When a musician pushes out the tummy in an attempt to “breathe low” they disrupt the composite motion of breathing. There is very important motion which occurs in the abdominal area but it occurs as the result of the diaphragm’s descent. The danger in advocating abdominal expansion as the incentive to bring air into the body is every bit as real as the contrivance of lifting one’s shoulders to inhale.
We all learn in different ways. Some students know instinctively what to do the moment they hear a beautiful example. Some students need detailed explanations for everything. This is not a judgment one way or the other, but a mere acknowledgment that we all have preferred learning styles and pedagogical needs. I would never claim to have the answers for everyone.
If a student is the scientific type (like I am) and they are studying with a teacher who prefers simply to provide a beautiful model (as in…just sound like me), you have the potential for misunderstanding between the two and frustration on the part of the student. It took me a long time to realize that, as a teacher, you may not have the style that student needs (she’s just not that into you!)…
Scientific types tend to be literal. When this type of player (like me) hears “breathe like you are filling up a glass of water” they literally try to move their bodies as though the air goes to the bottom of the lungs first and then travels up a little at a time. The scientific student does not appreciate the idea that the phrase was not intended to be taken literally (or was it?!)
This view of breathing is hogwash when taken literally. There is absolutely no mechanism to prohibit the air from occupying the top part of the lung tissue as immediately as it occupies the bottom. Let’s not sugar coat this: if you are literally breathing as though you are filling up a glass of water, you are creating tension in your playing. You are putting yourself at risk for injury and you are certainly not playing as efficiently as you could.
There are those who are quite protective of these traditional metaphors. The metaphors are, after all, part of our culture. As I said in my initial post – “of course we breathe low because it is what we teach”. I am aware that I have committed a sort of pedagogical blasphemy in questioning these things. There are very prominent teachers who will go to their graves defending the metaphors because it’s what their teachers taught and the teachers before them and so on and so on…
I say speak the truth about breathing and if a metaphor does not cooperate with reality then it’s simply not worth using, even if it is steeped in tradition.
I do not advocate walking out on stage thinking about your diaphragm! This would be silly and counterproductive. When you play, strive to make the sound you want and think musical thoughts. Your knowledge of breathing should exist in the background – right alongside your knowledge of music theory and history. It’s part of your foundation and, when understood, serves to provide you with a strong foundation upon which you can play your best. My Breathing Book is to breathing what the Arban’s book is to technique. It’s a tool to help you establish the fundamental skill so you can move on to the more important matter of playing the Rhenish with ease.