists, conductors, etc.
All other musicians are not bound to the musical phrase to breathe. Although some like to breathe in and out at certain measures, and basically adapt the breathing to the musical pattern, in the long run this can lead to hyperventilation, dizziness, and basically a confused self. On top of that, we would have to think consciously about breathing in and out, thus occupying our head with something other than music.
Instead, in our case (and I include myself as a keyboard player here), the most useful approach is to let the body take care of the breathing by itself. The only thing we do to allow it is to have the mouth, jaw, and tongue relaxed, the lips slightly parted, and the belly muscles not contracted inside, but rather "hanging" outside.
The main principle we're aiming at here is that the movement makes the breath.
Another experiment for everyone: jaw and tongue relaxed, lips slightly parted, belly muscles relaxed, and now we lift our arms over our head, and let them down again. Do this a few times, and just let the mouth and belly be relaxed while you do it.
What happens after a while? The breathing pattern adapts to the movement.
And that is very valuable for us - that the breathing is not something that has to be planned out, instead, it's something that happens by itself at the same time we're moving. We're not thinking about it. Thinking about stuff is not very useful on stage. We always forget. We do.
Breathing was always my "topic". That's one of the reasons why I do this work and bring it to others. Because I never breathed when I played, though I wanted to. With Resonance Training, I learned how to free my breath and reach a state of flow very easily.
A Resonance Training exercise to relax the jaw and free the breathing
1) Open your jaw slowly and gently, feeling the weight of the jaw. Open a lot, but don’t go to the maximum possibility. Just open and remember to keep breathing.
2) Let your jaw and neck muscles go and let the jaw return by itself, slowly and smoothly.
3) You will notice that by itself, the jaw doesn’t close (if it closed, your teeth would touch) - instead, the jaw will stop just before that point, all by itself.
4) And this is the exercise - to find this natural stop of the jaw. Repeat the exercise several times, noticing the movement, noticing your breath.
5) Just be there with your relaxed jaw, in this natural stop you found. Part your lips a little. Feel your lips. Feel your tongue, feel your jaw.
Now, with this feeling - start playing. Don’t try to play perfect. Just play, feeling your relaxed jaw.
While you play, maybe your tendency is to lock the lips and the jaw again.
And notice that when you part your lips again, your body takes a new breath. You are simply allowing it to take a new breath. You are not doing it.
In the midst of all this, your playing might be disturbed, there might be wrong notes, etc. But maybe you will also feel a sense of physical relief in your body, and maybe also a sense of flow, of freedom, underneath the chaos.
With time, you can learn to integrate this feeling in your playing. One way would be to repeat the jaw exercise every day before practice.
When the body integrates something, there’s nothing to think about. Nothing is separate from playing, from music. And you are there, 100%. That’s something worth your valuable practice time.
And that’s what we want as musicians. This is not about breathing. This is about freedom on stage. We want this freedom, 100%, no matter how high the stakes. We want to deliver and not suffer from the pressure. And maybe even - gasp - enjoy the process.